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Featured Wine Region: Gigondas


Anyone who pays more than a passing attention to my wine postings will know that I can’t get enough of Gigondas. Which is just as well, because I bought a lot of the stuff when I first got into wine. In fact, one of the boxes I recently reclaimed from storage was packed solid with wines from Gigondas, allowing me to open four different bottles over the holiday season.

gigondas.jpgThe vineyards underneath the imposing Dentelles de Montmirail. Don’t you get thirsty just looking at it?

Until 1971, when it was awarded its own Appellation, Gigondas was one of what was then 18 Côtes du Rhône Villages allowed to append its name to that label. Though Vacqueryas (in 1989), and Vinsobres and Beaumes-de-Venise (in 2005) have also been subsequently promoted to individual Appellations, I don’t tend to associate Gigondas with those Villages. But nor do I subscribe to the theory that it’s a “baby” Châteauneuf du Pape. Rather I look on the wine of this ancient sleepy village, which sits at the foot of the imposing Dentelles de Montmirail on the eastern ridge of Provence, as very much its own animal. And I use that term deliberately, for the wines of Gigondas are wild, savage, muscular, indeed often hard to tame – and equally difficult to forget. Bottled in balance, they’re a thrilling mixture of Provencal herbs, minerals, deep dark black fruit, earth, leather, gingerbread, spice, maybe some licorice, some tar, some mushroom, some cassis… and yet, given plenty years to settle down, they can become remarkably smooth and sophisticated.

I was fortunate to visit Gigondas in 1999, briefly stopping in at Domaine Les Gouberts on the same morning we hit up wineries in Rasteau, Cairanne and Beaumes-de-Venise and still made it to Avignon in time for lunch! On that trip, I found that the wines of Gigondas were that much cheaper than Châteauneuf du Pape but offered something equally distinctive in character – and decided to try and hoard a few from each vintage. I’ve slackened off buying of late, but that’s fine: I have plenty from 98-01 left to drink.

This map of the Southern Rhone shows Gigondas as its own Appellation; since being published, Vinsobres and Beaumes-de-Venise have also been awarded their own Appellations – they should now be considered red.

The wines of Gigondas are dominated by Grenache with the usual suspects (Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault) in supporting roles. As much as the make-up of the blend makes for interesting discussion, it’s the vineyards themselves that really tell the tale of this wine. Many of them are planted on terraces cut into the steep slopes of the Dentelles, where they have to dig deep through limestone and clay – and even rock – to reach their water supply, picking up the minerality of these sedimentary layers along the way. Slowly cooking at high altitude in the midday Provencal sun, but cooled by the powerful Mistral wines – indeed, being a cooler micro-climate, Gigondas grapes are picked a solid two weeks later than in Châteauneuf du Pape – these old vines deliver incredibly intense flavors. Historically, the vignerons of Gigondas have aged the wines predominantly in vast old cement vats, but more and more, with an eye to the international market, they’re aging at least some of the wine in oak. The high alcohol content and occasional raisin-like flavors do demand a little bit of subduing such as oak can offer, but it needs to be kept in check: the full-frontal ferocious assault of a Gigondas is very much part of its attraction.

gigondamap.jpg This cutaway of the Village of Gigondas and its surrounding hills, dales and various soils helps explain why the wines are so intense.

As to when to drink these wines, that’s a matter of opinion. Tasted young, they can be full of fruit, but so equally filled with tannin that it can be a pretty abrupt sensation to the unitiated. Conventional wisdom says that most Gigondas benefit from short-term cellaring, and then have a solid five-year drinking window – meaning they’re optimum at 5-10 years after vintage date. But based on what I’ve been consuming of late – for the most part, wines from 1995 through 1999 – I’d be more likely to open that up into a 15 year cut-off date for any of the good producers. And of those, I am pleased to say, there is no shortage. Gigondas may not be the most fashionable wine in the world, but the consistency of quality in the wines that get exported, its relatively sane pricing, and its unique intensity makes it one of the safest bets out there for warming oneself up on a cold winter’s night.

