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Gigondas: Emerging to the Limelight
By Jim Clarke
Nov 29, 2023
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Twenty years ago, when I began studying wine professionally, Gigondas’s status was hard to define.  As a budding sommelier you were expected to know it, which is more than I can say for younger appellations like Rasteau and Cairanne, which were both Côtes-du-Rhône Village level wines at the time.  Côtes-du-Rhône represented good value everyday wines; Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the southern Rhône’s premier wine, as it still is.  Gigondas, along with its neighbor Vacqueyras, often seemed lost in its shadow as cheaper alternatives, but not cheap enough to merit the everyday status many Côtes-du-Rhône wines did.

That’s changed.  While Châteauneuf still reigns, Gigondas has stepped out into the light as an appellation worth knowing in its own right.  The wines are still more affordable, but rather than waiting for drinkers looking for Châteauneuf-like wines at more manageable prices, the better examples of Gigondas are demostrating why wine drinkers should search them out for their own virtues.

In the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” the athletics coach Sam Mussabini chides his protégé Harold Abrahams for “overstriding” – extending each step forward just a few inches too far in the sprinter’s eagerness to win.  If Gigondas was guilty of the sin of overstriding in the past as it tried to keep up with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it has now settled into its own pace, one suited for expressing its identity in its own context.

That context includes a mix of soil types, exposures, and grape varieties.  The western side of Gigondas, closer to the Ouvèze River, is flatter, and the soils tend toward rock and sand; in the more mountainous north and eastern portions limestone dominates.  Elevations reach as high as 500 meters, creating grand south- and southeastern-facing slopes below the Grand Montmirail and Dentelles Sardennes mountains, and a multitude of exposures north from there.  While many wines include grapes from a mix of different parcels, there are enough wines from individual vineyards or areas to see these separate components in action.

In general, I found the higher elevation, limestone vineyards to yield more red-fruited, elegant wines, with darker-fruited, more savory wines coming from the flatter, western areas.  Grenache dominates these wines, and those with higher percentages of Syrah and especially Mourvedre also showed more savory qualities, even showing meaty notes with just a small amount – 5-10 percent - of the latter variety.  The garrigue, wild herb notes the appellation is so famous for showed itself fairly universally.  While these wines on the whole still have the high alcohols the area has always been known for, they carry it more lightly than in the past.

Here are some notes on Gigondas producers whose wines impressed me at a recent tasting in New York:

Domaine Raspail-Ay:  An iconic producer for the region, despite their small size.  They only make a single red wine, using the three most significant varieties of the AOC, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre.  The wines are fermented in concrete vats and then aged in large foudres.  The results are firm, structured wines showing a mix of red and dark fruit along with some spice and earth.  They age well.

Domaine La Bouïssière:  A small property, with all their vineyards at higher elevations – 300 to 500 meters – many of which are north-facing.  The wines, consequently, are fresh and elegant, with red fruits leading the way.  Tannins are quite fine.  The single vineyard “La Font de Tonin” typically shows more depth and savory tones.

Domaine Du Cayron:  Like Raspail-Ay, Domaine du Cayron produces a single red wine, ferments the grapes in concrete, and ages them in old foudres.  The property, which is about the same size as Raspail-Ay as well, is run by three sisters, the fifth generation of the family to do so.  The 2021 was dense, but elegant, with a good balance between fruit and spice.

Pierre Amadieu:  A larger property, with 137 hectares of high-altitude, mostly north and northwest facing vineyards.  They make several wines; the Romane-Machotte is relatively bright and fresh, while the "Le Pas de l’Aigle"’s old vines make for a more structured expression.  Both are mostly Grenache, with not more than one fifth of Syrah in the blend.  The Domaine Grand Romane includes 20% Mourvèdre, and even sees some new oak barrels; it was one of the darker fruit, richer, and spicier wines at the tasting.

Domaine du Terme:  Situated on the plateau that makes up the western side of the appellation, this small, family-owned producer makes two Gigondas, the “Tradition” and a Reserve wine.  Th former contains only Grenache and Syrah, while the more structure Reserve includes Mourvèdre and sees more time in foudres.  Both show a good balance between red and darker fruit and pleasant savory notes; the Reserve is more complex and needs time to open up.

Château de Saint Cosme:  The oldest estate in Gigondas, making a wide range of wines from within Gigondas as well as other parts of the Southern Rhône.  The regular Gigondas is savory, with a mix of fruits and good length.  It’s a blend incorporating Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault.  In contrast the single vineyard “Le Claux” is elegant and lifted, with earth and spice notes and a fine structure.

Maison Gabriel Meffre:  Founded in 1976, this is one of the region’s younger producers, growing their own grapes but also operating as a negoçiant.  The parcels they own and work with represent a mix of soil types, but most of the vineyards are north or northwest facing, so they get less of the intense southern sun.  The wines on the whole are deeper and richer than many, but still balanced.

Domaine Santa Duc:  Certified organic and biodynamic, Santa Duc has also begun working with terracotta amphoras in the cellar.  Many of their wines incorporate substantial portions of Mourvèdre, including the Les Hautes Garrigues, a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Mourvèdre.  Despite the dense texture and chewy tannins the latter brings to the wine it retains a great deal of finesse.

Rhonéa:  A large cooperative with almost 400 winegrower members across the southern Rhône, Rhonea nonetheless manages to produce high-quality wines that reflect the individual terroirs of the region.  The 2021 “Le Pas de Montmirail” Gigondas is aromatic and floral, and lively and energetic on the palate.  The “Les Pierres du Vallat” is darker and deeper in color and fruit, with a touch of meatiness and more structure.

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