Life has a way of constantly reminding you that ‘You don’t know until you do something‘. Similarly, you can’t really understand a wine region until you visit it.
Take Avignon, the stunning, walled medieval city near the Châteauneuf du Pape vineyard, which has served as a cultural center for the Southern Rhône ever since popes and antipopes made it their home during the Whack-A-Mole-like papal succession crisis (ca. 1350).
There are no decorative flower pots in Avignon strewn over window ledges. There are no signs of life; no shoes, laundry or rugs set out. There is nothing at all, really, on display outside of the tightly closed windows of Avignon.
That’s because for 150 days each year, Avignon is a wind tunnel. A surreal test chamber for residents — so many fleshy vessels woefully undesigned for its brutal, drying forces.
Like me, you may have heard about the mistral, and imagined it was some gentle breeze which helped vines stay cool. Ha!
This is what we really mean when we say mistral:
You don’t have to be atop Mount Ventoux for the winds to reach up to 80 mph. When pressed, locals typically confess ‘I’ve lived here my entire life, and I’ve never really grown used to the mistral.’
It doesn’t take long to see why.
It inevitably begs the question: ‘Why the hell did anyone erect a town here?’ Indeed, why did the Romans deem fit to set up shop, when they knew damn well about the mistral — Emperor Augustus built a temple in its honor! Seneca notes locals’ reverence for the mistral:
When [the mistral] makes their buildings shake, the local inhabitants nevertheless give thanks in the belief that they owe to it the healthfulness of their climate. —Seneca, Natural Questions, 5.17.5
It’s hard to fall asleep when the mistral is battering your home at night, but clearly local inhabitants were aware that the violent winds helped stave off any number of undesired weather phenomena. As I struggled to sleep in Avignon, I thought: how many classic moments in horror films — wherein a suspicious sound in a dark home arouses fearful curiosity — are rendered null and void for those who live with the mistral?
The mistral doesn’t simply affect Mount Ventoux or Avignon; it blows down from the north and affects the entire Provençal wine region directly around the Rhône river.
Everything from Côte Rôtie in Ampuis all the way down to your eastern Languedoc wines (think Pic Saint Loup, Costières de Nîmes), Châteauneufs, Côtes du Rhônes, any region with Provence in its name, Bandol — all are inextricably linked to this intense, drying wind.
Architectural coping strategies involve orienting your buildings’ entries to the south, building belltowers out of a cast-iron frame to allow the wind to pass around the bell, and, most importantly for wine, planting cypresses and poplars around vineyards to act as barriers to protect against erosion1, or planting vine rows parallel to the wind — but even this has its limits.
Just how is the mistral critical to the vines? On some level, it’s their best friend. First, it blows cloud cover away at a startling speed, and UV exposure is increased. Second, temperatures are normalized by a steady flow of cool air — both freezes and extreme heat are diminished by the mistral. And finally, mold and rot cannot prey on vines when lingering moisture is blown away.
So how does it work? What causes this absurdly powerful mistral wind?
No matter how many times I reread explanations, they don’t seem to make sense. Something to do with high pressure systems meeting low pressure systems, generating a cyclone of air; and all of it emanating from water bodies much further north.
Which leaves any number of questions. Apparently, the winds gain force as they move south towards the Mediterranean coast; the winds of the Northern Rhône aren’t nearly as strong as those in Avignon, nor those further south in Provence.
On an experiential level, it seems to come from mountain2. While you’re visiting the region, a force stronger than you compels you to take photos of nearby Mount Ventoux. I must have a hundred photos of Mount Ventoux. Before you know it, you’re a helpless participant in mountain worship … perhaps early stages of wind worship, with construction of a temple dedicated to wind not far off.
To all New World wine-producing regions that would seek to mimic Southern French varietal blends, my first line of questioning is now: ‘Ok … but do you have a mistral?’
The other invisible force which is shaping Southern French wine has no name.
Exactly how do we explain rising alcohol levels in the region? While locals characterize the wines as “warming”, a great deal are straight up hot. Averages have shot up from 13 to 14% ABV; this is the new normal. Is it increased hydric stress, via drier seasons, caused by global warming? Or perhaps changing winemaking styles dictated by entirely human factors? Studies conducted in wine growing regions all over the world systematically point to human rather than environmental causes.