And with that, here goes with yet another set of notes, and some from the wine-notes cellar, too:

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I’d bought a case of the Domaine Brusset Gigondas le Grand Montmirail 1998 back on release; it’s never proven a blockbuster wine but as I’ve opened around one a year for the last few years nor has it ever disappointed. Based on the last two bottles opened (on at Thanksgiving and another at Christmas), it seems to have come into its own right now. There’s still a modest amount of sweet, deep dark fruit on the palate, with those herbal-mineral notes peeking round the corners, and a touch of cinnamon that I don’t always find in my Gigondas, but any rough edges have vanished, the hefty oak appears to have been integrated, and all in all it’s quite understated – especially considering the fuss initially made about the massive vintage. A warm and cozy and relatively straightforward Gigondas unlikely to scare anyone out of their comfort zone.

img_5886.jpg Bottles from Gigondas are usually embossed with the Village crest, like those of neighboring Châteauneuf du Pape.

By contrast, and surprisingly so given that I’ve always assumed it to be a more forward vintage, the two 1999s I recently opened were more classically savage. The Chateau du Trignon Gigondas 1999 was a clear crimson garnet with only a slight brick, a gingery leathery nose, and considerable spice, all with underlying herbal notes. Smelled less like an eight year old than a screaming, poopy baby. Still, there was a silky attack with an almost milk-like quality, as good aged Gigondas tends to provide, which then opened up into a rich mouthfeel, offering lingering tannins and leading into a long, lasting vibrant and somewhat hefty finish. As it opened up, it continued to deliver that full-bodied, spicy, winter-warming Gigondas feeling. After a couple of glasses I felt like I’d been wrestling a bear in the woods. This is what Gigondas is famous for. Wonderful stuff.

And yet in comparison to the Domaine du Cayron, Gigondas, 1999, it was a mere kitten. I’d already pulled the cork on this one by the time I checked through my notes and saw that wine-maker Michel Ferraud recommends waiting ten or fifteen years to open his wines (made without fining or filtration, he leaves them to settle two-three years in old wooden foudres); I probably won’t make that mistake again. There was a truly “Sparkly” nose of bright red fruit jumping out of the bottle – I wonder if some of that liveliness was the Cinsault that shows up here in higher proportions than elsewhere, or whether it was just the nature of the Grenache? – and a pronounced density of texture apparent even in the aroma, screaming that it was lively and wild but suggesting that it wouldn’t beat you up if you let it out the bottle. And so, I took a sip, but what do you know – the acidity was so damn pronounced that I swiftly decanted, and left it alone for a couple of hours. Returning to it after another bottle of red, the alarming acidity was still there (can’t help but feel that something was at fault here), almost threatening to throw the whole experience out of whack, but the embracing “warmth” of the wine – a good Gigondas, for all its wild and rustic manners, can also work like a perfect winter overcoat – put it into perspective. The strident meatiness and licorice qualities were well matched by a complex mushrooms and eggplant dish made by my wife. A lovely big fat wine but for that acidity, and if not the best (because of that acidity), surely the biggest ‘99 I’ve yet tasted from the southern Rhône – Châteauneuf du Pape included.

It’s interesting that I keep opening these 99s thinking they’ll have settled down so much. Looking back at past iJamming! notes, I see that a couple of years ago, in that mid-December period when Gigondas just demands to be drunk, I decided, “Goddamn it, this bottle has been sitting here too long” and opened up a Domaine Montirius Gigondas 1999. I felt like Christmas had come early. Still very dark, the nose initially gave off spicy raisins but gradually opened up into your typically broad-shouldered Gigondas. Dusty tannins gave way to a chewy mouth full of dark fruit (I couldn’t help thinking of a plum pie), all leading to a cockle-warming, seriously heartening, lengthy lengthy finish. 1999 is considered a forward vintage but this Gigondas still had years to go. And while these hefty, rustic, chewy, soupy wines are notably not to everyone’s taste, this was my idea of heaven. Frustratingly, I went to the city the next day for a couple of days and my wife forgot all about the wine; it brought the two glasses I’d had that Tuesday night up to restaurant price. But it was worth it for the reminder of how damn good a wine can taste after a few years left to evolve. Montirius is all organic and goes into great detail about the wine’s precise make-up on its back label. You can just remember it by the name.

img_6153.jpgThe 1999s that I’ve opened over the last couple of years have all been typically full-blooded, robust winter warmers – like this Chateau du Trignon, which labels its Gigondas under the old-fashioned term, as a Grand Vin des Côtes du Rhône.

