Here’s the “Pepsi Challenge” my friend Sara posed to me – You’re in the middle of nowhere and want to enjoy the wines of the Northern Rhône. What can you buy for $12-40?
The objective of the previous feature articles was to showcase a range of the quality wines I truly enjoyed from the Northern Rhône. Producers ranged from massive (Guigal), to medium sized (Cuilleron), to smaller wineries (Vernay and Faury). They each represent something different. Vernay and Faury are smaller production, artisanal wines, with a few restaurants snatching up the limited quantity available. Historically, their wines have been classic Northern Rhônes. Although, based on my interview with Lionel Faury, their Domaine might start to include a modern approach in some wines going forward. Cuilleron is a little larger in production than Vernay and Faury, but with his cult-like following, his wines can be difficult to come by. Cuilleron is known for a more of a modern approach in his wine-making. Guigal has the largest quantity and a wide range. His “LaLas” represent what is unobtainable by most (demand and price), but Guigal also makes quite a bit of everyday drinking wines. In these three focus articles, I listed my favorites, along with the price and suggested food pairings.
I, along with many others, am fortunate to have a plethora of specialty wine shops or restaurants which I could probably find many of the wines I featured in these articles. But without much effort, what can you get for under $40 if you wanted to dabble with the Northern Rhône Valley?
To level the playing field of randomness, a few of my friends canvassed their local wine shop with the same price parameters. Specialty stores were prohibited. They purchased the wine as recommended by the owner and brought it over in a paper bag for a bind tasting. To review, the terroirs of the Northern Rhône are Condrieu, Côte Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and VDP.
Everyone had the same experiences at their wine store –
1. Wine stores had a multitude of Burgundy and Bordeaux, but the selection on the Northern Rhône was marginal. This is unfortunate because these wines are so gorgeous.
2. Guigal is everywhere. There is no doubt that if you are in search of a Northern Rhône at your local wine store, you will see the Guigal label.
3. Blind tastings are more common than you’d think. I told my wine store merchant what we were doing. He smiled and threw in a whole bunch of brown paper bags so we could taste them blind. He said it happens frequently.
The judge panel consisted of the following people: a general manager and former sommelier of a high end, celebrity chef restaurant; a professionally trained chef turned paparazzi; a fierce litigator with a special panache for 4 inch heels; a former professional surfer turned CEO; one public relations specialist with a sharp and witty tongue and a smattering of investment bankers.
Degree of wine knowledge – the entire spectrum, but all enjoyed a good glass of wine with friends
And the winners…. Unilaterally, the top three, in order, were Cornas, Crozes-Ermitage and Condrieu.
Cornas, Domaine de Saint-Pierre, Paul Jaboulet Aîné 2001 (stewed blackberries, smoky, chocolate, spice; coconut and vanilla from the oak; I loved the old world, mushrooms/terroir bit on the palate.) Even though someone cheated with the price parameters, the Cornas was the winner, hands-down.
Crozes-Ermitage, Le Grand Countil, Ferration Pere & Gils 2005 (red cherries, strawberries, stewed fruit, minerality, tobacco) This was beautiful and a great price point. We felt the finish dropped off a little as we started to get toward the end of the bottle.
Condrieu, Guigal 2007 (minerality, lychee, honey, pear, lemons, almonds, floral, perfume) This is a simple Condrieu, but lovely for everyday drinking. It would be perfect as an aperitif.
+33-4-74-56-10-22 www.guigal.com “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?
2007 Condrieu – I am infatuated with Condrieu – maybe even obsessed. Viognier can be a high maintenance grape, and this trickles down to the end cost. I loved the minerality, elegance and perfume of this one. I thought the price point couldn’t be beat. I’d have it as “apero” (tribute to my family in the south of France), with simply prepared and not too pungent seafood (ex. butter poached lobster, grilled whole fish such as a sea bass) or goat cheese. I am partial to cow’s milk cheese, so I think it would also be unbelievable with a goat cheese blend such as La Tur. The food should be simple and not complete with the perfume of this wine. I’d consume it within the next few years.
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.
2004 Côte-Rôtie Chateau d’Ampuis – The priciest that we purchased from Guigal, we were able to benefit from the velvety integration which only comes with age. It continues to have fabulous aging potential and a complexity to match. We’re storing some of these, but drinking some too. I think it will continue to evolve for the next 10 years.
2005 Côte-Rôtie “Brune & Blonde de Guigal” – A great year, a great wine and a great bang for the buck. This has some fantastic aging potential and depth. I loved the finish. I’d drink now, but it could also continue to age for the next 10 years.
September 2009 Since this is the first of a series I am rolling out, here’s my game plan when I report on wine regions:
Part 1:The region demystified. Some find wines intimidating. There’s absolutely no need for this. Wine is supposed to be fun and enjoyed. I think it’s critical to know what’s behind the curtain in order to establish a base understanding. For some, this section might be too much information (and might have the same effect as listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher prattle on). All good- just skip down to the tasting notes or flash forward to the tasting party.
Parts 2-4: Wineries and Tasting Notes (length will vary based on the visits)
Part 5: A Tasting Party (at your home, suggestions for a few budgets)
Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas
Part 1 –
The Vintages – Great Expectations?
2007: “Sunny vintage, rich and fat wines, with an interesting roundness, medium keeping potential,” said Stéphane Croxet, Head of the Export Department at E. Guigal. “2007 was cloudy but not rainy. We had a wonderful month of September with a 3 week period of sunny and hot weather.” commented Lionel Faury, who works side-by-side with his father Philippe at Domaine Faury.
