In a major coup, Rhtne vintner Marcel Guigal has purchased Domaine J.L. Grippat, arguably the finest domaine in the Northern Rhtne's St.-Joseph appellation. The deal paves the way for Guigal to own his first vines in the famed Hermitage appellation and to make wines from St.-Joseph for the first time.
"It wasn't our goal to buy vines in St.-Joseph," said Guigal. "But the Grippat domaine is the most beautiful vineyard in St.-Joseph." Guigal personally bought Grippat to add to his private estate, Domaine Marcel Guigal; his nigociant business, E. Guigal, was not involved in the deal.
Some winemakers in the region said the sale marked the end of an era; they were saddened by 59-year-old Jean-Louis Grippat's decision to retire, calling him a great vigneron whose pure wines will be sorely missed.
Others saw Guigal's foray into St.-Joseph as a good sign, suggesting that Guigal will help put St.-Joseph on the international map.
While the deal between Grippat and Guigal was signed in December, final approval was delayed until this month by French authorities, which must OK all such transactions after reviewing competing bids. Some area winemakers have expressed anger over Guigal's acquisition of vines that a number of local growers had hoped to get a piece of.
But Grippat didn't want his domaine to be divided, and looked for a buyer with financial clout. The grower offered his domaine for sale to some of the finest producers in the area -- Paul Jaboulet Anni and Jean-Louis Chave among them, said Grippat's wife, Ghislaine.
"We wanted someone who would work the vines with the same diligence we did, and above all we didn't want the domaine to be split up," she added. "We are very, very happy to sell to Mr. Guigal." The parties declined to reveal the purchase price.
Guigal bought Grippat's stocks from '99 and 2000, the winery building and the vineyards in St.-Joseph and Hermitage. The Grippats keep their house next to the winery.
The vines are the central piece in the deal. Domaine Grippat had about 17 acres of prime St.-Joseph vineyards in the commune of Tournon, mostly in the middle of the St.-Joseph lieu-dit that lent its name to the appellation.
Grippat also rented another 2.5 acres of old vines that he bottled under Vigne de l'Hospice label, which has reached cult status. Guigal takes over that rental agreement.
Guigal will produce about 3,000 cases of white and red St.-Joseph, but not at Grippat's winery. Guigal will move the grapes to his own winery further north, in Ampuis. The red wines will be aged in some new oak barrels, "to give them the Guigal signature," Guigal said. And the vintner said he would add "Ancien Domaine J.L.Grippat" ("former" domaine Grippa\t) on the labels and continue to make a separate "Vigne de l'Hospice" wine from that site.
As part of the deal, Grippat also sold his Hermitage vines from Les Murets. These vines consist of 3.6 acres of 70-year-old Marsanne that produce a white Hermitage and less than 1 acre of Syrah for the red Hermitage.
The acquisition of vines in Hermitage, said Guigal, 57, was a great thing to happen to him in a career that started 40 years ago. "To vinifiy Hermitage at the end of my life is a pleasure," said Guigal.
Grippat's grandfather founded the domaine, and Jean-Louis became involved in the estate in 1959, at the age of 17, three years after his father's death. During his career, Grippat expanded the domaine slightly in the St.-Joseph appellation.
Grippat's farmed some of the steepest vineyards in a region where slopes can exceed 50 percent. His wife said he was tired doing a mule's work and was also worried about the future of the 25-acre estate. The Grippats struggled with ways to pass on their domaine to their daughters, but to no avail, she said.
The couple's oldest daughter, Sylvie, 32, works at the domaine. "She is a bit disappointed, but it would have been too heavy for her. And my husband really wants to take it easier." A second daughter, Aurilie, 21, is a student in England.
The Guigals have no such succession problems. "This expansion is along the lines of what we wish to do," said Guigal's son Philippe, a 26-year-old enologist who works with his father and mother, Bernadette, in the business. "We make wine only from the Rhone Valley. I love California, but I am sure there is still much to do for us in the Rhone Valley before we do something in California or in Australia."