Neal Rosenthal in Reflections of a Wine Merchant (2008) formulates an interesting hypothesis: inflation during the 70’s and 80’s drove up interest rates and suddenly made it impossible for wine merchants or importers to borrow money. It became necessary to sell young wine immediately; and very gradually — thanks in part also to a changing aesthetic in the world of wine criticism — super-ripe, fruit-forward, alcoholic wines became the norm. Yet even if interest rates are down to zero in our current economy, we’re still locked on this path of higher ABV, plusher, fruitier wines.
I must confess: I do not care for the vast majority of Grenache-based wines. On some level, Grenache is not unlike a surly trucker, whose handshake leaves you wringing your hand in pain, without the slightest semblance of an ‘inside’ voice. A grape that renders wines which are hot and loud, or, which, conversely, if made in a vin de garde style, often feature such drying tannins that they bring to mind accidentally swallowed bits of a cigarette.
It is only once these wines age into a calmer, more soft-spoken and silky place, or perhaps when their ripeness and heat are kept in check by a handful of eminently skillful winemakers in unique terroirs, that my palate is really buzzing with joy.
Were I to sing my love of Château de Beaucastel or Château Rayas at this point, I would merit a swift kick in the nuts, as everyone knows that these iconic producers craft exceptionally ageworthy wines of lightness and character. I’ll never forget how I scoffed upon seeing a sommelier at Adour pair langoustines with the 2006 Rayas Fonsalette — how on earth could he pair something so delicate with surly Grenache? — and then had my mind blown with my first taste of disarmingly delicate Rayas Grenache.
The Grenache-based wine that I would like to sing praises of is not a Châteauneuf, but instead a Gigondas, from an equally iconic domaine that somehow still feels under the radar. The Faraud sisters have been making unbelievable wines of character for decades, as traditionally as can be; and the fact that their domaine is nestled in the adorable, tiny hilltop town of Gigondas, next to the Dentelles de Montmirail, overlooking the Gigondas vineyard, seems eminently fitting: to my mind, they reign over it, and thus survey their kingdom.
The 2012 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas will age for decades, but even in its exuberant youth before it shuts down, it is a stunning wine. This is truly a wine of place: no other wine in the world could ever taste like this. A garrigue aroma dominates it that you will find in no other Southern Rhône red: something between candied fennel and sweet Thai basil. It’s just as wild and savage as a wine torn out of the mountains should be. And even though it has large, sweet fruit, there is no lack of finesse or freshness; there is no giant footprint, no alcoholic burn, and in spite of a 14% ABV, it finishes with a sense of compact lightness that invites further drinking. And all that, to my mind, is the greatest possible expression of Gigondas.
There are no bullshit luxury cuvées with the Faraud sisters, no sectioning off of prime parcels into more expensive bottlings which sap the base wine of its meaning; there is just one Gigondas bottling. The Faraud sisters are replanting their precious 2ha of vines in the Col du Cayron (some prime real estate); as a result, that parcel is absent from their 2012 Gigondas. The remainder of the 20 parcels where they have 16 ha of vines on plains behind the Dentelles — Font du Papier, Les Hautes and Basses Garrigues, Au Bois de Neige, Santa Duc — all get blended into that one wine which best captures the sense of place. Click here to download a detailed map of Gigondas’ lieu-dits, and visualize these parcels.
Here in Gigondas, the massive limestone Dentelles de Montmirail reach up out of the earth and create a bowl, which in certain places protects against and in other places magnifies the power of the mistral by generating additional vertical winds which cool the vines. They also help to shade the grapes in the morning and lengthen the ripening process, mitigating some of the boisterousness of Grenache. This utterly unique, cooler microclimate is what lends Gigondas its freshness and ageability.
The Faraud sisters ferment in cement, and age in old foudre. 70% Grenache, 15% Cinsault, 14% Syrah, 1% Mourvèdre. Everything as traditional as could be, with the three sisters, Roseline, Delphine, and Cendrine Faraud, ensuring each aspect of winemaking and vine tending.
No other Gigondas I’ve tried could rival the Faraud sisters’ work. Not the Perrin family’s Clos des Tourelles, not Raspail-Ay, not Pallières, not even Louis Barruol’s St. Cosme Gigondas (even if they’re great as well; but are broken into absurdly expensive luxury cuvées). No one else crafted a wine that was so unique and alive. And somehow, the Faraud sisters’ Gigondas sells for a fraction of the aforementioned producers’ bottlings. If only I could keep my hands off a few and allow them to age 10 years.