“In certain magical places, dreams can sometimes become reality.”
With an annual production of 6 million bottles, a cellar with wines dating back to 1946 and a proud family legacy, this is one of the behemoths of wine production in the Rhône Valley, and therefore, a great place to get a solid lay of the land. E. Guigal is currently run by father-son team Marcel and Philippe Guigal.
Stéphane Croxet, who runs the export department of Guigal, graciously offered to give us a tour in either English or French. Since I am married to a Frenchie, my French has improved tremendously over the past few years, but I am not there yet with complete fluency, especially incorporating technical jargon and the velocity of speech. I was grateful for his lingual dexterity and the thoroughness of his explanation of the wine making process at Guigal.
In the Northern Rhône, Guigal acts as both producer and negociant. However, in the Southern Rhône, Guigal acts exclusively as negociant. Negociants make the wine, but purchase the grapes from growers. Even though they don’t technically farm these grapes, negociants are heavily involved in the viticulture. As with a talented chef, most wine makers are super control freaks with their craft. I can relate to this. In fact, I embrace and salute the control freaks among us. Just try to be in the kitchen with me when I am cooking – things have to be done a certain way and in a certain order, with certain ingredients – I get it.
Guigal runs a tight ship, so it was of no surprise to me that their capacity as negociant follows suit. They are involved in the entire viticulture process – from the growth to selecting the day of harvest. Growers know that grapes will not officially be accepted until they arrive for vinification and have been tested personally by Guigal. This family has earned the respect of the growers and is well regarded by their peers. For Guigal, reputation is paramount to all. Business with Guigal is still done to this day by hand shake. As Stéphane explained, “We give our word and for us it’s equivalent to a written contract. It’s worked liked that since the beginning (3 generations).”
Although, Guigal has the right to reject the grapes, it is a rare occurrence since Guigal has worked with these producers for many years, every step of the way in the viticulture process. In tandem, the respect for the relationship and time spent nurturing the vines is reciprocated by Guigal. Stéphane conveyed, “It’s only right that we respect the time and passion that they have put into harvesting the grapes for us. This courtesy needs to be extended to them as well.” Guigal has 2 back-up control methods in place for the machinery to ensure that grapes are received and processed ASAP to avoid wasting precious time. As in the case with some of the grapes for the production of their Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these growers travel for several hours from the Southern Rhône, so the back-up controls are critical to guarantee expeditious receipt of the grapes.
For red wines, to extract as much color and tannins from the skins as possible, wines are either produced by remontage/pumping over or punching down. Remontage/pumping over draws wine from the bottom of the vat and then pumps it to the top. This helps to break up the crust of skins, pips. etc. (often referred to as the châpeau) which forms at the top. Punching down is the process of literally punching down the skins and pips with devices such as paddles or rakes to extract color and tannins. In the secondary/malolactic fermentation, the liquid from the châpeau is added.
Guigal uses both large and small barrels for aging, with the large barrels used for red wines and small barrels for white wines. Red wine typically has enough tannins already, so the larger barrels are used as there is less surface area of contact by volume. Since 2003, Guigal has manufactured smaller barrels at a cooperage using hand selected French oak. Costly and precious new oak is saved for their absolute best wines. The Viognier for their Condrieu spends about 9 months on the oak, whereas the Syrah for their Côte-Rôtie can spend as long as 42 months. Typically, they use their barrels for up to 20-25 years and then send them to Scotland for the aging process of Scotch.
Of the 6 million bottles produced annually by Guigal, half of their production is exported, of which, half of that goes to the United States. For Guigal, the U.S. market seems to prefer Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I am going to speculate on this, but one would have to think the heavy demand for Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the U.S. is driven by its favor among many influential wine critics. If you fell into the aforementioned population, I highly recommend branching out. Be zany. Mix it up. Try the Côte-Rôtie. Or throw in a real thought provoker – the Condrieu. You’ll be glad you tried something new.
Prices indicated below are the cost at the vineyard and are not inclusive of import fees, taxes, shipping etc. I’ve noted wines in which Guigal both grows the grapes and produces the wine (Domaine). Unless noted, Guigal acts in the negociant capacity.
- 2007 Condrieu (100% Viognier; 9 months fermentation, 1/3 oak, 2/3 stainless steel; sand and granite soil; 30 year old vines; ST 90/WS 91, $51): white peaches, lychees, figs; nice minerality, lovely lingering finish; 13% alcohol
- 2007 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (95% Marsanne, 5% Roussanne; 12 months partially in oak; clay, silt, sand and gravel soil; 25 year old vines; 6.95€): commented to us 2007 is better than 2006; ripe apples, acacia honey: lingering finish; 13% alcohol
- 2008 Condrieu “La Doriane” DOMAINE (100% Viognier; 9 months in 100% new barrels; shale and silicone soil; 35 year old vines, 35.74€): elegant, white peaches, violets, white flowers; acidity balances the alcohol nicely; minerality sneaks up on your palate (in a good way); 13.5% alcohol
- 2005 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (80% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 5% Mourverde; 45 year old vines; 20.22€): obviously 2005 was a very good vintage for all and this one can age nicely; red cherries, vanilla, chocolate, coffee; still a little chewy
- 2005 Côte-Rôtie “Brune & Blonde de Guigal” (96% Syrah, 4% Viognier; 2 years in oak barrels, second time barrel was used; Brune – iron oxide rich soil, Blonde – silicone and limestone soil; 35 year old vines, 28.25€): elegant, well rounded, not quite ripe cherries, vegetal, black pepper; will age well, nicely integrated
- 2003 Hermitage Rouge (100% Syrah; aged in oak for 2 years, 2nd time oak used; limestone and clay soil, 40 year old vines; 38.36€): stewed strawberries, white pepper, licorice
- 2004 Côte-Rôtie Chateau d’Ampuis DOMAINE (95% Syrah, 5% Viognier; 38 months in new oak; 6 terroirs; 50 year old vines; ST 93/WS 92, $177) dark cherries, leather, pain grillé, slight vegetal tone; drink now, but can age
- 2005 La Turque DOMAINE (93% Syrah, 7% Viognier; 42 months in new oak, single parcel; 15 year old vines; ST 96/100 RP, $449): They were generous enough to let us taste one of the beloved and famous “La Las” – La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque. Stéphane conveyed that they sell out right away on the release date (1 February). With a cult-like following, the futures market on this stuff is insane. Figs, dark cocoa, white pepper, tannins – still a little chewy – will age beautifully.
What did we buy, why and what would I pair with it?
For the Côte-Rôties below, I’d love to have either one of these with a grass fed, succulent steak cooked medium rare (because that’s how I like it), a great burger, something gamey like duck, a crystalized, aged cheese such as Gouda or a pungent cheese like Epoisses.