The Colorful Evolution of the Côte-Rôtie
I tend to break out the Côte-Rôtie about the time I retrieve the tweeds and cashmere from storage. To my mind this red from the northern Rhône is particularly suited to cold weather and hearty, meaty meals. The wine was practically extinct when, in 1946, a former migrant farm worker named Etienne Guigal started a winery in the one-horse town of Ampuis, below terraced vineyards first planted by the Romans. Today it’s justly renowned, thanks in large part to Etienne, who died in 1988, and his descendants. I recently caught up with his grandson Philippe, who has taken the reins. The earnest, slightly nerdy 40-year-old refreshed my memory on the details of his family’s story, which is part fairy tale and part Gallic Horatio Alger narrative.
Etienne Guigal first set eyes on Côte-Rôtie in 1924, when he was 14. He had come from his home in the Loire district after his father died, to help support himself by picking apricots, much of the local labor force having been wiped out in the First World War. At the time, according to Philippe, “apricots were selling for 1.20 francs a kilo, syrah grapes for just 20 centimes,” which was one reason many vineyards were abandoned. “He saw the slopes and fell in love,” Philippe says. “He wanted to work in wine instead of apricots.” He managed to get a job at Vidal-Fleury, a local vintner. Around this time he met a local girl, a maid at Château d’Ampuis, a grand Renaissance manor that had been occupied for generations by the noble de Maugiron family. Eventually Etienne became the winemaker at Vidal-Fleury and married the maid at Château d’Ampuis.
Château d’Ampuis, now Guigal’s headquarters
In 1946 he started his own winery, which must have seemed quixotic at the time. After the war the demand for the red wine of Côte-Rôtie was hardly robust, and the vertiginous vineyards were extremely difficult to work. (Fifteen years ago I swore off cigarettes after climbing to the top of the La Landonne vineyard.) Tractors were out of the question. Yet the grapes yielded more intense and complex wines than those from the flatlands, as the Romans acknowledged with the mantra “Bacchus amat colle” (“Bacchus loves the hills”). Still, it takes a certain determination to farm land that would make excellent ski slopes.
“We are a family of workaholics,” says Philippe. At 17, Philippe’s father Marcel was forced to leave school and take over the vineyards after Etienne suddenly went blind. (The affliction, caused by a detached retina, eventually improved.) Marcel, meanwhile, took the wines to new heights and made the family firm into a regional empire. He was still at work in the cellar, a red beret perched atop his head, when I first visited in the 1990s.
With the 1966 vintage, a legend was born when Marcel decided to bottle a single vineyard wine from a special plot called La Mouline and age it for a few years in new oak barrels. In 1978 a second single vineyard cru, La Landonne, was added, followed in 1985 by a third, La Turque. Thanks in part to extravagant praise from Robert Parker— who has awarded Guigal more 100-point scores than any other winery—the “La La’s,” as this trio became known, have become among the most sought-after wines in the world. Critics and collectors love comparing and contrasting the three. “La Mouline is like Musigny,” Philippe says, “and La Landonne is more like a Pauillac. La Turque is somewhere between these two, and it’s the spiciest.” These wines improve for decades—the 1990s and ’91s, for instance, are just beginning to reveal their spectacular potential.
Bottles of 1995 Côte-Rôtie
In 1984 the Guigals bought Vidal-Fleury, where Etienne had started working when he was 14, and in 1995 they bought the great house where Etienne’s wife had toiled as a maid, Château d’Ampuis, which has since become the headquarters for the firm and which has given its name to a fourth special Côte-Rôtie cuvée. The Guigals have continued to expand since then; in addition to the wines they vinify from their own vineyards, they are a major négociant, buying grapes from all over the Rhône and bottling at every price level. (Their humble Côtes du Rhônes, red and white, are among the wine world’s great bargains.) Their Condrieu, a white made from the viognier grape in the appellation adjacent to Côte Rôtie, is one of my favorites. But it’s the mighty reds of Côte-Rôtie that put them on the map—or is it the other way around? According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Côte-Rôtie may be the first place in France (or Gaul, as it was then known) where the vine was cultivated, back when nearby Vienne was a major Roman outpost. The steep hills behind the town of Ampuis face southeast, sheltered from the prevailing wind and getting maximum sunlight— hence the name Côte-Rôtie, which means “roasted slope.” Historically, the slope was divided into the limestonefilled Côte Blonde, which is supposed to yield suppler, more feminine wines, and the iron-rich Côte Brune, whose wines are said to be darker and more muscular. A more fanciful explanation of the difference is that a 16th-century owner of Château d’Ampuis, the Marquis de Maugiron, had two daughters and bequeathed the southern half of the slope to the blonde one and the northern half to the brunette. Whatever the source of the names, it’s true that La Mouline in the Côte Blonde yields a more delicate wine than the blockbuster La Landonne in the Côte Brune. (Traditionally, the wines from the two slopes were blended, and one of Guigal’s largest productions, a great introduction to the charms of Côte-Rôtie, is a blend called “Brune et Blonde.”)
Marcel and Philippe Guigal, son and grandson of the founder
It’s hard to separate the characteristics of Côte-Rôtie from those of the syrah grape, yet nowhere does it taste quite the way it does here, combining high-tone fruit flavors with earthy, savory notes. Raspberry and bacon might sound like odd bedfellows, but both pop up frequently in Côte-Rôtie tasting notes. Something gamey and wild characterizes the best Côte-Rôties, or at least the ones I like best. (Some critics feel that Guigal’s liberal use of new oak tames these elements, though I’d argue that the oak influence disappears with bottle age.) Syrah is also the grape of Hermitage, St. Joseph, Cornas, and other appellations of the northern Rhône, but Côte- Rôtie is unique in allowing the use of as much as 20 percent viognier, an aromatic white grape, although the practice is not universal. (La Mouline has about 7 percent viognier, while La Landonne is entirely syrah.) Even the lighter, Côte Blondestyle Côte-Rôties are pretty big reds, best saved for cooler months and paired with red meats, stews, or aged cheeses. Celebrate the winter solstice with a bottle, and raise a glass to Etienne.