Blessed or cursed?
Having Châteauneuf-du-Pape as your famous neighbour may focus the world’s attention on your little patch of the world’s vast vineyard area, but it inevitably means you are destined to play only a supporting role, never the lead. Gigondas – for all that it produces some of the southern Rhône Valley’s best and most profound wines – may forever be labelled “the poor man’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” a back-handed compliment that for its producers, must have worn thread-bare thin.
Gigondas’ soils are mostly limestone and clay, spread around the the lower slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a distinctive mountain range of steep, jagged and rocky peaks. Many vineyards are planted on terraces at up to 600 metres altitude. Similar grapes to Châteauneuf-du-Pape are grown here, principally Grenache, usually supplemented by some Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault in these generally blended wines. In fact, any of the varieties approved for the production of Côtes-du-Rhône can be used in Gigondas, except Carignan. Some rosé is also produced.
The name Gigondas is thought to come from the Roman word ‘Jocunditas’, meaning pleasure or enjoyment. It is believed the town of Gigondas was party central for soldiers from the Roman Second Legion, who may well have planted the first vineyards too. Certainly, records of wine production go back centuries, though until gaining its own AOC status in the 1970s Gigondas was designated as just one of the many Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. I recently had the chance to gather together three top examples of Gigondas. Though often cited as a ‘powerful’ wine, or a ‘robust’ wine, all three of these examples had fine balance and a delightful freshness and agility, certainly not rustic or heavy. It seems that whilst the world’s eyes were focused just a few miles away towards Châteauneuf-du-Pape, quality producers in Gigondas have been upping their game and finding real refinement in this distinctive terroir.
Pierre Amadieu, Domaine Grand Romain Gigondas 2010, France
This comes from a parcel of 50-year-old vines planted at more than 400 metres above sea level, and it was aged in all new oak barrels. It has a terrifically intense, glossy but tight nose, the sheer physicality of the wine tightly-furled and muscular, with some cedar and graphite and a core of savoury, liquorice-touched black fruit. There are gamy, earthy notes in the background and on the palate, although there is abundant sweetness of fruit, it is grippy concentration, that liquorice intensity, that drives this for now. Yes, the oak is prominent, it is slick and commanding, and it has 14.5% alcohol, but what prevents it from being over-bearing is the edge of clarity from mineral/steely acidity and the freshness of the fruit character. Superb stuff that they suggest will cellar for at least 10 years. 92-93/100. £23.30, L’Art du Vin, see all stockists on wine-searcher.
Domaine Brusset, Gigondas Tradition le Grand Montmirail 2012, France
Mostly Grenache, with 10% each of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault, only 30% of this was aged in oak, in old, large 600-litre barrels, and it was fermented with ambient yeasts. It has a herb-touched, cherry freshness on the nose, a similar alert and mineral tone to the bigger Les Hauts de Montmirail below, but perhaps without quite the layered complexity. On the palate it is softer and more forward, a really explosive juiciness to this, mouth-watering and fresh, the softer tannin structure and just a mellowing coating of smooth oak character giving a fresh but lively finish. A lovely wine to drink now whilst big brother matures. 91/100. £19.95, Great Western Wine, see all stockists on wine-searcher.
Domaine Brusset, Gigondas Les Hauts de Montmirail 2012, France
This special cuvée from Domaine Brusset is composed of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 20% Mourvèdre. Fermented with only wild yeasts once more, this time around 70% of the blend is aged in small barrels. It has a delightful nose, with the wisp of fresh-cracked stones, pepper and something leafy like soft dill herbs, the black olive and sinewy dark berries filling in behind. On the palate a wine that has obvious concentration and chewy, serious credentials for long ageing, but where the sweetness of the fruit, ripe tannins and supporting smoky oak are all there to add some plushness and make it highly drinkable already. And that olive-like, herbal touch is so fresh and appealing into a long, powerful finish. 93-94/100. £28.75, AG Wines, see all stockists on wine-searcher.