Gigondas – discover a village in France

An insider's view of France by Nick Sweet

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A storm over Sablet, Dentelles wine region, France

A storm over Sablet, Dentelles wine region, France [©Nick Sweet]

Rainbow over Gigondas, Dentelles wine region, France


When I drive along the D7, past Beaumes-de-Venise and Vacqueyras and then approach the turning for Gigondas, it’s as if I’ve never been away. I must have spent time here in another life, as I seem to spontaneously know where to go. Once I've turned off the main road I always get goose bumps, as if I'm returning home.

I just can't wait to park the car and to stroll through Gigondas' narrow streets, which have changed a lot in the thirty years that I've been visiting the area. Then it was a sleepy village, which only came alive at harvest time, and many of the houses seemed to be in ruins. Now most are inhabited, there are of course two or three vineyards that have cellars offering their wines, and as well as the café, there is now a restaurant, various shops and even an estate agent. The cave des vignerons is well worth a visit, as you can taste wines from many of the best estates, and buy them at very reasonable prices.

If you take the time to walk up to the top of the village, towards the church, there is a splendid view as well as a semi permanent exhibition of often interesting sculptures in the the mediaeval castle and from there you can carry on straight away up into the vineyards.

Gigondas, which has some 650 inhabitants, nestles in the lees of the Dentelles de Montmirail, with it's spiky peaks, chiseled by the erosion of the sea some 200 million years ago. They are the first outpost of the Alps. I am always keen to climb the slopes, past vineyards (some of which can't get a lot of sunlight) to soak up this marvellous atmosphere, and into the comparative freshness of the Dentelles, to be astonished, yet again, by the splendid view, perhaps to see the eagles soaring overhead, collect wild thyme and rosemary and watch the rock climbers from the safety of hard ground.

Gigondas was already well known in Roman times, when centurions first planted vines, and it was known as Jucunditas, which means joy or pleasure, no doubt as many a commentator has since said, as a result of drinking the heady local wine.

When the popes came to Avignon, the bishops of Orange retired to the abbey at Saint André, where the principle crops were vines and olives. The Princes of Orange also used the area as a hunting lodge, and it belonged to them until 1731 when Orange became a part of France. 

Up until the second world war, Gigondas was often used as a booster for Burgundy; older villagers still remembers the tankers coming to collect the wine. As the Burgundians needed more alcohol to beef up their weaker vintages, Grenache was a perfect solution, as it gives large crops with plenty of alcohol, and was one of the main reasons it was so widely planted. Gigondas was one of the first group of Côtes du Rhône villages in 1953, and gained it's own appellation in 1971 thanks to the diligence and search for excellence by certain vignerons, which has continued since. For example when in the 1970's when they decided to augment the percentage minimum of Grenache to 80% to guard the character of the wine.

The Domaine des Pallieres was already domaine bottling in the 1890's,and indeed they made splendid wines up to the late 1970's. The estate is now owned by the Brunier brothers of Vieux Télégraphe in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which augurs well, but I have not had the opportunity to taste it lately.

Vines and olives continued to be grown up to 1956 when the terrible winter (for a period temperatures were as low as -17), killed off many olive trees and from then on grape growing became the principal activity in the village.

The terroir, largely red clay, is ideal for Grenache,  that workhouse of a grape which is well known around the Mediterranean for it's heady alcoholic wine, yet can be stunning when based on low yields, and carefully vinified.

A maximum of 80% Grenache, with a minimum of 15% of Syrah and Mourvedre are allowed and Cinsault is also frequently used.  Confusingly, these are percentages applied to the vineyards, not the finished wine, so a Gigondas can have less than 80% Grenache, although it is in practice the predominant grape in the final wine. There are over 2800 hours of sun per year, which together with the drying effects of the 'Mistral' wind, yields firm ripe grapes, with rarely problems from rot.

For me a good Gigondas has a firm base of ripe fruit, almost an explosion of red fruits, reminiscent of the raisins in a home made fruit cake, typified by older wines, with almost a chocolaty touch, backed up by black cherry and pepper. If some Mourvedre is used there can be a touch of licorice. There is almost a rustic touch when young, which softens, and the wines are often at their best around 5-8 years old, when they still have their force. Many will live longer if well cellared. The 2005's, as often in the south, are looking very good, and you should keep a look out for them. I have tasted a few 2006's from cask, and they are also looking good, albeit there is less explosive fruit than in the 2005's. For me a more classic vintage which will need time to come round to yield it's full expression.

