HIS NAME IS Marcel Guigal. His father is Etienne Guigal. Together these two men produce some of the finest wines in the world, yet are rarely known outside of their home town of Ampuis.
A handful of French oenophiles have followed the Guigals' wines over the years. For example, several of France's finest restaurants -- Taillevent in Paris and Georges Blanc in Vonnas -- feature the Guigal wines. More recently, the two French critics, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, have lavishly praised the family's wines in their monthly magazine. Nevertheless, Guigal remains one of France's best-kept wine secrets.
The primary reason why the Guigal name is not better known is that father and son make and produce wines from the Rhone Valley, an area largely ignored by wine writers. Despite the fact that a mature bottle of cote rotie, hermitage or cornas, or a hefty, powerful gigondas or chateauneuf-du-pape can provide a majestic drinking experience, wine writer after wine writer usually gives nothing more than a casual nod to the Rhone Valley, while speeding south from Burgundy on France's Autoroute du Sud to catch some Provencale or Riviera sunshine. For example, Michael Broadbent's "Great Vintage Book," something of a must purchase for serious wine collectors, completely ignores the Rhone Valley. Even the inimitable Harry Waugh, in his most recent Volume Nine of his "Diary" series, devotes only four of 200 pages to the Rhone Valley's wines. Ironically, Waugh does state that after tasting Guigal's 1978 Cote Rotie, he ordered "some cases for my own cellar," and went on to call the 1978 Guigal Hermitage "truly a masterpiece."
This journalistic aloofness, while keeping the consumer in the dark about the Rhone Valley's best wines and best producers, also has kept the demand within reason for this area's greatest wines. Given the tiny production and splendid quality of wines from producers such as Guigal, Chave, Clape and Paul Jaboulet, one only has to surmise that if their best wines had gotten as much publicity over the years as many burgundies, prices of $30 to $50 a bottle rather than $10 to $15 a bottle would be commonplace. At least in this case, the indifference of wine writers has resulted in some super wines that can still be found, although not without some effort, at reasonable prices.
Marcel Guigal is both a grower and negociant. He and his father own vineyards in Cote Rotie, but purchase wine from small growers throughout the Rhone Valley to produce red and white hermitage, gigondas, chateauneuf-du-pape, condrieu and red and white cotes du rhone.
The Guigals' wines, whether an inexpensive cotes du rhone or the top of the line cote rotie, possess a certain characteristic suppleness, richness and purity of fruit exhibited throughout the line of wines. This "house style" produces a deeply colored wine with intense bouquets of ripe fruit. While quite intensely flavored, they are never overly tannic or acidic. The family prefers to age its wine in small oak barrels longer than any other Rho ne wine producers, and it is not unusual for a Guigal cote rotie or hermitage to spend 2 1/2 to 3 years in casks prior to bottling. Since the Guigals are very traditional in their winemaking philosophy, their wines are never fined or filtered.
Marcel Guigal produces three co te roties from the steep slopes near the winery in Ampuis. All three wines are rich, full bodied, viscous wines with very intense flavors and remarkable concentration. His most famous wine, "la mouline," from a specific vineyard, is one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted. It is made from very, very old vines (some over 85 years of age) that produce such a tiny amount of wine that it is rarely seen in this country. It simply must be tasted to be believed. The winery's other vineyard-designated cote rotie is called "la landonne," and it is almost as extraordinary as la mouline, but is more tannic and muscular, with a certain toughness to it. Guigal's third cote rotie is a blend from the two cote rotie hillsides named the cote blonde and co te brune. The current release, the 1978 ($14.95), is an awesome bottle of wine that may actually have more aging potential than Guigal's specific-vineyard cote rotie. All these wines are excellent examples of highly competent winemaking.
Guigal's red and white hermitage ($13.49 to $14.99) are also among the very finest wines made in the Rhone Valley. The 1978 red hermitage is typically big and robust, with layers and layers of ripe fruit, but extremely well balanced. The 1979 white hermitage is a full-bodied, earthy white wine that is among the best 1979 white rhone wines I have tasted. It has considerable elegance and finesse, is extremely fresh and fruity, and yet retains much of the big, robust character so typical of white hermitage. It is an exemplary choice for full-flavored Chesapeake Bay fish, such as blue, bass and shad.
Guigal's other big white wine is a condrieu. Condrieu is the home of one of France's most famous white wines, Chateau Grillet. Grillet sits slightly south of the town of Condrieu and produces a highly acclaimed, rare wine that is lush, voluptuous, aromatic and priced at $40 or more a bottle. Guigal's condrieu is actually a better wine than Grillet's, and while it is still expensive, $20 will fetch a bottle of this rare white wine. The 1981 condrieu is the best of that variety the winery has made in several years.
If the above wines, as good as they are, are just too expensive for your budget, Guigal's marvelous winemaking talents never skip a step when he and his father perform their wizardry on their less expensive wines such as gigondas, chateauneuf-du-pape and cotes du rhone. Made from wine purchased from growers, all three wines maintain the intense, silky, concentrated, fruity "house style," and contain enough tannin for enjoying two to four years from now. The 1978 chateauneuf-du-pape and gigondas, which retail for $9 to $12, are very good wines to drink now or to put down for several more years. The 1979 cotes du rhone selling for under $6 is a very fine value that can hold its own against many wines selling at $3 to $4 more a bottle.
Like many good things in life, there is not enough of Marcel Guigal's wines to meet popular demand. For the first time, Guigal wines have arrived in Washington, D.C., but, because of their limited supply, are all allocated to A & A Liquors, which carries all but the hard-to-find "la mouline" and "la landonne" cote roties.