"E. Guigal needs little by way of introduction," said senior editor James Molesworth at the start of this eagerly anticipated Wine Experience seminar. "I would offer that the wines of E. Guigal have been how most Americans were introduced to the wines of the Rhône Valley."
The Guigal domaine and négociant were founded by Etienne Guigal in 1946. In 1961, when his son, Marcel, took over the firm, the family made about 13,000 bottles of wine. Today, the family sells about 7 million bottles a year. "That's impressive growth that stands in testament to the hard work of the Guigal family, but also mirrors the growth of the Northern Rhône Valley over that time, and the voracious appetite for the great wines of the Rhône," Molesworth said.
Despite the domaine's large size, it remains a family business. Philippe Guigal joined Marcel in 1993 at age 18. "After taking an intensive, four-year class at the University of Don't Screw Up My Wines, taught by his father!" Molesworth quipped, he became head of winemaking in 1997 at the age of 22.
Philippe, who flew in to lead the seminar despite being in the middle of vinifying the 2014 harvest, presented a lineup of six of E. Guigal's most sought-after Northern Rhône wines. He started with a white: the just-released Condrieu La Doriane 2013 (not yet rated, about $150). "Condrieu is the birthplace of Viognier," said Philippe, "and La Doriane is made from the very best of our properties in Condrieu," including Côte Chatillon and Côteau de Chery. "Balance is the key [for Viognier]," he said. "It's a rich wine; it's a fat wine, but it's not a flabby wine."
Moving on to the Syrah-based reds, Philippe started with the St.-Joseph Vignes de l'Hospice 2011 (94 points, $144, 1,000 cases made). "St.-Joseph is not known enough in the U.S.," said Philippe. "We have tremendous quality potential … a bright future." Vignes de l'Hospice comes from just 7 acres of steep, terraced vineyards. Harvesting the grapes is "a Herculean task," said Molesworth. "There is no mechanized labor on the hillsides of St.-Joseph. Everything is done by hand, everything is carried on their backs."
"Côte-Rôtie is the kingdom of Syrah," said Philippe as he moved on to the Château d'Ampuis 2010 (97, $206, 2,200 cases made), which blends Syrah grapes from Côte-Rôtie's Côte Blonde and Côte Brune, along with a touch of Viognier. The Blonde parcels come from schist, limestone and silica soils, while the Brune is richer in iron and clay. "It's interesting to see how the Blonde controls the aromatics," while the Brune provides structure, Philippe noted. "It's like we can mix Burgundy and Bordeaux in the same bottle."
Guigal is particularly famous for a trio of Côte-Rôtie reds collectively nicknamed the La-La wines. "This is the first 'La,'" Philippe said, laughing, as he introduced the 2005 La Mouline (99, $375, 415 cases made), which spent 42 months in new oak barrels. Syrah from the 2.5-acre vineyard—the oldest in Côte-Rôtie, with vines dating back to 1893—is blended with 11 percent Viognier. "2005 was a tremendous vintage," Philippe said. "It was not a wine to drink soon, but it's almost 10 now."
"It has terrific spine and power," Molesworth added, but then you come to the La Landonne, and it's a different ballgame altogether."
"I have something very personal to share with you about this wine," Philippe said of the extremely dense, massively grippy 2005 La Landonne (99, $375, 1,000 cases made). "The vineyard was planted by my dad to celebrate the birth of his new baby," Philippe said, flashing a big smile, as he noted they are both about to turn 40.
"You can almost taste the 50 kilometers between Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage in this bottle," Philippe said, transitioning to the 2010 Ermitage Ex Voto (98, $668, 600 cases made), made only in the best vintages. (Philippe revealed that there will not be a 2011 bottling despite the vintage's outstanding rating.) "The tannins here are markedly different," noted Molesworth. "It's much more caressing … still formidably structured. It's an opulent wine."
Looking back on the lineup, Philippe acknowledged, "La Turque is missing," referring to the third of the "La Las." "I did that on purpose: It gives me an opportunity to come back another time."