Rhône ambassador

An interview with Philippe Guigal by Robert Joseph

Philippe Guigal is the 38-year-old chief winemaker of, and heir apparent to, Maison Guigal, the Rhône business founded by his grandfather and made globally famous by his father, Marcel. Where Marcel, who joined the family business at 17, has skillfully cloaked his extraordinary business acumen in the guise of a beret-wearing vigneron, Philippe sports a baseball cap and boasts three winemaking and business degrees from Dijon and Bordeaux universities, and an international Wine MBA, which saw him visit 17 countries in less than a year. He is now responsible for overseeing a range that includes 2m bottles of Côtes du Rhône, and tiny quantities of highly sought-after single-vineyard wines such as La Mouline and La Landonne. He is a frequent visitor to markets across the globe.

MEININGER’S: This seems to be a great time for the Rhône. Can you say why?

GUIGAL: In my view, the Rhône Valley is an area that can easily meet the demands of the modern wine market. While the satellite appellations such as Ventoux, Costières de Nimes and Luberon produce entry-level wines, the region is above all well-placed to satisfy a large number of customers with appellations such as Côtes du Rhône, Lirac and Crozes-Hermitage that all offer huge amounts of pleasure for their price, and appellations one could call rising stars such as Saint-Joseph, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. And of course there are the historic, iconic names like Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Condrieu, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cornas. So, yes, we can satisfy a wide range of consumers.

MEININGER’S: How do you see the differences between the challenges facing a company like yours in the twenty-first century from the ones your father faced when he was building it in the twentieth?

GUIGAL: For a long time the only concern for a well-known company was to produce quality wines. So I logically directed my scientific studies towards becoming a winemaker, which is still the part of the business that’s closest to my heart. Today, however, we are also duty-bound to dedicate ourselves to the quality of our distribution. Producing high quality is no longer enough; you also have to sell, and for this, one has to have a deep understanding of the market.

MEININGER’S: Guigal is a ‘ladder brand’ with relatively modestly-priced Côtes du Rhône rising to wines like La Mouline and La Landonne. How does this work?

GUIGAL: I believe deeply in the evolution and education of the customer. I’d love a consumer who has never tasted a Rhône wine or a wine from Guigal to begin their relationship via a bottle of Côte-Rôtie La Mouline. But in practice a consumer’s first encounter with our company is more often likely to be through our Côtes du Rhône. If that Côtes du Rhône is only of average quality, I reckon we’ll lose a customer. This is why we have focused on the quality of our Côtes du Rhône, as for a first discovery, it is necessary that the customer says “Great!” and appreciates the pleasure he is getting for his money. So, the next time he may be curious to buy a Crozes-Hermitage for example, and perhaps he will develop a passion for Rhône Syrah. Obviously I want him, if only once in his life, to enjoy a great bottle of Côte-Rôtie. This constant search for excellence allows us to believe that a client who is looking for quality wines may as well be interested in the Côtes du Rhône as our Côte-Rôtie.

MEININGER’S: How important is land ownership to you?

GUIGAL: Owning the vineyards allows us to have control over the source of our raw materials and to have a very direct influence over the final quality, right from the outset. However, we have no intention to growing our own grapes just for the sake of doing so! We only invest in exceptional pieces of land in order to produce real hallmark wines. Our family has its roots in the heart of Côte-Rôtie and it would be sad only to think of the final wine without having the pleasure of tending the vines and vinifying the grapes. So, I do not foresee simply selling wine without some earth from the vineyards stuck to the soles of my shoes.

MEININGER’S: Do you buy wine as well as grapes? And if so, how do you manage style and quality consistency?

GUIGAL: We buy grapes and wines. The selection and purchase of wine is a fascinating process that we love. In fact, our Côtes du Rhône is based on complex and sophisticated blends that rely solely on our taste buds. Everything has to be built from scratch – and we have to ask ourselves questions at every stage. The style is very precisely calibrated and involves some bold choices of grape varieties and maturation. If you want to know our secret, it involves at least an hour-and-a-half tasting of a good hundred samples every day. But we are also fortunate to have a winery and sophisticated equipment that allow us to achieve this level of blending process.

MEININGER’S: What are your key markets and how did you have to adapt your business and your wines to develop them? And new markets?

GUIGAL: France accounts for half of our business. Our exports are distributed among nearly 100 countries with, in the top five, are the US, Canada, Japan, Germany and Sweden. Much of our strength actually lies in offering the same wines across all appellations; we are not in the habit of adapting wines to specific markets. Emerging markets are a real issue for the Rhône. China does not really know our wines yet and I think the discovery of the appeal of the Rhône is likely to coincide with the beginning of some massive growth of local wine production. Therefore, I doubt that the Rhône will enjoy the passionate following that Bordeaux created a few years ago. India today remains complicated for reasons associated with prohibitive taxes but I think the wines of the Rhône could be fully understood and appreciated by Indian consumers.

MEININGER’S: Vidal-Fleury, which your family bought in 1984, is run as a separate company. When Majestic, a UK retailer, delisted Guigal for a couple of years, its place was taken by Vidal-Fleury. Was this an unusual situation?

GUIGAL: Yes, I can confirm that Vidal-Fleury is managed independently from Guigal. We make a point of having separate importers and distribution channels. It might make you smile to hear that I think of Vidal-Fleury as a strong competitor for Guigal. We were also struck by what happened at Majestic. We did not understand the reasons for the buyers’ attitude, but we were happy to see our wines return to Majestic’s shelves a few years after leaving them. Maybe it’s a question of the buyers liking to play musical chairs with their suppliers?

