It’s steep, La Mouline. The students and I looked down, through the reddening leaves of each individually staked vine in this little 1-ha vineyard, over each succeeding terrace wall, and finally over what appeared to be a leafy cliff edge which plunged straight down into the gardens, the swimming pools and the back yards of the village of Ampuis below. Philippe Guigal patiently answered our questions. Here’s what we learned.

Jefford on Monday:

Is Rhône 2015: the best in 50 years?

It’s looking like a great 2015 vintage throughout the Rhône valley, as everywhere else in France. The Guigals measure their words carefully, and have long memories: Philippe’s grandfather Etienne Guigal saw out 67 vintages; 2015 is Philippe’s father Marcel’s 55th vintage. So listen up: “My father says that 2015 is probably the best vintage he has ever seen.”

The teams began picking on the last day of August, and were finished in two weeks. “Sorting is the key word for us. Except in 2015. There was hardly any to do. Beautifully healthy fruit, a generous yields of 41 hl/ha on average; lovely Syrah. It was a sunny year, but the acidities are very good, too. The wines are very complete.”

Terroir: the 2 a.m. question

One of the most fascinating controversies in modern wine science concerns diurnal temperature differences. Is the steady, gentle, non-stop ripening provided by the warm nights typical of maritime climates like Bordeaux or Margaret River (or that brought by the stored heat of giant pebbles, as in Châteauneuf) ideal for ripening fine quality wine? Or, by contrast, are the stark diurnal temperature differences typical of continental climates like those of central Spain or high-altitude locations like Mendoza, with a drop of 15˚C or 20˚C between a hot early afternoon and the cold small hours, what’s needed in order to preserve freshness and vivacity in wines? Both cases have been convincingly argued by adherents — and the issue has been addressed at length by the Australian researcher John Gladstones, who comes down in favour of warm nights rather than against stark diurnal differences.

I’d always assumed that, because of its continentality, the Northern Rhône fell into the ‘cool nights’ camp but, as we stood up above La Mouline and looked down towards Ampuis, Philippe Guigal corrected me. “If you come up here at two or three in the morning, you’ll feel the warmth. We’re in a very protected site, and all the stones of the terrace walls reflect the heat of the daytime back at night.”

So what about the Mistral? “It’s 200 m up in the air here; it only comes down to ground level after Valence.” Cooling from the Mistral is predominantly a southern Rhône phenomenon, it turns out, not a northern Rhône one. In Switzerland’s Valais, Philippe Guigal told us, they claim their grapes are ripened ‘by three suns’: the one in the sky; the one reflected from the terrace walls; and the one reflected by Lake Geneva. The Rhône can’t fully duplicate the lake, but conditions are not dissimilar here.

The walls, though, are both blessing and curse. “The biggest challenge we have is the walls. We have 75 ha of terraced vines, and we spend between 500,000 and 700,000 euros on rebuilding walls every year.” Guigal vineyard workers need to be mountaineers. “One worker can look after 15 ha in Bordeaux, and 5 ha in a Burgundy Grand Cru. Here an outstanding vigneron could manage 2 ha at the very most.”

Guigal: the obsession with age

You could say that Guigal is the most un-primeur wine producer in the world. “The two key words in our cellar,” says Philippe, “are ‘slow’ and ‘motion’.” Most négociants would want to get their Côtes du Rhône to market quickly. Not Guigal. “It takes three years to blend our Côtes du Rhône. We have 38 months of stock on average. The current vintage is 2011.” And around four million bottles of this wine are made every year! Barely sane – or the secret of the company’s success?

Guigal: natural winemakers

Well, almost. “One hundred percent of what is vinified here is fermented with natural yeast, and natural malolactic bacteria. If malo starts in November, that’s fine; if it starts in April, that’s fine.” Acid adjustment? Forget it. “We’re not obsessed by pH. Even in 2003, we didn’t acidify. We consider that the guarantee of the wine isn’t the acidity, but the phenolics.” And brett? “I don’t consider it a quality, but it’s important not to be paranoid.” Many Viognier producers around the world try to block malo, to ‘preserve freshness’; not Guigal. (Despite the fact that both pH and TA can hover around 4 for Condrieu.) “Viognier expresses itself through its aromas of apricot and peach. Whenever you block the malo, you will get the wrong aromas – apple and so on. Whenever we see a non-malo Condrieu, it gives a non-interesting result.” And some stems generally go into the reds. “It gives a little bit of wildness, of roughness. That is very interesting for a wine which is going to age for three years.”

Big négociant, small domain  

Philippe proudly makes the case for the négociant role. “We have 43 growers in Châteauneuf, and most of them are very well-known. Why would they sell to us? Well, we pay a good price, but they are happy to sell to us because they know that we can be quality ambassadors for the appellation. A Châteauneuf producer might be able to reserve 15 cases of his or her top wine for China. That’s not much for 1.3 billion people. We can sell a little more.”

Why, though, isn’t the Guigal estate larger than just 75 ha? “We have lots of time. We don’t want vineyards just for the sake of having vineyards. We just want the best.” Apropos of this, I’d always wondered why it was François Pinault and not Marcel Guigal that bought Château Grillet back in 2011. Did Château Grillet not count as ‘the best’?

Philippe Guigal’s reply, delivered with the same equanimity with which he fielded every other question, was shocking. It is indeed, he said, a very fine site. “But the first we knew about the sale was when we learned about it from the Wine Spectator.” What? Would the Neyret-Gachet family have really sold one of France’s only two non-burgundian single-appellation monopoles after 191 years of family ownership without giving the most competent, well-financed and deeply enracinated local buyer, all of five kilometers up the road, the chance to take part in the bidding process? Apparently so.

A taste of Guigal

Condrieu 2014

Pale in colour, with lifted floral aromas (the grapes spend eight hours with their skins) and an enticing, soft richness from one-third barrel fermentation. An explosion of flowers on the palate: perfume, in dappling the wine, assumes all the work of balance here. Nonetheless there’s a little crispness at the edge of the palate – from stone, you’d say, as much as acidity (91).

Condrieu La Doriane, 2011

A more deeply coloured wine (based on five fine single parcels, including one adjacent to Ch Grillet), with rich, voluptuously enticing scents of sweet cream and bubbling baked apricots. On the palate, this succulent Condrieu is also dense and sinewy (without full malo it would surely have less sinew): unique, tenacious, disarming, with a dragon-like grandeur and warmth yet a finishing tenderness, too (92).

Château d’Ampuis, Côte Rôtie, 2011

From the best vineyards sited around La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne (and including 7 per cent Viognier), this wine clearly benefitted from the blending spread in a challenging vintage like 2011. Refined, perfumed red and black fruits without any sense of the mixed ripeness this vintage sometimes exhibits, singing with fresh poise, then structured, deft and sappy on the palate: fresh currants and berries with a twist of bergamot and a dusting of fine spice. The epitome of elegance (94).

La Turque, Côte Rôtie, 2011

From lofty, hilltop vineyards on the Côte Brune (which we visited after La Mouline). Deeper in colour than Ch d’Ampuis, with gruffer, more brooding scents of earth, blackberries and glowing coals. After this dark welcome, the sprightliness of the palate is disarming: suddenly, you realise, we’re in a place not too far from Burgundy. Glittering, high-focus, intense, the fruits cut a charge through the palate before subsiding, almost reluctantly, towards the smoke and smoulder the aromas suggested. The wine’s structure becomes apparent on the finish, too (one-third stems) (95).

  • Andy Whiteman

    Another excellent article. Thank you. Made my mouth water! Great house, great terroir and great wines.