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Châteauneuf's "little cousin" shows its style
James Molesworth
Posted: October 15, 2008

As wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape become more popular—and more expensive—those who love the Grenache-based reds of the Southern Rhône Valley can turn to other appellations for relief. Gigondas—located less than 10 miles as the crow flies northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape—is considered by many to be a mini version of the Southern Rhône's premier appellation, but in a more rustic vein. In reality, however, its terroir is quite different, and its best wines offer distinctive character as well as welcome value.

Gigondas is defined by the Dentelles de Montmirail (literally, "lace of Montmirail"), the jagged, limestone formations that jut above the small town and reach 2,600 feet at their peak. The Dentelles have crumbled for millions of years, creating pockets of limestone-rich soils on its slopes while mixing with alluvial fans on the plateau below.

This terroir combines with the significant elevation and predominantly northern and northwestern exposures to produce wines that, at their best, have more finesse and perfume than their cousins from Châteauneuf. As Louis Barruol, owner of Château St.-Cosme points out, "Gigondas has more in common with Burgundy than it does with Châteauneuf."

The traditional approach in Gigondas has been to mimic the Châteauneuf style, which involves long maceration (typically with minimal destemming). The resulting wines are often thick-textured, with rugged tannins that give Gigondas its rustic reputation. But the best examples marry ripe, dark black fruit with fine-grained tannins and perfumed, minerally finishes. These wines age well, delivering mesquite, iron and black tea notes after five to eight years.

There are roughly 3,000 acres of vines in the appellation (about 40 percent of the total in Châteauneuf), predominantly planted to Grenache (70 percent), with smaller percentages devoted to Syrah (20 percent), Mourvèdre (8 percent), Cinsault (1 percent) and a mix of other Southern Rhône varieties. The Gigondas AOC stipulates that a domaine's red (there is no white Gigondas) be made from a blend of two grapes, without defining percentages. In reality, most wines comprise predominantly Grenache.

Gigondas currently has more than 180 individual growers, about 75 of whom bottle their own wines. Among the region's leaders are producers such as Domaine Les Pallières, Domaine Santa Duc, Château du Trignon, Domaine des Espiers and Perrin & Fils, among others (including those profiled below).

This past June, I visited several estates in Gigondas, exploring the appellation and its wines. Here are profiles of four vintners to watch and whose success testifies to the potential of this emerging region.

A Country Way Of Thinking
Owned by Christine and Eric Saurel, Montirius is located in Vacqueyras, which lies on the southern border of Gigondas. Christine, 44, and Eric, 44, work their vineyards biodynamically and practice an oak-free élevage on their reds. The domaine totals 148 acres, nearly 40 of which are in Gigondas.

The domaine was born out of the local co-op, which Eric's family vineyards had been a part of (his grandfather helped found the co-op). The Saurels' epiphany came in the mid-1990s when they used homeopathic methods to cure their ailing daughter. Christine and Eric began to consider working their vineyards in the same way.

"When Eric's father sprayed herbicides or pesticides in the fields, he would warn us to close the windows to the house," says Christine. "When I asked if he gave his neighbors the same warning, his answer was no, and his embarrassment at that helped push us to change."

The Saurels went to work on converting their property, which was fully biodynamic by 1996. During this time, their grapes were vinified separately at the co-op; eventually their membership contract ended, and they were able to go completely on their own. They completed a gravity-flow winery facility with cement vats in time for the 2002 vintage.

The Saurels typically harvest one week earlier than other vignerons in the area, at potential-alcohol levels of 14 degrees (as opposed to 16 or more), to maintain fresher acidity in their wines. The red wines are very elegantly styled, with minerally finishes.

"Nothing is done with a mind to fashion," says the mild-mannered but serious Christine. "We just want to keep the heritage of the region. It's a country way of thinking."

Production stands at about 12,500 cases annually, with 15 percent coming to the United States. The wines are always late-release, usually six months after the bulk of the wines from the appellation. In addition to there being no oak for aging the wines, there is no wood anywhere in the cellar. Storage bins and palettes are metal or plastic to avoid TCA contamination—a forward-looking approach for a "country way of thinking."

The two Gigondas cuvées that they produce are made from 80 percent Grenache and 20 percent Mourvèdre. The 2006 Gigondas Terres des Aînés is very perfumed and elegant, with black tea, cinnamon stick and mulled raspberry notes. The 2006 Gigondas Confidentiel is produced from a parcel within their Gigondas vines that, despite being planted on the same soil, always seems to behave a little differently from the rest of the vineyard. It's darker in profile, with more tar and licorice notes, and a sappy finish that's dominated by kirsch.