2008: “A gourmand vintage of fruit-laden wines with silky tannins,” noted Yves Cuilleron, Domaine Yves Cuilleron. Lionel Faury elaborated, “Lots of pleasure for the reds now, but not a vintage to keep years and years. 2008 was pretty difficult, but saved by September with a very windy period and 3 weeks of dry. A vintage for good viticulturist.” Stéphane Croxet added “fresh vintage wines with a nice minerality that should be enjoyed young.”
2009: Yves Cuilleron shared with me, “I just finished the 2009 harvest, this vintage looks like it will be a beautiful year, thanks to the favourable weather since spring with record sunshine and a beautiful month of September, which enabled an optimal maturity of the grapes. This vintage will give rich and balanced wines, with colourful reds.” “Seems exceptional at the moment: complex fruit and structure, supple tannins, very good keeping potential,” commented Stéphane Croxet. Lionel Faury stated, “2009 had dry, beautiful weather… The reds should rock our world… A vintage for winemakers.” He expects “whites to be high in alcohol (14-14.3%).” Although it was a little too early to tell, he added his concerns about “the possibility of not enough acidity for the balance in the whites.”
Terroir – What is it and why do we care?
It’s not Falcon Crest. Sorry to destroy your fantasy, but you won’t see a slew of women dressed up in cocktail dresses running around wine country. It’s a bunch of farmers who are immensely passionate about their craft. What matters the most with farming? Location, location and the critical variables….So
terroir = location + climate + varietal(s).
It is the primary impetus for the performance of the wine. Therefore, it makes sense that the French would name their wines after the terroir.
In Côte-Rôtie, two terroirs dominate – Côte Blonde and Côte Brune – and they are divided by a volcanic fault line. Legend has it that “The master of these two premises had two daughters, one with deep chestnut hair, the other as fair as a cornfield. He offered to each a large dowry upon their marriage, one of the best hillsides he possessed. These he named – the brown and blond slopes – La Côte Brune et La Côte Blonde.” (E.Guigal marketing literature)
In Côte Blonde, the southern vineyards, Viognier dominates. The sandy, schist and calcareous soil on top of its granite base produces elegant and feminine wines with a great deal of finesse. In Côte Brune, the northern vineyards, Syrah dominates. The schist and iron rich soils along with the different micro-climates produce powerful and more tannic wines.
The terrain is precipitously steep, so hand harvesting is mandatory (and required for AOC regulations). Vines produce their finest offspring when they think they are dying; therefore, the best grapes for wine grow in poor soil (rather than fertile soil). In order to achieve the finest grapes, proper pruning is essential. They use Single Guygot and Gobelet pruning in the Northern Rhône. Vines are then generally trained into a tepee shape to provide stability from the strong winds.
Continental with a Mediterranean impact. Translation: warmer summers and cooler winters
Condrieu is 100% Viognier. No doubt, she is the fair maiden of the land. As such, many producers proudly stake signs along the mountainside claiming their territories. Viognier is a difficult grape to work with because it can rapidly build up high sugar levels. These wines continue to evolve immensely as soon as the bottle is opened, metamorphosizing into many life forms. I believe the only way to truly experience the potential for this wine is to consume it over the course of an hour or so. It is elegantly perfumed with scents of violets, honeysuckle, peaches and apricots. At first, the wine screams, “I am a dainty lady;” however, you quickly realize how cerebral this dainty lady can be. She is no shrinking violet and is a force to reckon with.
Côte-Rôtie (literally translates to roasted slope) is predominately Syrah based. Producers are allowed to add up to 20% Viognier. Some are starting to stick closer to 100% Syrah for their Côte-Rôtie and most of the producers I met keep the Viognier allocation below 10%. The producers we visited actually grow the Viognier for their Côte-Rôtie directly alongside the Syrah, which I found interesting. Stéphane Croxet elaborated, “That is to say that the Viognier vines are scattered within that Syrah ones and the wine-makers work as if they had only one kind of grape planted. Both varieties are harvested at the same time and co-fermented. That is something traditional here in Côte-Rôtie, used to soften and give a more feminine touch to the Syrah.” It is a beautiful, elegant and sophisticated red which, in my opinion, people don’t take enough notice of – OR – if they do, they drink too young. Typically, a Côte-Rôtie will have notes of violets and spice. These wines can stand toe-to-toe in a food pairing with foods similar to what you’d pair with a premier cru from Bordeaux.
Since we were in the areas of Condrieu and Ampuis, my focus this time around was on Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. However, we had quite a sampling of the other wines from the Northern Rhône and they were very yummy. I’ve included those in my tasting notes. Here is a cursory overview of the others we tasted –
Saint-Joseph: Syrah based with up to 10% Marsanne and Roussanne. The southeast facing slope soil is sandy, granite, shale and gneiss, with some clay. Typically, it has scents of black fruit.
Hermitage Rouge: Syrah based with up to 15% Marsanne and Roussanne. The soil is primarily granite. It tends to be silky, spicy and plummy, with scents of black fruits.
Crozes-Hermitage: Syrah based with up to 15% Marsanne and Roussanne. The soil has some bits of clay, is pebbled and well filtered. It covers 11 communes. In most cases smoky, raspberry aromas linger.
Cornas: This is a sought after, sun trapped, small parcel of land. It is 100% Syrah, dark and inky in color, with scents of black currants and black fruit.