MEININGER’S: How important/relevant is social media for your business?

GUIGAL: Social media has become indispensable, so we are on both Facebook and Twitter. In our opinion, these media have replaced the ‘news’ pages of traditional corporate sites. But that means adopting and maintaining an appropriately concise and approachable style.

MEININGER’S: Have you had to develop the way you handle the media – focusing more on bloggers, for example?

GUIGAL: Many bloggers have a fairly broad-brush approach in their wine coverage, which leads them to contact us via Inter Rhône, who regularly ask us to welcome their visits. However, there are also experts with blogs that are now comparable to international publications. In these cases, it is important for us to have direct contact with them and be able to keep them updated with our news, new vintages, etc. The blogger is simply a journalist without the traditional trappings!

MEININGER’S: How important is tourism to your business?

GUIGAL: The Rhône valley has, from the earliest times, been an area that has seen huge numbers of people on their way from one part of Europe to another. Our domaine takes pride in coupling the discovery of the vineyards and cellars of Côte-Rôtie with that of the history and uniquely rich Gallo-Roman architectural heritage of the region in which our cellars are situated close to the town of Vienne. Wine tourism will be crucially important in helping people to discover our region, if only because of the proximity of Lyon and Marseille, France’s two biggest cities after Paris. We get about 5,000 visitors a year, only by appointment, and our presentations are more geared up to welcome semi-professionals and professionals than mass tourism. However, we haven’t ruled out the possibility of creating a dedicated wine tourism offering that would be appropriate to a wider audience.

MEININGER’S: How valuable has Robert Parker’s affection for the Rhône been for you?

GUIGAL: It would be totally hypocritical not to recognise the good that Robert Parker has done for the wines of the Rhône Valley and especially for the historical appellations of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example. Today, there are millions of Rhône fans who have discovered our region thanks to Robert Parker. Whether you’re a fan of his work or not, no one can take away from him the way that he highlighted the existence of fine wines in the Rhône Valley, and their recognition at a time when nobody was interested in our region.

MEININGER’S: You produce a lot of Condrieu. Do you think that white Rhônes generally deserve to get more attention than they do?

GUIGAL: Buyers who visit us expect to enjoy great reds, and every time their biggest surprise comes from the quality of our whites. Obviously, the volumes of white wine production in the Rhône Valley remain small but the average quality of these wines is high. We reflect that by the fact that for several years Guigal’s whites have represented 25% of our total production, which is a very unusual ratio for the Rhône Valley. Inter Rhône has made a success of its famous slogan ‘Think Red, Think Côtes du Rhône’. Maybe it’s time to start a new one: ‘Think White, Think Côtes du Rhône’.

MEININGER’S: One of your competitors has invested in vineyards in Australia. Have you been tempted to follow that route?

GUIGAL: For the past 15 years, we have received many proposals for joint ventures and investments in Australia, New Zealand, California, China, etc, and so far we have made no moves in that direction. We believe that fine quality vineyards abroad produce great wines and there are many great terroirs that remain to be discovered. However, we also believe that we still have much to achieve in the Rhône before going elsewhere. Besides, we have a strong image and degree of legitimacy in the Rhône and I’m not sure that these are directly transferable to other regions.

MEININGER’S: What are three things/people you could not do without?

GUIGAL: Without hesitation I would say that family comes first. We are a 100% family business and my mother, my father, and my wife and I work together every day as a team. These family dynamics are essential. I also need a balance between vineyards and soils and the work of selection, maturation and blending on the other. I feel very comfortable with my two skills as producer and négociant éleveur. Finally, I need my cap! A Guigal without a hat - that’s just not possible!

MEININGER’S: Many blame global warming for the increasing alcohol level of wines. What is your view?

GUIGAL: I remember when I was small, the harvest was always in late September or early October, and chaptalisation was so commonplace as to be almost a regular procedure. Today, the harvest starts in mid-September and the grapes naturally have a natural potential strength of 13% to 13.5%, which is perfectly satisfactory. There’s a climatic phenomenon I’d like to mention; a technical point that is well known but rarely talked about. We almost always used to harvest during and after the equinox, which often marks a change of season and brings rain. Today it is not unusual for us to pick in dry conditions before the equinox, so there’s no need for chaptalisation, and a much better correlation between the physiological maturity and the phenolic ripeness of Syrah in the north of the region. Regarding the southern Rhône, the ability to use several varieties - particularly in appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape - allows us to better manage the alcohol levels of the Grenache-based wines by incorporating more Mourvèdre in the blends. At present, global warming does not adversely affect our wines. It’s just a matter of taking care to pick the Condrieu and whites early enough to keep the freshness and balance of these wines.

MEININGER’S: What are the big mistakes you have made that you have learnt the most from?

GUIGAL: It is a great benefit to be working as part of a family: to have had a grandfather who vinified 67 harvests, and to be in daily contact with a father who already has 53 vintages under his belt. It means that I can gain from the experience of my elders. I’m not saying that I do not make mistakes but I willingly seek advice when I’m not sure of my decision. If I had to give an example, I would say that I’ve learned some lessons when dealing with distributors and trusting what buyers say. Some buyers don’t have many scruples and are able to lie to get their way. I’d rather cut my head off than lie. So I learned, sometimes to my cost, that other people’s promises do not always have the same value.

MEININGER’S: What will be the focus of your business in the future?

GUIGAL: Just stay focused! We have always run our business by placing quality at the top of our concerns. Volume was always a consequence rather than an aim, and I have no future ambition to increase volumes disproportionally. On the other hand, I do have lots of ideas for developing the business and ambitions to raise quality even further! 



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