Each year, Wine Spectator editors survey the wines reviewed over the previous 12 months and select our Top 100, based on quality, value, availability and excitement. This annual list honors successful wineries, regions and vintages around the world.
Guigal's Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1999 was the Wine of the Year in 2004
Distinctive Châteauneuf, with plenty of wild mushrooms, wet earth, game and leather. This is not a fruit bomb; it has chewy tannins. But underneath is wonderful sweet fruit, as well as a subtle mineral caress. Something special. Best from 2005 through 2015. 13,330 cases made. —PM
The year is 1927 and 18-year-old Etienne Guigal lifts the iron knocker on the door of the Rhône’s most well-known winemaker, Vidal-Fluery. Being a cellar assistant in Joseph Vidal-Fleury’s prestigious company would be the perfect launchpad for the future.
Exactly 80 years later the door is opened by a slender young man with dark hair. This is Etienne Guigal’s grandson, Philippe. Now 32, he owns the Vidal-Fleury estate, where his grandfather rose from cellar assistant to become the chef de cave. Philippe produces some of the world's most highly esteemed wines. His life also includes a Roman-style villa, with attendant parklands and a swimming pool, red sports cars, a helicopter and a 16th century Renaissance manor, with perfectly manicured gardens. He is living a future that his grandfather could not possibly have imagined.
How did the Guigal family’s dreams come true and what dreams does the future patriarch Philippe Guigal have?
Over the span of 60 years the Guigal family business has grown to become one of the largest and most prestigious in the Rhône region. In the New World similar success stories have happened in even shorter spans of time, but in France this rate of growth is considered exceptionally fast.
This success story opens in 1946, when talented winemaker Etienne Guigal resigned from his position at Vidal-Fleury. He founded the Guigal wine house and laid a foundation for success, for which his son Marcel was largely responsible. A student of oenology, the 17-year-old Marcel had to quit his studies and assume an active role in his father’s business, when Etienne was unexpectedly struck blind in 1961. Marcel served as his father’s eyes and aide in the cultivation and production of wine. He also took over the development of his family business.
Despite his young age, Marcel Guigal had a clear vision. He would become the leading producer of quality wines in the region. Instead of outsourcing the growing of grapes, the Guigals focused on ownership in vineyards. In addition to this, production facilities, production methods and equipment were constantly updated. The Guigals, however, based their operations on the respecting of regional traditions.
In the 1960s the Guigals were subjected to intense criticism when they modernised their wine production. The director of the administrative body overseeing wine production in the region threatened to exclude Guigal’s Côte-Rôtie wines from the region’s AOC classification. The use of new oak barrels was considered a method that went against tradition. Only 17, Marcel Guigal made a definitive declaration: “The AOC classification in our region is based on three things: continuity, loyalty and local regulations. There are two hundred-year-old books in our library stating that first class Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie wines were aged in new oak barrels for three to four years. I’m young, so I’m flexible. For my part, you’re more than welcome to use your 50-60-year-old oak barrels, but don’t come to me and say that I have no respect for traditions or loyalty. I’m evidently the only producer here who does. You yourselves gave up the traditional use of new oak because of the lack of funds and availability coming out of the First and Second World Wars. We don’t have that problem, so we are using new oak - in accordance with tradition.”
PLOTS LEADING TO WORLD RENOWN
In order to enhance quality the Guigals worked to acquire ownership in vineyards. Purchased in 1965, the just under one-hectare La Mouline plantation, which is located on the slopes of Côte Blonde, set the stage for the Guigals’ present reputation. Introduced the very next year, the La Mouline single-vineyard proved to be a smashing success, and the active acquisition of vineyards continued. However, it would be more than 10 years before the Guigals introduced their next single-vineyard wine, the La Landonne, in 1978. Just over 2 hectares in size, the plot was purchased piece by piece from 17 different small-scale growers. The Guigals finally revealed their true greatness in 1984 when they acquired the oldest winemaker in the Rhône, Etienne’s former employer, Vidal-Fleury. This significant acquisition instantly made the Guigals the leading producer in the Côte-Rôtie region, giving them a 35% share of the entire region’s output. This new acquisition also gave
“Our future is in the Rhône. If we ever feel the need to expand, we will do it here. The Southern Rhône is filled with very attractive areas,” states Philippe Guigal, who confesses a predilection for Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.
Born in 1975, Philippe Guigal completed his studies in oenology in Dijon, did an internship at Château Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux, and received his degree in oenology in 1997. In the making of fine red wines he sees eye to eye with his father and grandfather, but when it comes to the making of white wine he has introduced a host of fresh, new ideas:
“I’m in a very favourable position, because my father lets me experiment and learn that way. In ten years I’ve been able to make significant strides in our production of white wine.”
Philippe has grown up under the tutelage of his father and grandfather. The Guigal empire was created by the whole family pulling together, without compromising on quality. This has given Philippe a humility and respect for the work that his forebears have done. He knows his place and is aware of the possibilities. Even though Philippe Guigal, who grew up in luxurious surroundings, could just as well rest on the laurels of his successful family business, he will not. Philippe wants to keep moving forward:
“It’s useless to think you'll make progress by only looking back,” states Philippe.