Montirius combines boutiquelike attention to detail and a sense of personality in a medium-size operation. "We don't want to produce a vin de garage," says Christine. "We want to prove that if you work the vineyards well, you can have 60 hectares and you can make a good wine—that's it."

The Appellation's Engine
With almost 20 vintages under his belt, Louis Barruol is arguably Gigondas' driving force for quality. Barruol, 39, took over his family's estate in 1990—his father had been selling the grapes in bulk—and renovated the estate's buildings and cellar, some of which date to Roman times. Then, after getting his own property on solid footing, Barruol began a négociant business in 1997 that spread into the Northern Rhône appellations of St.-Joseph, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu. "I wasn't bored," says Barruol of the decision to expand. "But I did want to work with other terroirs. I needed to explore."

St.-Cosme's production totals 8,300 cases annually from the château's 61 acres in Gigondas and an additional 9,500 cases of négociant wines labeled just St.-Cosme (the majority of which is a Côtes du Rhône bottling). Barruol could expand further but is staying put for the moment. "I am focusing now. I don't want to just grow and grow, and then lose myself," he says.

Barruol produces a non-vintage Vin de Table called Little James' Basket Press, which includes declassified Gigondas juice blended with old-vine Grenache from Roussillon (the cross-appellation blending results in the lesser Vin de Table designation). The wine is produced using a solera system of blending, so each bottling contains 50 percent of the newest vintage, plus a blend in decreasing percentages of previous vintages, dating back to the initial 1999. It's soft and full of pepper and garrigue notes, delivering a textbook Rhône flavor profile for just $12.

The 2006 Gigondas represents more than two-thirds of the estate's production. The grapes are not destemmed, and the varieties—68 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, 10 percent Mourvèdre and 2 percent Cinsault—are cofermented.

Barruol's harvest typically runs late, so the period of time between the ripening of the Syrah and later-ripening Grenache and Mourvèdre is reduced. The resulting wine is dark and beefy, with roasted plum and Christmas pudding notes up front, but with a remarkably silky and perfumy finish.

An intense roasted quality runs through all Barruol's Gigondas cuvées—but it doesn't come from new oak, as the wines are aged in a mix of barrels (30 percent new) for just 12 months after their fermentation in cement or wooden vat. "I don't like to dry the wine too much," says Barruol. Instead, this character comes from the deeper flavors brought on by the late-harvested grapes and the addition of the leesy sediment that precipitates to the bottom of each barrel before racking. Barruol sterile-filters this part to avoid any spoilage yeasts and then adds it back in.

The 2006 Gigondas Valbelle (first produced in 1993) is a blend of five parcels, with vines averaging 80 years old. The 90 percent Grenache bottling (the remainder being Syrah) is superrich and racy, with intense plum sauce, Kenya AA coffee and mesquite notes followed by terrific focus on the finish.

The 2006 Gigondas Hominis Fides (first produced in 2003) is sourced from a single parcel of 105-year-old Grenache vines planted on very sandy soils. It's typically the most elegant of the single-vineyard cuvées, showing dark and exotic fig and boysenberry fruit but amazing finesse, with Lapsang souchong tea and espresso notes on the long, lingering finish.

Barruol expanded his portfolio of single-vineyard Gigondas in 2006, starting with the single-parcel 2006 Gigondas Le Claux. The wine comes from a vineyard that his grandfather was planning to pull out, but World War I interrupted that plan. The 4.5-acre parcel of Grenache vines on yellow clay and limestone used to go into the Valbelle. It's the most powerful of the new single-vineyard wines, richer and rounder than the Hominis Fides, with lots of spice and black fruit followed by a creamy but driven finish.

Filling out the new portfolio, the 2006 Gigondas Le Poste is sourced from a 2.47-acre parcel of Grenache planted in 1963 on limestone and marl soils—large jagged chunks of limestone mixed with a white, powdery soil that hardens as it dries. It's the boldest of the cuvées, with captivating sage and tarragon aromas, blackberry, plum and mulled spice flavors and a long, bittersweet cocoa finish that shows a touch of torrefaction but stays pure and minerally. Like the Homines Fides, both the new Le Claux and Le Poste bottlings from the 2006 vintage offer potentially classic quality—a rarity for Gigondas.

