History written in Rhône

E. Guigal in the Rhône Valley has always been a pioneer – and there are more projects on the drawing board. Felicity Carter speaks to Philippe Guigal.

The restored Château d`Ampuis is now a French national monument, as well as Guigal`s headquarters
The restored Château d`Ampuis is now a French national monument, as well as Guigal`s headquarters

As Philippe Guigal leads the way to the cellars, he stops in front of a large mosaic hanging in the reception area. It’s made from an intact Roman floor, which he bought in the Middle East. 

Guigal loves history. There are antiquities everywhere at the headquarters. Hanging on the walls, mounted on plinths, and lining his office shelves. Even the walkway of the E. Guigal headquarters in the village of Ampuis is Roman in style. “In the Rhône Valley, we are surrounded by a lot of Roman remains,” he says. 

When the Romans made wine here, he says, they fermented it with honey and herbs. The way E. Guigal makes wine, on the other hand, has catapulted the company into the very top ranks of contemporary wineries.

Deep roots

At the northernmost end of the Rhône Valley, the hills become impossibly steep, with a gradient of 60 degrees or more. This is Côte-Rôtie, whose vineyards are planted on narrow schist terraces, where E. Guigal produces almost a third of the total amount of Côte-Rôtie, made from Syrah grapes with up to 20% Viognier. Famously, E. Guigal created three single-vineyard wines – La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque – in a region not known for them. “When the winery started La Mouline in 1966, it was a strange approach,” says Guigal, standing in the tasting area of the cellars, surrounded by historic barrels. “Nowadays, I can hardly name a vineyard in Côte-Rôtie that has no special cuvée.”

Guigal reaches for a bottle of the La Turque 2009, a wine with great depth and spicy complexity, yet with a mineral acidity. As he pours, he mentions that the French government has decreed that all AOC wines should be organic by 2030. “In the southern Rhône, it is something that can be achieved extremely quickly,” he says. “In the northern Rhône, it’s going to take a bit more time, a bit more labour. And it’s going to cost a real fortune.”

Money may not be a problem for E. Guigal, as the La Turque alone retails for more than $400.00 a bottle. That it exists at all is a sign of how forward thinking the company has been. The vineyard it comes from was abandoned in the 1930s, and though it stuttered in and out of production in the following years, it needed replanting when E. Guigal bought it in 1980, despite being prime land. Guigal says it was a symptom of the many disasters suffered by the region. First, of course, was Phylloxera. “When you have to replant vineyards you always replant the easiest part first. When it’s like this” – he indicates a steep slope with his hand – “it’s not that easy.”

Upstairs in his office, he recounts the history of the region. “In the first World War, we lost 50% of the men of this village, Ampuis. A disaster,” he says. As the women of the time didn’t work in vineyards, it meant there was nobody to plant or pick (Guigal is quick to add that now there’s a woman on the picking team). “Then came World War II.” His grandfather Etienne came back from the war and told his employer, Vidal-Fleury, that he was leaving. “World War Two was a very difficult time, and he’d been through it and so he said, ‘Now it’s time for me to do something for my family’.” Etienne Guigal founded Établissements Guigal in 1946. “It was crazy to start a business at that time,” Guigal says. “The French economy was completely down. From 1946 to the beginning of the 1970s, things were very slow.”

But Etienne had had a difficult life, and was used to hard work. “His Dad passed away when he was two weeks old. He was the youngest of a family of three, but his mother had absolutely no resources.” When the boy turned eight, Guigal says, his mother said, “You’re the fastest and you have an interesting mind. I don’t have enough money for three kids – you have to take care of yourself.”

Originally from Saint-Étienne, Etienne worked first as a labourer and then in the local factories. “My grandfather never spent a single hour at school,” Guigal says, yet he became a clear writer with an excellent head for figures. “He did less mistakes than me when he was writing. It’s a mystery.” At 14, Etienne began working for Vidal-Fleury, an important local family. He eventually became the vineyard manager, and then worked in the cellars, learning to make wine and developing Vidal-Fleury into one of the biggest and most prestigious wineries in the region. But he had few resources of his own, and had to start his new venture from scratch; by the time he died in 1988, it was producing 3m bottles a year.

Today, Guigal says, the winery in Ampuis runs over 3ha and the business owns 75ha of vineyards in the Northern Rhône and 53ha in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in Southern Rhône. “We buy a lot of grapes in Northern Rhône, especially Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage,” he says, adding that they buy from many regions in the south as well. 

