By Sunny Brown
Category: Winery of the Month
To get to the drive for Chateau Gigognan one must pass through the Z.I. (industrial zone), and the difference could not be more striking. You must pass through broken auto yards, factories and a facility whose sole purpose could only be described as “making rocks.” But then you venture over a hill and down a tree-lined lane and are presented with rows and rows of vines. Past the vines and set on a corner of fields lays the bucolic setting that frames Chateau Gigognan. Flowers adorn the old stone walls, trees sway in the breeze. Twisted old vines sit and nurture their bounty as they have done for decades. It is a picture of wine perfection surrounded by the hustle and bustle of city life, and it describes Châteauneuf-du-Pape more and more with each passing vintage.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a region in flux. Wine has been produced here for over a thousand years, yet they were sold simply as Vin d’Avignon until the 1800s. It was the first region in France to place laws upon the production of wine in regards to crop size, grapes produced and level of alcohol in an effort to ensure the quality of the wines produced there, yet just fifty years ago the wines were barely popular even in France. Today the wines are high in prestige, sales and critical acclaim, yet how many wine geeks can name the primary grape variety- Grenache?
Chateau Gigognan falls feet first into this dichotomy. The Chateau belonged to the Jesuit community and is built atop the foundation of a centuries-old monastery, yet has received an entirely modern face-lift that any architect could appreciate. Some of the vineyards are over one hundred years old, yet the vines are given every modern convenience in a hands-on organic and biodynamic way. The cellars are carved from old stone, but the grapes are carried there via gravity under strict temperature control both before and after fermentation.
In a word, the place is smooth. The facilities are immaculate, from the spotless stainless steel tanks to the temperature controlled concrete vats. The tasting room is a snapshot of French wine aristocracy- Not too big, but big enough. Not gaudy, but just about as nice as it can be without looking like it is trying too hard. Our tour guide Brigitte was very engaging in her descriptions of the winery, the different vineyards and even the affect that the different vintages have on production and other aspects. In fact our conversations ranged from French wine laws to world wine trends to even serving wine.
So, one would expect that a place like this that is so clean, so professional and so polished would have had decades to perfect their suave delivery right? Wrong. Chateau Gigognan has been under the control of the Callet family since 1996, just a second or so in the wine world. Thus is the nature of the changing world in the Rhône Valley.
The days of old world ways of throwing every grape variety you can find into the vat and then fermenting them fast and hot are gone. The days of getting one bad bottle for every two good bottles of Rhône wine are gone. The days of wines that taste like dirt instead of terroir are gone. Alas, so too are the days of finding a great bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape for under $20.
Here are the days of wineries such as Chateau Gigognan, where everything is ultra-clean and studded with modern technology. High percentages of Carignan and Terret Noir have been replaced with high percentages of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. High yields of grapes and the use of pesticides in the vineyards have been replaced with low yields and organic farming.
It is necessary to do all of these things to keep up, as the popularity of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the Rhône Valley as a whole has gone through the roof. Sales are up. Chateauneuf-du-Pape has become a household name to wine lovers across the world. Much of this success can be attributed to the increase in popularity of the Rhône varietals, namely Syrah and Grenache. The rest of the credit goes to the modernization and overall improvement of the wines from the Rhône.
This describes Chateau Gigognan to a tee. In addition to Chateauneuf-du-Pape they also produce excellent Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages. They place special emphasis on each individual vineyard and the specific grape varieties grown there. To that end they produce several single-vineyard bottlings, from Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Village vines as well as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The soils range from sand and limestone for the Côtes du Rhône to the rocky soil studded with galets so common in Chateauneuf for the top wines.
With all of these modern practices, one would expect the wines to taste homogenized and new world right? Wrong again. They are an amalgamation of new world and old, and combine the best of both worlds. They hail from single vineyards. Each grape variety is picked and sorted by hand before being vinified separately. Decidedly new world techniques to be sure. Yet they speak of terroir and of the soil, and are truly earthy, spicy, gamey and Rhône-y. Ok, so I made that last word up, but it certainly describes their wines. They are from this region, and from this earth, and there is no way in the wide world of wine that they could be confused with wines of another ilk.
The wines were outstanding and ridiculously fresh in taste and feel. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc was awash with fresh pear and spice notes, along with candied apricots and a long almond cream finish. The 2003 Côtes du Rhône-Villages red almost looked light in the glass. Boy was I in for a surprise. This wine was so steeped in earth, and terroir, and garrigue that I thought it to be slightly corked at first, but as it opened and the fruit and spices began to sing I knew that it was merely my palate that needed adjustment, not the cork. We finished with the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Cardinalice, a wine produced from the estate’s oldest vines. This was a study in fine Chateauneuf, a wine that was as fresh and fruity as it was earthy and intense, a wine that was as young as it was old, a wine that was as old world as it was new. It was both, and yet neither.
This is the direction that I see for the great ones in the Rhône. They will be affected by new world techniques and international trends, but the best will also retain the tradition and unique quality of the region that has become so famous. International flair and modern winemaking techniques will soon become as familiar as the rocky soils in the vineyards. What will it take to survive in such a competitive environment? Creativity, commitment, tradition and polish- Traits that can all be found in abundance at Chateau Gigognan.