The Gentle Giant of Gigondas
Pierre Amadieu's estate is Gigondas' largest vineyard holder, with 320 acres of vines (roughly 11 percent of the appellation). Though both estate and négociant production are here, the Gigondas cuvées all are estate wines. Gigondas production totals 40,000 cases annually. Pierre's grandfather (also named Pierre) started the company in 1929 with just 17 acres of vines. As the business grew, Amadieu's grandfather purchased the Romane Machotte estate in 1950, a 316-acre tract of land; then mostly wooded hillsides and olive groves, it now forms the backbone of the estate. Pierre's father, Jean-Pierre, and uncle Claude continued the family tradition until the younger, quietly serious Pierre Amadieu, now 41, joined the family company in 1990, after a training period at Château La Nerthe with Alain Dugas. By 2003, Pierre had assumed full control of the company.

The 2006 Gigondas Romane Machotte represents the bulk of the production. The grapes are destemmed and fermented in cement vats. The wine is then aged half in foudres and half in barrels, some of which are new. The blend of 85 percent Grenache and 15 Syrah shows firm cherry, spice and cocoa notes.

A step up is the 2006 Gigondas Domaine Grand Romane, sourced from older vine parcels that surround the estate's old manor house, tucked up in the northeast corner of the appellation. Made from 65 percent Gre-nache, 20 percent Mourvèdre and 15 percent Syrah, the wine is darker in profile, with an animal hint weaving through the black cherry and currant fruit. It's grippy, but not severe, and shows outstanding potential.

The top cuvée, the 2006 Gigondas Grande Réserve, is a vineyard selection of old-vine lots that can change from year to year. Made from 75 percent Grenache and 25 percent Syrah, the Grande Réserve is the blackest of the three cuvées, with juicy structure and a solid, slightly tarry finish. With their large production volume, modest price (usually in the $25 to $35 range) and consistent quality, the wines of Pierre Amadieu offer an excellent introduction to the appellation.

Good Advice Goes a Long Way
Domaine St.-Damien is one of the Gigondas estates that draw fruit more from the vineyards on the plateau than from those on the chalky hillsides. The house style includes rich, black fruit character, with exotic smoke and black tea notes, derived from the richer clay and limestone soils on the plateau that spreads west and southwest from the Dentelles. Joël, 52, and his wife, Amie, 55, represent the fourth generation of Saurels (they are cousins of the Saurels at Montirius) to farm vineyards in Gigondas; previous generations sold the fruit to négociants.

The domaine had an earlier incarnation. In 1978 Joël and his brother bottled their estate's own production for the first time. But in 1987 the brothers split; Joël stayed at the domaine. Because he lacked vinification expertise (Joël had worked the vineyard while his brother made the wine), the estate's grapes were sold once again to négociants until 1996, when Joël and Amie decided make a go of it on their own. There are now 42 acres of vines, nearly 30 in Gigondas. Almost one-third of the estate's 4,500-case production comes to the United States.

The Saurels have been working with consultant Philippe Cambie since 1998—they were one of his first clients. "We were experienced with the vineyards," says the forthright and proud Amie, "but not the vinification. We needed some help." Cambie espouses a modern-minimalist approach, with late harvesting of ripe grapes aimed at producing rich, velvety wines.

The wines are destemmed 70 percent and fermented in cement vat. The 2006 Gigondas Vieilles Vignes is sourced from the estate's "young" vines (they're 50 years old) in the Souteyrades parcel, which features clay and limestone soils. It's a touch sauvage, with inviting Kenya AA coffee, bittersweet cocoa, crushed plum fruit and an exotic, terroir-driven finish.

In 2000, Cambie and the Saurels began vinifying fruit from the domaine's various terroirs separately, and thus were born the La Louisiane and Les Souteyrades cuvées to augment the Vieilles Vignes bottling. The 2006 Gigondas La Louisiane (80 percent Grenache, 15 percent Mourvèdre and 5 percent Cinsault and Clairette) comes from the estate's oldest vines, 65 to 80 years old, planted on stony alluvial soils. It's plush and inviting, with a creamy texture, black fruits and a deep, earth-driven finish. The 2006 Gigondas Les Souteyrades is a blend of 80 percent Grenache with 20 percent Mourvèdre sourced from 70-year-old vines in the parcel of the same name; it is really dark and muscular, with a beefy backdrop to the ganache and fig flavors.

Amie and Joël exude country hospitality (Cambie can't stop talking about her cooking), and they share an obvious love of their vineyards. With the assistance of the dynamic Cambie, those vineyards are now creating some of the appellation's more distinctive and ageworthy wines.

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