Investing in the future

In 1995, Guigal bought Château d’Ampuis, a Renaissance château, and then had a team of 100 people spend more than a decade renovating it; it’s now a national monument as well as the estate headquarters.

Last year, E. Guigal also acquired Domaine de Nalys – now Château de Nalys – in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It came with 50ha of organic vineyards; 40ha are used for red grapes, with the other 10 reserved for Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. “It’s no secret that we were searching for something in Châteauneuf-du-Pape for many years, almost 20 years,” Guigal says. “When we had the opportunity to visit Nalys for the first time, we were absolutely amazed. The potential for quality is absolutely tremendous.”

Wine lovers can expect great things from Nalys because, despite a long and venerable history, it’s been somewhat neglected in recent years, reduced to making private label wine. Guigal says the underlying potential of the estate is enormous, but “there are many things to do, many changes to make in the vineyards and cellars”.

One thing that Guigal has not tended to invest in, on the other hand, is marketing and communications. “We’re technical people and we’ve done very little investment in the other side,” he says. “We’ve always been very shy.” This reluctance has extended to spending as little time on the road as possible. “I refuse to spend more than ten days outside the winery. I have a lot of admiration for winemakers that can spend six months a year outside the winery, but I cannot.” He says he does a maximum of three or four big trips a year but he’s found a way to make them work, thanks to the advice of his Japanese importers.

“They say, ‘We refuse to see you more than once every five years on the Japanese market’,” he explains. The reason is there are too many events in the big cities, so as far as the importers are concerned, “when a member of the Guigal family comes, it must be the most important event of the year. If I were listening to my American importers, I would live there. I said, ‘OK, the US is my first export market, but it’s going to be once a year’.” Now, he does a one-week trip.

The “less is more” strategy only works for wines in top demand, of course. Which raises another question – as prices for top Bordeaux and Burgundy reach stratospheric levels, will Côte-Rôtie follow suit? “Bordeaux has always been very much in advance in terms of their pricing,” says Guigal, noting the Bordelaise have been good at turning their top wines into luxury goods. “Burgundy is a different story – it’s a story of rarity. Burgundy can do it because of its size.” He says that the Rhône Valley has neither the size of Burgundy nor the marketing expertise of Bordeaux on its side, and so price rises will happen slowly. “It’s a matter of recognition, of people realising there are jewels in the Rhône Valley. It’s the same in Bordeaux – there are jewels, but if you take the average price of Bordeaux générique and Côtes du Rhône, they’re not very far off.” One issue, he thinks, is that there is no Premier or Grand Cru, a result of the dip in the region’s fortunes at the time classification was taking place.

Regardless, plenty of people are beating a path to Côte-Rôtie. Guigal says he’s besieged with requests from companies that want to hold functions at Château d’Ampuis; however, Guigal doesn’t want to rent it. Instead, the company is working on a new project that will open in 2019: a 19th century building that’s being turned into a visitors’ centre. “It would be much more efficient and cost far less to build a new structure, but we love old stones,” he says. It will include what he calls a “New World cellar door”, as opposed to a French one, whose only purpose is to sell bottles of wine. “We want to work on another level. If an American consumer who has been buying Guigal wines for 30 years comes, he’s not going to load his trunk with five or ten cases of Côtes du Rhône. He’s not coming to buy wine – he’s coming because it’s Guigal.”

While there will be opportunities to taste and buy, there will also be a small museum, space for corporate functions, and a professional kitchen. “We don’t want to do a restaurant, but we might ask a top chef to come for the night.” This won’t be hard – there are 34 Michelin-star restaurants within a 50km radius, plus the gastronomic city of Lyon, which fairly bristles with top restaurants, is nearby.
Guigal has also acquired a 16th century property, which will become a luxury hotel. “Five stars, very high end, but it’s going to take a long time to do.”

While Guigal hums with ideas for connecting his passion for history with this very modern business, there is one historic link that’s disappearing that he can do nothing about: locals no longer come to pick the grapes. “For the first time this year, we’ve had to ask a company to come and help us. More and more small growers are having to use companies to do this work.” The problem is that the people who used to do this work now have better, less gruelling options, which Guigal acknowledges is a good thing, but also a kind of cultural loss.

Then he has to go. It’s his 10th wedding anniversary and he’s taking his wife to the airport, to fly her to a surprise destination. “Portugal,” he says. Why there? “Great wines.” And, of course, he’ll be soaking up the local history.   

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