Since approximately 600 B.C., cultivated vines were planted and grown in the Rhône Valley region. Where and how the region’s signature grape varietals – Syrah and Viognier – found their way there remains a mystery: some experts claim that Greek aficionados brought the Syrah grape from the Persian city of Shriaz. Other historians believe that the grapes came 50 years later, when Greek populations fled from the rule of Cyrus I, the Persian king. Still others claim that they came from Sicily’s city of Syracuse, introduced by Romans who brought both the Syrah and the Viognier. Finally, there is a section of fans who maintain that the Syrah grape is native to the Rhône region.
These questions may never been resolved; however, what is certain is that during the 13th century, corresponding with the move of the Pope to Avignon, production and trade of Rhône wine picked up tremendously. In fact, trade grew to the extent that the Duke of Burgundy banned the import and export of non-Burgundian wines. In 1446, the city of Dijon forbade all wines from Lyon, Tournon and Vienne, arguing that they were “très petit et pauvres vins” – very small and miserable wines. In 1650, in an attempt to defend against forgeries, a set of rules was passed to guarantee the origin of the wine. In 1737, the King decreed that all casks destined for resale should be branded C.D.R., for Côtes du Rhône.
The Rhône Valley played an active role in the establishment of French wine-industry appellations in the 1930s, led by the visionary Baron Le Roy. Just as in Bordeaux and Burgundy, AOC designations guarantee the quality and character of Rhône Valley wines to this day. The culture of striving for quality fostered by the AOCs is just one reason why the top Rhône Valley wines have developed that all-important feature for wine investment success—the strong and sizable secondary market.
The Rhône is generally divided into two sub-regions: the Northern and the Southern Rhône. Red wines from the northern sub-region are made from the Syrah grape, and are often blended with white wine grapes. Its white wines are made with the Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier varietals. The southern sub-region produces a range of red, white and rosé wines, which often confidently blend several grapes together.
Guigal’s La La’s
In recent years, a growing interest in the Rhône Valley amongst oenophiles has sparked the attention of investors, especially in the so-called “La La’s” of the winery Guigal: La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque. Each of these reds contain grapes taken from its own single vineyard in the Northern Rhône’s Côte-Rôtie. The name of this location, which translates into English as “the roasted slope,” conjures up images of the long and intense hours of sunlight that ripen the grapes of these steeply sloping plots.
Guigal was established in 1946 by Étienne Guigal, and managed by his son, Marcel Guigal, since 1961. In 2000, Guigal bought and absorbed two other wineries: the estate Jean-Louis Grippat in Saint-Joseph and the Domaine de Vallouit, with vineyard holdings in Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, which added some high-end vineyards in other appellations to the Guigal range. In 2006, the Domaine de Bonserine was purchased by Guigal.
Guigal, under Marcel Guigal, came to international fame in the early- to mid-1980s when Robert M. Parker, Jr., followed by other wine critics, heaped praise on Guigal’s top Côte-Rôtie wines, in particular the three single vineyard wines La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque. Parker stated that, “in the past 26 years I have spent visiting wineries and vignerons, I have never seen a producer so fanatical about quality as Marcel Guigal.” This attention contributed to the improved international fame of Rhône wines in general, and in particular propelled Côte-Rôtie to be seen more on par with Hermitage than in previous times. This also meant that the top Côte-Rôtie wines increased in price to reach and later follow and sometimes surpass that of the top Hermitage wines. In 2006, Marcel Guigal was awarded the Decanter Man of the Year award for his contribution and dedication to the Rhône.