The Grand game changer
The Guigal winery is in the village of Ampuis, Cote Rotie, north of Rhone.
The landscape is a lush green surrounded by forests, dotted with picturesque old buildings in small hamlets. It is an area rich in vineyards and Roman remains.
The climate here becomes milder as we leave the centre of France, but it’s still cold in comparison with Southern Rhone.
The area’s altitude is between 200 meters and 400 meters above sea level. Although this is not very high, the slopes of some of the most famous vineyards are extremely steep and that is what makes a big difference in terms of the quality of the wines. Not for nothing are they known as rotie, or ‘the roasting slopes’.
Wine has been produced in this area for over 2000 years, but the arrival of Etienne Guigal was a real game-changer.
He started working at a very young age in the early 1920s, when he picked apricots around the area to support his family during a very difficult period for France right after the First World War.
He quickly found a job as an apprentice at the Vidal-Fleury winery, where he stayed for nearly 20 years and eventually became the winemaker.
His breakthrough came in 1946 when he set up his own winery, again in the aftermath of a catastrophic world war. He had appreciated the potential of the appellation before anybody else.
Setting up his own winery was far from easy. He had to buy the grapes, continue to learn the art of wine-making and overcome the most difficult challenge of all – attempting to sell a relatively unknown appellation in a ruined economy.
Despite the long history of wines from Cote Rotie and northern Rhone, the fame of appellations such as Bordeaux and Burgundy overshadowed smaller less well-known appellations. There was actually a cru system operating in the area in the 19th century that recognised its exceptional quality, but over the years it had fallen by the wayside.
Etienne effortlessly began a non-stop promoting campaign for his wines and the appellation.
Without any Premier or Grand Cru classification, Etienne knew he could only rely on quality –
and this extreme focus on quality has been passed to his descendants. In less than a century, a great name and a commanding tradition were established for Guigal and Cote Rotie.
The Guigal winery has done much more than promote the wines of northern Rhone.
It also pioneered the selection of premium vineyards in Cote Rotie.
When Etienne fell ill in 1961, his son Marcel had to step in.
Despite his youth – he was only 21 – he turned out to be a visionary who was ideally suited to the job.
Guided by his father’s obsession with quality, he established premium labels starting with La Mouline in 1966.
Instead of the traditional approach of blending different parcels of land in Cote Rotie for a bigger production, Guigal focused on individual plots to produce trademark wines.
Adding La Landonne and La Turque, Guigal has established a trio of memorable wines that showed what true terroir means.
Another revolutionary innovation was the vinification of these premium wines in new French oak barriques for 42 months. But shifting the thinking of local wine-producers from quantity to quality is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, achievement of the Guigal winery.
The Guigal family’s focus on quality above all else led to two important decisions.
They harvest their grapes later than almost everyone else, looking for optimum ripeness and concentration of flavour. The same applies to the grapes they buy from the vignerons.
The delayed harvest means that the grapes risk getting damaged by early rains or a sudden cold snap, but this a gamble that Guigal has taken year after year – and usually won.
The family are also unusually patient with maturing times for all their wines, right through from the entry wines to the premium bottles. The aim is always to achieve the highest possible quality.
The passion of the Guigal family and their dedication to quality is plain to see as Marcel and his son Philippe travel throughout the Rhone Valley, seeking out the highest-quality grapes and wines with no expense spared to ensure exceptional appellations and labels.
When it comes to their own holdings, the recipe is as straightforward as it is demanding. It involves a low-yielding, late harvest of the grapes; organic practises with no herbicides or pesticides, and new French oak for the top Cuvees without any no fining or filtration.
All this is done with the same meticulous care that Etienne pioneered decades earlier.
The vision of the Guigal family that has been manifest over the past 70 years has proved to be both enduring and revolutionary. The family has gradually acquired new properties and established new labels. (The most important were the acquisition of Vidal-Fleury – where Etienne started his career – and Chateau d’Ampuis.) Apart from Cote-Rotie, the family now produces wine from acquired holdings or with grapes from long-term contracts in Condrieu, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St-Joseph, Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, the basic Cote du Rhone and Tavel.
Everywhere the family’s governing principle is the close monitoring and control of operations in order to produce nothing but high-quality products. They even established their own cooperage to produce all the barrels they need using a finely-balanced combination of old and new oak.
Philippe, the man in charge today, is shy and humble to meet in person – but he is also clear and uncompromising when it comes to safeguarding the methods and legacy that he inherited. He is the face of the Guigal wines as well as its chief enologist, and he is a man determined to achieve a quality corresponding to the history and value of each appellation.
His latest project is at Chateauneuf du Pape. With the recent acquisition of Chateau de Nalys, an historic estate with 77 hectares, he is intent on developing all 13 grape varieties of the appellation and is now busy monitoring each grape variety’s growth and performance in their individual terroir. It promises to be wine to really look forward to.
Producing nearly 8 million bottles a year, it is remarkable how Guigal’s wines continually manage to justify their prices from entry to premium level. It could almost be a Midas touch – only this Midas relies on hard, non-stop work, patience and meticulous attention to detail.