The terroirifying prospect of Gigondas

For a minute at the 2014 London Gigondas tasting – the first ever Gigondas press and trade tasting in the UK – I thought the merde was going to hit the fan.

It was in one of the day’s masterclasses, which aimed to show how the different terroirs of the tiny (c.1,200ha) Gigondas region can produce dramatically different wines. Louis Barruol, Rhône wines representative and 14th-generation winemaker at Château de Saint Cosme, was explaining how the unique geology of Gigondas could be appreciated in the nuanced flavours and aromas of the wines.

A bald, plummy English journo, reclining in his chair, put a blunt if pertinent question to Monsieur Barruol: what was the scientific basis for his claim? What mechanism were we talking about here? There followed a few tense moments during which Monsieur Barruol searched fruitlessly for a response.

It wouldn’t surprise me if there wasn’t a soul in the world who knew more about the niceties of Rhône viticulture than Monsieur Barruol, but he was stumped. As the realisation grew, so did his frustration (and, possibly, his deep-seated hatred of the English wine press). He was massively pissed off. He didn’t leap over the rows of chairs, grab the journo by the throat and strangle him until dead, but for a moment I thought he might.

Thankfully no one did die. And neither, if you’ll excuse the Partridgean segue, will the debate about terroir. The question of whether different soil types can be experienced in the wines they help to produce is one of the Big Questions in wine. Wars haven’t yet been fought over it but it’s early days yet.

It does seem so – someone must know…

France, the home of so-called ‘fine wine’, has traded on its unique ability to produce wines of uniquely special quality through a sort of Goldilocks effect of right soil and right climate. Surely some of this must be true. At least, it must be true that different soils have different effects on the flavour profiles of a given wine, right? We know that grapes grown in clay soils will produce wines with a fuller fruitiness, while the same grapes grown on limestone soil will be leaner and, for want of a better word, more ‘mineral’. But is there more nuance than that? Monsieur Barruol claims so*, but as we found at the Gigondas tasting, abstract claims about the special, unreplicable influence of terroir are more and more often  coming up against the hard scrutiny of science.

Jamie Goode has offered some typically interesting insights, but they are far from conclusive. I’m going to make it a mission of mine to uncover the latest research on this and include it on a separate post on soils. For now, I’m going to just give the benefit of the doubt and propose one thing: Gigondas is a special little region that produces some outstanding wines.

Gigondas: like Châteauneuf, but half the price

Gigondas is in the southern Rhône, one of the more recent Côte du Rhône sub-appellations (since 1971), along with Beaumes de Venise, Rasteau, Vacqueyras and Vinsobre. If you don’t know it, you’ll know it’s near neighbour, that revered old booby Châteauneuf du Pape (CDP).

CDP became fashionable in the late nineties after the ur-wine critic Robert Parker published a particularly enthusiastic review of the 1998 vintage. Prices shot up and a reputation was made. CDP has always carried certain associations for me: log fires, Chesterfields, tapestries, labradors farting and dreaming on old hide rugs. Which makes sense. CDP is a big, age-worthy wine: concentrated dark berry fruit, copious peppery spice, meaty tannin. Oh, and headbanging alcohol content (14-15-5%).

Now I’ve never got on with big, boozy, leathery wines like this, and given that Gigondas is only about 10 miles away from CDP, I was a bit apprehensive about the London tasting. But I tried some gorgeous, memorable, totally non-soporific stuff – and I found out how Gigondas is able to produce it.

The grapes, the sun, the Dentelles… 

The main grape in the southern Rhône is grenache (the other main supporting grapes being syrah and mourvèdre). Grenache makes richly fruity wines, often with a background of spice. It has thick skins, so is capable of high levels of tongue-gripping tannin. In hot places like the southern Rhône it grows supremely ripe, which means the resulting wines are really boozy. The tannins are big, the fruit is intense – sometimes jammy – and the spice is generally peppery and warm-hot.

Look to CDP or any of the other satellite appellations and this is basically what you will get. Gigondas, as I found out, is different. It has altitude (with some vineyards at an elevation of more than 500m), it has a north-west prospect, meaning it doesn’t get too bludgeoned by the Mediterranean sun, and it has Les Dentelles…

Les Dentelles de Montmirail, pictured above, is a limestone mountain range created by an almighty geological squall about 200 million years ago. Louis Barruol explained how this eruption along the Nimes fault split a ‘mille-feuille’ of different rock layers and sent them soaring skyward, creating the jagged ridges of the dentelle peaks and several geologically distinct terraces along its rupture line.

The village of Gigondas and its 200 or so winegrowers live at varying points on this extreme elevation. Those towards the top – above 400m – benefit from the most favourable weather conditions (relative coolness, plus protection from the Mistral wind by the almost vertical wall of rock) and the much-prized clay-limestone soils.

The result is wines with a richness-yet-freshness that is really remarkable – and which is something that is nigh-on impossible for the other appellations down on the plateau (CDP, Vacqueras, etc) to achieve.

Wine can be paradoxical

It’s a big word but I think it’s appropriate. Wine can be paradoxical: dense yet fresh, rich yet delicate, hot (as in ‘spicy’) yet cool. It’s in such connections that I now think about Gigondas. If you’re after really good, full-bodied red wine, stuff that embodies these paradoxes and won’t make you fall into a heavy, wine-induced torpor, Gigondas might be your man.

There are a few I picked out at the tasting as being particularly luscious and fresh. Note that 2010 was the best recent vintage (though apparently 2014 was very good, too), so if you find these wines in 2010 vintage, snap ’em up.

Gabriel Meffre Domaine de Longue Toque 2010

One of the leading wineries in the southern Rhône. This 50/50 grenache/syrah blend combined elegant dark fruit flavour and a memorable freshness.

Domaine La Bouissière Tradition 2012

The vineyard is at an elevation of 350m in the Dentelles de Montmirail. The Tradition 2012 is a 70/30 grenache/syrah blend with a remarkable subtlety and lingering freshness. They also do a special cuvée, Font de Tonin, which is gorgeous.

Pierre Amadieu Gigondas Le Pas de L’Aigle 2010

The Pierre Amadieu estate is the biggest privately-owned vineyard in Gigondas. It’s located high up on the Dentelles, with an average elevation of 400m. The Pas de L’Aigle is 85/15 grenache/syrah. It marries spiciness with fruity freshness. The tannins are lovely and grippy, and the overall structure is spot-on.

Famille Perrin Domaine du Clos des Tourelles 2010

The Perrin family is more associated with Châteauneuf du Pape and is one of the leading organic producers in the region. Here it has made a really elegant grenache/syrah blend from sandy soil, with purity of fruit and good length.

Domaine de Font-Sane Terrasses des Dentelles 2011.

A domaine that started out in 1860, composed of five different terroirs. This cuvée is a heady blend of (mainly) grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Pleasing prickly tannin, rich fruit and sustained freshness. A good ‘un.

*Monsieur Barruol was so exercised on this point that he promised to send a certain document to every person at the tasting that would, he said, put this argument to bed. If I receive that document, I will definitely be posting on it.

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