A few of my  favourite domaines are, in no particular order, but with a common objective in the search for quality:

Domaine Saint Gayan, has a very high proportion of old vines, and is excellent value- their Rasteau is also a tremendous bargain. The Meffre family have been in the area since the 15th century and I have been drinking their wines since the early 1980's. If their was a slight downturn in quality in the early 1990's when Jean-Pierre Meffre took over the reigns from his father Roger, he has now found his mark and produces a stunning selection of wines from the 'simple' Cotes du Rhone to the bench mark Gigondas, which is sold after more aging than is normal. For example as I write, he is selling the 2003, when most other estates are on to the 2005. His wines are typical, slightly old fashioned Gigondas, and all the better for it.

Domaine des Espiers,  was created at the end of the 1980's by Philippe Cartoux, on the trace of an estate owned by his grandparents. He has some 3 hectares of Gigondas, and has up to 30% Syrah in the blend. Low yields, a high density of vines per hectare, natural farming with no chemical weed killers.

The wines are raised in oak barrels, and are bottled unfiltered. This gives solid wines, with a strong tannic backbone, but plenty of red fruits and spices,  as well as finesse but they do need time to express themselves fully. His “Cuvée des Blaches” is from a single parcel of vines, and so does not fall in to the trap of some special cuvées of weakening the main wine. I have recently tasted a bottle of 1999, which has matured superbly, with rich, ripe fruit, but marked also by the Syrah. It is perhaps in a more modern style, but shows off well its terroir. A great food wine, particularly with game, or perhaps the wild boar that Philippe Cartoux was hunting the last time I spoke to him.

Domaine Santa Duc, created in 1874, this Domaine has passed from father to son and is now in the very capable hands of Yves Gras, the fourth generation. This is a key estate, with meticulous work in the vineyards, and careful vinification. The classic Gigondas Tradition  has 75% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre and 5% Cinsault.  It combines power and elegance and is one of the very best wines of the appellation. It is made from eight different parcels in Gigondas, which allows for a good consistency whatever the vintage.

There is also another cuvée “Hautes Garrigues”, which comes from  some very old Grenache vines, and spends two years in small oak. Whilst it is a very good wine, for me it is less typical of Gigondas than the Tradition. If you can find these wines, don't hesitate.

Other good estates are Chateau St Cosme, where Louis Barruol makes some intense wines, and has an excellent reputation, but I have unfortunately not had the opportunity to taste them often enough to venture a personal opinion.

I also like the wines of Domaine de Cayron, although I have never been able to arrange a rendezvous with them, but I have always liked their wines, and their refusal to compromise, however I do find that now the daughters are taking over, there does seem to be a lightening of style. I understand that they replanted many vines, which may well also have had an effect.

Veronique Peysson at Domaine Font-Sane is also a very good wine maker, proving that old cliché that a woman can make a more feminine style of wine, although it can be disappointing in difficult vintages, and I'm not keen on the oaked cuvée.

If you are in need of nourishment, the restaurant l'Oustalet, on the main square which is run by two enthusiastic young men in conjunction with the négociant Gabriel Meffre, who are serious, and they have a sound, if limited wine list. One winter's evening I  had a delightfully cooked pigeon, in it's own juices with an embeurée de choux, a  rustic dish which went perfectly with the pigeon. A bottle of 1999 Gigondas (of course) from Clos de Joncuas, an organic vineyard whose wines I find often lacking in stuffing, was in this case a perfect accompaniment after a long day.

If you wish to stay in Gigondas, then Hotel Les Florets is the ideal place. You take take the road on the left as you approach the village, and  you arrive in a haven of peace and calm, with views to the Dentelles, and the vineyards. It is very peaceful, in summer you eat on the terrace, and in winter there is often a blazing log fire. The welcome is warm, the food delicious, particularly local lamb and cheese and a good selection of game in winter.

Enjoy your stay in Gigondas!

By Nick Sweet ©

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