Mon 28 Sep 2015

On tour in the Rhône (or a tale of two chapels): part II


This is the second part of my blog about a three-day trip to the Rhône Valley in June when I acted as guide to a small party of members. These lucky (or not so lucky!) few had earned their place on the tour having signed up new members to The Society earlier in the year. Here we head south…
Part I can be read here.

Heading south into Gigondas
The Rhône has become known as the third of the great red wine regions of France after Bordeaux and Burgundy. Yet this has come about quite recently, helped by a combination of improved communications and the appellation system. It seems odd to us today that so many of these great wines were shipped to Bordeaux or Beaune to be used as blending wines.

The second chapel in our tale

The second chapel in our tale

A little bit of history
The best thing to have happened to the Rhône was when the Papacy movied to Avignon in 1309. Even before that event, much of the surrounding country, then known as the Comtat Venaissin, was in Papal hands. It gave the region a Patron on a par with the Dukes of Aquitaine and Burgundy.

Yet when all this happened, Gigondas and its wines had seen over a thousand vintages. The first to plant vines were probably veterans of the Second Legion and the name of the settlement probably comes from the Latin jucundus or villa jucundatis. The joy in the name speculated to have come from the abundance of spring water here.

People make wine and people of course create entities such as Bordeaux or Chianti. It is the same for Gigondas. One of the most significant names was Raspail. This family of noted Republicans, politicians, scientists included among their number, Eugene Raspail who while in Gigondas did much to improve the quality of the wines. His great nephew, François Ay, was president of the growers’ syndicate and it was he who, after a long and fierce struggle, obtained appellation status for Gigondas in 1971.

The granting of the appellation was a big step forward as it gave impetus to growers to do more, either for themselves or through the co-operative. The grenache grape had for a long time been what Gigondas was about and new status reinforced this and did away with many other varieties that had cropped for one reason or another over the years. Out went carignan, alicante and aramon to be replaced by syrah and mourvèdre, and the white clairette.

For a while the merchants became chief beneficiaries of the better wines that gradually were being made here. But there were a good number of estates too, with many growers having the desire to extend vineyard into the less hospitable mountain areas behind the village.

My first memory of Gigondas was a 1967 from Jaboulet, a great wine from a great vintage. It is a wine that combined two, often contradictory elements: power and freshness. I was hooked and have followed Gigondas ever since.

Those veteran legionnaires who settled here were not daft. A more beautiful spot is hard to imagine with the jagged Dentelles de Montmirail providing a stunning backdrop and with no lack of water.

The Romans also knew about planting on hillsides. What they did not possibly appreciate was the intensely complex geology which, as in Hermitage, is a key reason why the wines are so interesting. Unlike Hermitage though, or even Châteauneuf, Gigondas is far less well known, its secret is still largely hidden.

It was this that prompted me to make Gigondas the final destination for this trip. And of course also the fact that there are some great wines being made here! To test this out, we had organised a veritable gala dinner with four key producers joining us with wines and not all from the best vintages. Indeed I shan’t forget Moulin de la Gardette 2002 and 1968 in a hurry.

Jean-Baptiste Meunier of Moulin de la Gardette explaining Gigondas

Jean-Baptiste Meunier of Moulin de la Gardette explaining Gigondas

If Hermitage derives some of its uniqueness from its complex geology, the same can be true of Gigondas. The terroir here is the result of the same tectonic convulsions that created the Alps and Pyrenees. Except here, the layers of rock, limestone and marls were tilted to end up looking like a Mille-feuille on its side, an analogy favoured by Louis Barruol, the genie of Saint-Cosme. In this vertical landscape, the hardest limestone has weathered the least to create the jagged, tooth-like Dentelles de Montmirail with further shaping from wind, rain and ice. This verticality means that soil changes almost continuously – plainly visible as one goes round the vineyard seeing how the colour and composition of soils changes every few yards.

And yet despite everything, Gigondas still lives in the shadow of better-known Rhônes. The problem for Gigondas is it took longer to recover from the various disasters that befell viticulture towards the end of the XIXth century, ending with the Great War and depression. Before the appellation system was created, there was nothing to define what Gigondas really was.

Jean-Michel Vache, whose father literally carved out his vineyard from the rock, by hand, said that when it came to planting grape varieties in the early days, one did what one could. So people planted whatever was available, choosing some varieties because they produced good yields with plenty of juice or others for alcohol. And no doubt, some growers planted hybrids that were resistant to phylloxera.

Gigondas as we know it starts to take shape
The appellation gave hope and a structure for growers to follow, even if for the first 35 years, it was just Côtes du Rhône. The co-op also tends to pay more for higher alcohol as well as yield. And so gradually the grenache grape was to become dominant in Gigondas and a reputation for strong, full-bodied wines was duly formed.

Louis Barruol's turn to explain his terroir

Louis Barruol’s turn to explain his terroir

The addition of other grapes brings greater finesse
Strong alcohol does not mean great wine of course and the next challenge was to go from coarseness back to finesse. And that is a journey that has been going on for at least half a century and is continuing. Other grape varieties have been brought in to add something else. Syrah adds colour, fragrance and structure. Structure too comes from mourvèdre which adds a spicy edge. The white clairette, often planted together with grenache, can add elegance.

