- Thursday 1 August 2002
Once a Côtes du Rhône Village, Gigondas has long moved on from its past rusticity, and now produces good-value wines that are rich and full of character. STEPHEN BROOK reports
You can't miss the Dentelles de Montmirail: a row of peaks like jagged teeth which form a backdrop to the vineyards of Gigondas. They stand out all the more because so much of the land on which the Côtes du Rhône vineyards are planted is flat. Elevation is one of the characteristics that mark Gigondas out as special. Its wines were appreciated in the Middle Ages, but gradually many of its vineyards were replaced by olive groves. Indeed, the gentle slopes below the village, now planted with vines, were once thick with olive trees. The older vineyards of Gigondas were in the valleys that pierce the Dentelles.
In 1971 Gigondas became the first of the Côtes du Rhône Villages to win the right to its own AC. This meant more than simply being first among equals, as Gigondas really is different. For a start, its yields, which can never exceed 38 hl/ha, are lower than those of its neighbours. Then there is the wide palette of vineyards. Some are planted on the sloping plateau on the far side of the main road that runs below the village. These enjoy excellent drainage, so rot is rare. There is another sector along the slopes around the village and within the side valleys, and the soils here are very varied. Finally there are terraces of vines up in the Dentelles, where there is a good deal of limestone in the soil. Many estates own parcels in all three sectors, and blend the production of each.
All this means is that the growers of Gigondas have a much wider range of material to work with than their counterparts in neighbouring villages such as Vacqueyras or Sablet. It can be hours after dawn before the rising sun finally scales the Dentelles peaks and shines its rays on the vineyards below. Consequently the grapes here can ripen seven to 15 days later than those on the plateau. This can pose problems, especially if there are late rains which can lead to rot. But when all goes well, the Grenache and other varieties grown here contribute finesse to a blend, as the grapes have higher acidity.
Grenache dominates. The AC rules require growers to have 15% Syrah or Mourvèdre in the vineyards, although, with French cunning, there is nothing in the rules to say you have to use them. Strictly speaking, Gigondas should have no more than 80% Grenache, although there may well be some wines that have a higher proportion. Cooperatives used to pay growers on the basis of potential alcohol, which favoured Grenache over the other varieties.
The harvest can be around two weeks later than at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, that other stronghold of Grenache in the Rhône. So it's not surprising that with a longer growing season, both wines have different characters. It's tricky to generalise, but Gigondas often has less weight, less raisiny character and less alcohol, but a touch more elegance than Châteauneuf. For a reminder of what traditional Gigondas tastes like, I always like to call on the friendly Michel Faraud at Domaine du Cayron in the village itself. Ten years ago he told me: 'I make wine in the same way that my grandfather did.' Ten years on, nothing has changed. His vineyards are dispersed, and there is some old Cinsaut planted 450 metres up in the Dentelles. His vines are old – an average of 45 years – and his yields never exceed 32hl/ha. As for vinification, there is no destemming, and the wine ferments in underground cement tanks. The old vertical press in the corner of the winery is used each year, and the wine is then aged in foudres for up to 18 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Simplicity itself. This allows the wine to express the special character of Gigondas: a bright, fleshy, almost meaty nose; and on the palate ripe and intense, tasting of cherries and plums and speckled with black pepper tones. Being less burly than Châteauneuf, a good Gigondas can be approached young, but it benefits from five to 10 years in bottle, where it acquires seductive secondary aromas of leather and tobacco.
Visitors to Gigondas are spoiled for choice as there are many excellent domaines, including Cayron, that sell their wines directly to the public. In addition there is a cooperative, and some small négociant houses. These include Pierre Amadieu and Gabriel Meffre. I'm not keen on the Amadieu wines, which can be rather tough and dry.
The Meffre estate, once a vast family domaine, has been through many changes of ownership and today is in the hands of Bertrand Bonnet and fellow investors. The Meffre family retains control of a number of domaines at Gigondas but no longer has any connection with the firm of that name. To make up for its lack of vineyards at Gigondas, Meffre bought the Domaine de Longue-Toque in 1998, and the wines bottled under that label are fruity and easygoing. The top bottling is called Laurus: it's a modern-style Gigondas, destemmed, and partly aged in 275-litre barrels. The oak is well integrated and the overall impression is of suavity and elegance rather than weight and power.
OAK & GIGONDAS
Oak has become a major issue in Gigondas. In the mid-1980s Jean-Pierre Cartier of Domaine Les Gauberts began producing his Cuvée Florence, aged in new oak. It was very well received by the American market, despite its high price. I recall standing in the Gauberts tasting room alongside a restaurateur from California, who, when he tasted Florence, exclaimed: 'Now this I can sell!'
My own view is that Grenache and new oak form a marriage often headed for the divorce courts. Grenache is an oxidative variety and barriques sometimes speed that process. Yet Cartier is skilled at his job and Florence is well balanced and capable of ageing. It just so happens that when I taste it after his regular Gigondas, I invariably prefer the latter.
Meffre's Laurus is a good example of oaked Gigondas, but examples from some other estates – notably Amadieu's Domaine Grand-Romane, La Bouissière's Font de Tonin, and St-Gayan's Fontmaria – seem ungainly, with inadequately integrated oak tannins. There is also a risk that if you siphon off your richest, most concentrated lots for the privilege of barrique-ageing, the regular bottling may diminish in quality.
At Domaine Santa-Duc, Yves Gras says he dislikes the cult of barrique-aged wines, yet he makes, in outstanding years only, an oaked Gigondas called Hautes Garrigues. It's a single-vineyard wine from the plateau, picked very ripe, with up to 30% Mourvèdre. Unlike Grenache, Mourvèdre does not oxidise easily; on the other hand it's a tannic variety and has no need of extra tannins from oak barrels. Hautes Garrigues is aged for two years in 50% new oak.
'I've thought carefully about this,' Gras assures me. 'All I am trying to do is to extract the maximum the raw materials at my disposal will deliver. New oak is just a tool, and the last thing I want is oaky flavours in the wine. And because Grenache oxidises easily, I choose mostly oak from Allier, which is tight-grained. I also keep the toasting minimal, as a charred toasty flavour will get in the way of the Gigondas fruit.' The wine has a slightly sweet vanilla aroma, probably derived from the oak, but on the palate it is suave, concentrated and marked by fine tannins as well as concentration. It is not overtly oaky.
The other outstanding barrique-aged Gigondas is the Cuvée Valbelle from Château de St-Cosme. This is from the estate's oldest vines, with 30% Syrah and the remainder Grenache. About half the barriques are new, but the fruit is so massive and dense that you are less aware of the oak. Louis Barruol, who runs St-Cosme, says: 'I want to make structured wines that will age well, but I also want wines that are civilised and not dominated by tannin or alcohol. Valbelle is only bottled in top years such as 1998.'
Over the past 15 years Gigondas has gone from strength to strength. In the 1980s there were some tough rustic wines, as well as wines lacking in concentration. Today most are well made and rich in plummy, leathery Grenache fruit. Prices have risen but seem stable, despite the growing demand. Estates making excellent wine in the 1980s continue to do so, but they have been joined by many others. One to watch is Domaine les Pallières, bought in 1998 by the Brunier family of Vieux-Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape with Kermit Lynch, the American wine importer. They are determined to improve quality and have been investing heavily.
Gigondas, rich and wild, will never be a wine for everyday drinking. But on a winter's night, with a mellow stew on the table, it's harder to think of a more suitable, enjoyable wine. 1990 and 1995 are drinking well now, and the fine trio from 1998 to 2000 will benefit from further bottle-age, although some 1999s are beginning to open up.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.