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Philippe Guigal, Scholar of Northern Rhone

By W Peter Hoyne

The story of the Guigal family unfolds in the northern Rhone Valley of France, south of gastronomic capital of Lyon, within the small village of Ampuis. The winery “Maison Guigal” was founded at the base of the Cote-Rotie vineyards in this village. Etienne Guigal left home at the young age of 14 after the death of his father in 1924. Traveling to Ampuis, he earned wages picking apricots. Etienne became enamored with the steeply sloping Syrah vineyards of Côte-Rôtie planted by the Romans nearly 2400 years ago and secured a job with local vintner, Vidal Fleury. Over the course of 15 years, he was elevated to the esteemed position of cellar master. By 1946, he had established his own winery, Maison E. Guigal.

In 1961, Etienne developed sudden blindness and his son Marcel was required to take over the winery at the age of 17. Marcel expanded the international acclaim of Guigal through his holdings in Côte-Rôtie. The family currently owns 185 acres of vineyards in Northern Rhone with almost half planted in Côte-Rôtie. Most notably, Marcel introduced three single-vineyard cru’s from Côte-Rôtie: La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque. They are respectfully referred to as the La La’s and are among the most coveted in the realm of wine. This trilogy has garnered more 100-point scores from critic Robert Parker Jr. than any other wine in history. Marcel continued in his career crafting 67 vintages of Cote-Rotie.

The vineyards of Côte-Rôtie face southwest and are sheltered from the winds. It’s labeled the “roasted slope” due to its exposure to intense sunlight. Its amphitheater-like shape retains the heat from the stones overnight. These steeply sloped vineyards of schist rocks are all managed by hand while avoiding the use herbicides, pesticides, and chemicals. Blackberry, game, leather and seared bacon may be a modest way to describe the underlying personality of these complex wines, yet each vineyard expresses a unique attribute.

Along the way, Marcel’s son Philippe took a detour from studying organic chemistry and biochemistry in Lyon. Philippe explains “my plans from a very young age was to get an enologist diploma.” Philippe continued in securing degrees in enology from the University of Dijon and Bordeaux along with a Master of Science in Wine and Business.

According to Philippe, “I had a lot of pleasure studying in Burgundy. I did my internship in Bordeaux. The goal was to join the winery as soon as possible with my dad. When I finished this, I was extremely young; I was not even 21. My father allowed me to do an international MBA, to know a little bit more about management and marketing and all the things that can be useful when you run a winery.” During his international studies, Philippe spent two months at the University of California, Davis along with time in 18 other countries around the world.

As a third generational family member and only child, Philippe was destined to follow the path of his father and grandfather. He took over as general manager of E. Guigal at the age of 22, similar to his father and grandfather’s ambitions. He serves as Director, Enologist and the identity behind the fame of E. Guigal. Philippe proudly admits “the northern Rhone is our DNA. We are deeply Rhone people.”

I tasted with Philippe at their cellars in Ampuis while I was traveling through northern Rhone and recently spoke with him again during this interview. When you meet Philippe Guigal, you feel as though he is a trendsetter exuding savoir-faire and quiet self-confidence. Philippe is a local with a deep respect for tradition and is passionate about what he does, yet believes “it is not a business, but a vision.” He was endowed with a tireless work ethic, like his father and grandfather. To this day, his 79-year-old father gets to work at the winery at 4:15 am. Philippe spends two hours every day of the week tasting with his father. This is like when his father and grandfather tasted together for 50 years, but they tasted without talking.

Philippe’s meticulous attention to detail and quality approach to winemaking is nothing new. In 1946, during his grandfather’s time, making quality wine was not the aim of other producers in the Rhone Valley, as it was not the best way to run a profitable winery. “Quantity was much more fashionable at the time. So, my grandfather made choices that were considered illogical choices by producing quality wine. Also,” I deeply think that both my father and grandfather didn’t wait for me to produce outstanding wines. They always have been extremely quality focused and quality orientated. They definitely placed and sealed the quality base of our family winery.” Philippe proudly professes, “I have a tremendous respect for my grandfather and my father. I feel very fortunate to work with my dad every day. Even at my age, I learn every day from him. What we do now together with my dad is being more precise.”

Some examples of this are that Guigal now has full control of their own barrel producing cooperage and are well known for their long-term oak aging philosophy. When I asked him to describe the style of Guigal wine, Philippe remarked, “we have an extremely classical style in a way that we are here to express the terroir. An important word for me is purity. We want the wine to be extremely pure and extremely straight. Oak is not what makes great wine. Oak can bring something and can help to reach another dimension in a wine. We want the wine first and oak to be in the back.” He also believes “it’s not that difficult when you’re a winemaker to produce a wine that is fruity, open and easy to drink. It is probably more difficult to think of a wine that has different layers and that can be seen and tasted with time.” Philippe wants his wines to be a reference point for the appellation that evolve over time and can be cellared and aged.

Philippe has met many wine legends in his life. One figure that came to mind was Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards in California. “When I talk with Paul Draper from Ridge, I talk exactly like I would talk with a French winemaker that has a true knowledge of his terroir.”

Just south of their vineyards in Cote Rotie is the appellation of Condrieu. Here legendary white wines are crafted from the perfumed, aromatic grape of Viognier. The Greeks are credited with bringing Viognier to Condrieu in 92 AD. One third of Condrieu is owned by Guigal, along with a small sub-plot called La Doriane. “I always had a place in my heart for Condrieu. Condrieu is a very unique wine. There is nothing like Condrieu. There are not that many places producing top Viognier around the world. I follow with a lot of interest in what is happening in Washington State, California, Australia and other places around the world. Viognier is a very unique grape with a very unique balance and is a very special wine.” The granite soils and climatic conditions in the northern Rhone are essential for Condrieu. Sourced from 50-year-old Viognier vines, Guigal cherry picks the best grapes for La Doriane. The wine spends eight months in oak before blending. They are perfumed and opulent with honeysuckle, white stone peach and apricot underpinnings with a fresh and vibrant balance. Tasting the La Doriane with Philippe was one of the quintessential moments in my life as I later scoured the French countryside in search of a bottle for my cellar.

With regard to the southern Rhone valley, the Guigal family once produced a Chateauneuf du Pape in the mid-1940’s. Wanting a more permanent footprint in the region, the family extended their reach with the acquisition of the 17th century estate of Domaine de Nalys in Chateauneuf du Pape. The 2018 was the first vintage they had full control of winemaking and vineyard management. “It was very logical for our family to be in the southern Rhone with Nalys. It is a matter of finding places where we are comfortable with the terroir, where we know that we are going to produce reliable and high-quality wines and bring a long-term vision to these properties. We are doing what we love.”

Phillipe has two young, twin sons and I proposed the question of what his legacy would be over time. “The legacy is simple; to share your passion with the next generation. It is not possible to impose a passion. For me it is not a job. If you don’t feel it, you shouldn’t do it. My dad shared with me his passion for wine. I share it with my boys. It is a legacy.

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