Moving back into the present day, I picked up the Pierre Amadeu, Gigondas Romane Machotte 2003 a couple of years ago at Uva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a very good boutique store that I see has recently moved to a larger location. The wine has been around the house all this time, intended for early drinking, but for some reason I’ve been continually scared to open it; even though I love Gigondas, the combination of high alcohol (14%) and the heatwave of that vintage kept pointing me towards less obviously abrasive alternatives. And yet this Grenache-Syrah combination, unfiltered, product of a 30-day cuvaison and 15 months upbringing in oak casks and two year old barrels, turned out to be quite harmless, especially given the environment in which it was opened – late in the day at a holiday party. Sure it was strong, perhaps even fiery, and it had all the gaminess and leathery herbal notes I’d expect from a Gigondas, and perhaps it didn’t have quite such copious fruit as it might have had from a less sun-baked summer, but it was much smoother than I expected, and bodes well for the few other wines I bought from this vintage.

Vacqueryas-based Domaine de Montvac, whose proprieter Mme Cécile Dusserre I had the chance to talk with at an industry tasting last summer (read more here), owns just enough hectares in Gigondas to fashion one wine; current release is the Domaine de Montvac Gigondas 2003. It’s 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 10% Mourvèdre, from steep hillside terraces on the Dentelles, set on southwest facing banks, with iron clay soils; the Syrah is grown up top, the Grenache and the Mourvèdre in the “sheltered dales.” These conditions plus low yields and oak ageing all ensure a concentrated wine; throw in the heat of the 2003 vintage and it’s no surprise that this was particularly powerful on the palate, the full-throttled Grenache fruit attack bordering on “harsh,” though there was some evident body and structure from the other grapes. Tannins seemed well balanced for the vintage, and I’d love to come back to this around the end of the decade (or even later), when it’s settled down more and hopefully entered a secondary phase. It should also be allowed that my tasting notes from an event like this, with so many wines to sample in such little time, are inherently generalized. The wine is priced to sell in the $25-$30 range, typical for a good Gigondas.

The Domaine de la Mavette Gigondas 1995 (opened in late 2005) offered an opportunity to taste a full decade after Vintage. 1995 was a particularly hot Rhône vintage, one in which the Châteauneuf du Pape are still slowly ageing; at the time of release, the Mavette received reviews wondering whether its powerful tannins would ever find balance with the fruit. I’d like to believe they did. The nose was potent, full of vibrant mineral flavors, while on the palate the body still felt remarkably full, with plenty of the leathery, gingery, spicy aspects aspects that mark an aged Grenache-dominated blend. The fiinish was long if a little lean but the balance was just fine – a good example of a Gigondas growing old gracefully.

Finally, and also opened in the winter of ’05-’06, the Domaine Les Gouberts Gigondas 1997 was an untamed Gigondas, and all the better for it. Les Gouberts is known for its uncompromising, traditional style, such that the original (and favorable) Wine Spectator review for this difficult 1997 vintage noted that it was “Tough and tannic, with a minerally, ironlike, drying finish… Just the stuff for wild boar steak or pheasant shot on your plantation.” (That, by the way, was intended as a compliment.) Upon uncorking on Christmas Eve, my wife took one sniff and said, “Hmmm, bloody.” It’s that type of wine. For my part, I noticed a slight brick around the edges of this deep ruby wine and a nose that immediately came alive with gingerbread, leather, mulled spices, game saddle and earth – a cornucopia of rusticity. The wine hit the palate with the dryness that is a signature (and occasional problem) of the Gouberts label, but it was big and hearty in all the right places and the evident mineral element soon became the wine’s biggest strength – it was like working one’s way through a medal table. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and a little Clairette all melded together for a soupy celebration that heralded the start of our Christmas season with vigor, vitality and just a hint of vinuous violence. God, but I love these wines.

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