But the real work is in the vineyard. It isn’t just about planting grape varieties, it is also about matching variety and soil and exposition. The landscape offers so many possibilities with north-facing slopes and slopes planted at high altitude. Some of Amadieu’s most interesting wines are coming from vines planted at over 400m. These include a sensational white which for now remains Côtes du Rhône; for some reason white Gigondas had never been part of the deal, unlike in next door Vacqueyras.

Still plenty of joy in Gigondas
There remains plenty to do but luckily the ambiance in Gigondas is good. There is both rivalry and camaraderie among the growers and even the co-op is a force for good. The future is bright. So much so that there isn’t that much bulk wine around for the merchants to buy. Though in fairness, many of these merchants have always played the quality card; both Jaboulet and Guigal for example, make fine examples of Gigondas.

The Dentelles de Montmirail

The Dentelles de Montmirail

But leading the way of course are the growers and there are many of them, some big like Amadieu and some very small but all making exceedingly exciting wines. And the good news has been spreading, attracting outside investors. The Brunier brothers of Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf teamed up with their excellent American importer, Kermit Lynch to buy one of the historic estates, Les Pallières. More recently the Perrin family, owners of Beaucastel, also in Châteauneuf also bought a fine estate in Gigondas called Les Tourrelles. All have been welcomed and are actively involved in raising the image of Gigondas.

So I had good reasons to choose Gigondas as a final destination for this members’ trip. After the gala dinner with its succession of venerable wines and a good if somewhat shortened night, it was up for an early start to meet our transport for the morning. Jean-Michel Vache was in charge here, aided by Jean-Baptiste Meunier of Moulin de la Gardette. The Beaumes de Venise co-op unwittingly lent us their large Land Rover for half our number. This would be driven by Jean-Baptiste. Jean-Michel had his own, bought second hand from the United Nations and still in its all- white livery. There was a Sarajevo sticker in the window, indicating where this had been. And we were off on a two-hour excursion, exploring the Dentelles and the terroirs of Gigondas. This was exhilarating driving on the roughest tracks or no tracks at all, hair-pin bends, impossible gradients and views to savour for a lifetime. Water is the giver of life and was not forgotten as we stopped to drink from a spring.

Henri-Claude and Jean-Marie Amadieu explaining Gigondas

Henri-Claude and Jean-Marie Amadieu explaining Gigondas

L'apéro with Barruol in charge. Jean-Michel Vache in discussion with Henri-Claude Amadieu in the background

L’apéro with Barruol in charge. Jean-Michel Vache in discussion with Henri-Claude Amadieu in the background

As for Louis Barruol and the Amadieu brothers, they made themselves busy organising a perfect casse-croûte at a perfect location, the Chapelle de Saint-Cosme.

There used to be many chapels in Gigondas but time and the Revolution have diminished their number. Its full name is Chapelle de Saint Côsme et Damien and was named after two Christians noted for their powers of healing.

The chapel is just off the road as it goes past Louis Barruol’s estate and on its way to the Col du Cayron. Some of the tiny church dates back to the XIth century though the foundations are older still. Its history is obviously complicated. It is part in ruin, maybe as a result of land slips or war. It is undoubtedly a place of beauty and serenity and a perfect place to ponder and marvel.

Safari by Land Rover: one of the highlights of the trip

Safari by Land Rover: one of the highlights of the trip

And so came the party of Land Rovers, up a short, twisty and very steep drive, to the foot of the chapel. Everything was ready for a pre-prandial picnic, otherwise known as the apéro. There were cheeses, saucisson and of course olives, washed down by some delicious whites from Amadieu and Saint-Cosme.

Gigondas produces rosé and that is how we finished this trip, drinking these full-bodied pinks, well chilled to cope with the intense heat of the summer of 2015.

Dining in Gigondas
The farewell lunch was at the Florets, a very well-established house with good food, an impressive wine list and after a long dinner, the necessary rooms! The Hôtel de Montmirail, above Vacqueyras is similar and as good. Better still though is the restaurant l’Oustalet. This is in the middle of the village opposite the Mairie. It’s always been there but was never that good. And then it was bought by the Perrin family who put one of their youngsters in, Charles Perrin, to run. And they just happened to have a resident chef at Beaucastel. Laurent used to while away his time dreaming up dishes to go with Beaucastel. He came to The Wine Society once to cook a festive dinner for members at Merchant Taylor’s Hall. He knows cooks in Gigondas, in charge of one of the most creative kitchens in the southern Rhône. The Perrins do nothing by half; the amazing food is matched by a brilliant wine list. Sipping Pol Roger on a balmy Provençal evening has got to be one of the highlights of the year!

And so it was adieu to what was a memorable week for all. Though I knew that I would be back soon with the 2014 vintage to taste in depth and the first soundings of the new 2015 harvest to take. And hopefully more discoveries to make!


Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

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