While I’ve been to Paris more times than I can remember, I’ve only been a wine tourist in France once. It was a little over a year ago that my wife and I toured the country spending roughly a week each in Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire and the Rhône Valley. It involved a huge amount of driving, not just between regions but within each, but it was crucial in terms of converting names in a book or on a map to memorize into experiences to recollect. We had the pleasure of joining a group tour of the E. Guigal facilities, and while it was certainly one of the largest producers we encountered on our trip, this bottle of E. Guigal Lieu Dit Saint-Joseph 2005 reminds me of their charming hospitality.
Geographically if Burgundy is a north-south line in the northeast of France, the Rhône Valley is a contiuation of that line, just further south, headed toward the Mediterranean, and it’s broken into two distinct parts, north and south, with the area and appellations of Die often forgotten but marking roughly the middle. The northern Rhône is characterized by steep hillsides, often cut into narrow terraces, overlooking the eponymous river, with plantings largely on the western side of the river (with the exception of Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage). The hills largely consist of decomposed granite which needs to be replenished as erosion pushes soil down the slopes. Vines are individually staked, though not so much as protection from erosion as defence against the Mistral, a strong wind that runs through the valley. The stakes and steepness of the slopes preclude most mechanization, so viticulture is manual labour intensive.
The climate of the northern Rhône is sometimes misunderstood, partly due to having an appellation called Côte Rôtie, which can be translated as roasted slope in English and conjures images of vines in sweltering heat. In truth, Côte Rôtie is named for the abundance of sunlight hours it gets due to its favourable aspect, but the region as a whole has a continental climate and is heavily influenced by both the chilling Mistral and fog rising from the river, such that ripening can be a challenge. As a result, natural amphitheatre sun traps are highly prized, and throughout the region vines are planted at aspects to soak up as much sunlight as possible.
The northern Rhône as a whole is responsible for only 5% of total Rhône wine production, but it tends to command higher prices than its southerly neighbour. It also has more of a focus on varietal wines, with Syrah being the only permitted red grape in AOC wines, though some appellations allow Marsanne, Roussanne and/or Viognier as minor components. White wines of the northern Rhône, which make up only 10% of production, are either varietal wines of those three grapes, or blends of Marsanne and Rousanne, which can also be made into sparkling wine in the appellation of Saint-Péray. (If anyone knows where I can get a bottle of sparkling Saint-Péray in Australia, please let me know.)
Saint-Joseph is roughly in the middle of the northern Rhône, stretching from the south of Condrieu to the north of Cornas, with Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage to the east. The climate is largely continental, though there is some Mediterranean influence in the southern part of the region. Vineyards are planted on terraces on the slopes down to the river, though has been some expansion into the plateau areas to the west.
Syrah is the main grape, and most red wine produced is varietal. As this is the third varietal Syrah in this blog, so I won’t go into the grape itself, but I did discuss it somewhat when I wrote about the Pangea Syrah. Up to 10% Roussanne and Marsanne are permitted in the red blend, though in practice most of those grapes are used in still white wines. It is the second largest northern Rhône appellation in terms of plantings and production, and is known for relatively easy drinking wines that can be appreciated young. Much of this is down to the aspect of most of the region, which gets less overall sunlight than other areas of the northern Rhône as the shadow falls earlier on the eastern slopes.
E. Guigal is a producer so famous it has its own entry in the OCW. Established in 1946, it is a staple of fans of the Rhône, and to a large extent it was Marcel Guigal, son of founder Étienne, who pushed renewed international appreciation for wines of the Rhône in the 1980s. The family run company produces wines from the vast majority of Rhône appellations, across a range of price points, but it was their single vineyard flagship Côte-Rôtie wines of La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque (known as the “La La’s”) that drew the attention of Robert Parker and his audience.
There are volumes written about E. Guigal if you wish to have a read, but I’d rather tell you about my experience in Ampuis. My wife phoned up to arrange a tour and we were given the time for an English language group. Our host was a very knowledgeable young man who led a dozen of us throughout their whole operation, from the ultra-modern warehouse full of huge stainless steel tanks and fermenters, down through the barrel cellars which looked as though they hadn’t changed in decades. Finally at the end of the tour there were a selection of wines to taste, including La Turque, which was amazing.
One thing that was unique in my experience was that at no point were wines available to purchase. I can totally understand why. Visitors in our group were all foreign, and it’s a bit of a pain to transport wine internationally while on holiday, and believe me I write that from experience. Also E. Guigal has among the best international distribution in the industry, so every person on the tour could buy their wines at their local wine merchant. It was nice – it made the experience all about the wines and not at all about commerce. Obviously not something I would recommend other wineries emulate, but perfect for E. Guigal.
Finally, this wine. As I mentioned, it’s a varietal Syrah, grown on sloped vineyards of granitic gneiss, and matured in 50% new oak and 50% second use barrels.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with medium plus garnet colour and quick legs. On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium plus intensity and notes of sweet spice, luscious, ripe, red berries, a little liquorice, and some red meat. On the palate it’s dry, with medium acidity, medium plus fine delicious tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium body, and medium plus length. The palate matches the nose closely, with notes of chocolate, red berries, liquorice, red meat and blood, with a chocolate finish.
This is an excellent wine. It has a seriously ripe nose followed by a rich palate. I know I said that wines of Saint-Joseph are often best consumed young, but while this wine is very fresh at seven years, it has a great deal of room to grow. The developed flavours are just starting to show themselves, and I’m glad I have another bottle ticking over in the cellar. I’ll have to set a reminder to give it another look in five years.