Gigondas Expressions: An Interview with Julien Bréchet

Gigondas Expressions: An Interview with Julien Bréchet
Behind the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains, nestled in woods that rise to 400 metres, lies the 26-hectare estate Domaine des Bosquets. The tasting room faces the cellar and the vineyard Le Lieu Dit. Winery assistant Mathis points out the rows of vines near the top that are newly planted with white grape varieties, before driving us up a winding road behind the cellar. We stop at a stretch of 80-year old Grenache growing in sandy soil. The grapes ripened late, were harvested in full bunches just a few days before my mid-October arrival, then put into a single 600-litre barrel. Following a cold extraction, fermentation began gently, continuing with an infusion of the cap. This is winemaking at its simplest, yet it yields stunning results. The wine will be called Le Bout du Monde – the end of the world – but in truth things are just getting started at this winery in Gigondas in the Southern Rhône. Owner and winemaker Julien Bréchet has surprised everyone by crafting acclaimed varietal wines in an appellation committed to blending: I sat down with him to find out how he has done it. You used to be a rally car driver. Tell me about your career. I became a winemaker because my family is involved in wine, but 14 years ago I didn’t want to be a winemaker. When I was young I was fascinated by cars. I went to the Monte Carlo rally each year with my father and my brother was a rally driver too. Once I got my driver’s license I immediately applied to enter the French championships. I won my category in 2000, then became semi-professional, driving for the Citroën team. I aspired to go higher, to the world championships, but I was with a new team, and I was only 23. I made mistakes and stopped in 2005 after a small accident, which was enough to make me think about something else. Then I finished my studies in management, marketing and communication. Not oenology. How did you end up doing a wine apprenticeship in Bandol? In 2006 I proposed that I should help the family and they said: ‘Of course. You are welcome. But if you could spend one year somewhere else it would be interesting.’ At that time I was living in Cassis and I asked what was the top estate of the region. A lot of people told me Château de Pibarnon so I went to Éric de Saint Victor’s office and said: ‘I don’t know if you know, but from Monday I will work at your estate. You are the best and I want to learn at the best place. Even if you don’t pay me, I will be here on Monday.’ He said: ‘Okay, I don’t know who you are. Let me see if you are not crazy then you can come back and we will speak about this.’ I studied more in those months at Pibarnon than I ever had before. For me, their rosé is one of the best in the world and I understood the keys. I made my first rosé in 2010, a blend of Grenache from two different places. It was a bit too ripe, so I started harvesting earlier, pressing slower and softer. We get to understand a lot of things over the years.
You now make several single-varietal wines from single vineyards in Gigondas, a Grenache-dominant appellation that values blending. How did this happen? I met Didier Dagueneau one month before his death at the Expo in Bordeaux in 2008. I was struck by this crazy guy who made fantastic wines of expression. I visited and tasted all the vintages he had made before, and saw the evolution with his son. It was exactly what I wanted to do too. The Didier Dagueneau style of Pouilly-Fumé was inspired by Henri Jayer. I heard that Didier Dagueneau held a tasting with a journalist who told him: ‘Your wines are beautiful but I don’t feel any identity. I’m sorry, I don’t know the microclimate here, and the wines are delicious… you are a good winemaker, but maybe you can evolve your philosophy?’ Didier Dagueneau had just met Henri Jayer two weeks before and he said to the journalist: ‘Come and see me in two or three years.’ Then he created Pur Sang, Silex, Buisson-Renard and divided his estate by the characteristics of the places. That’s exactly what I decided to do. I created Le Lieu Dit in 2009, then in 2013 I made La Colline. It was crazy to have two pure Grenache wines at totally opposite ends of the scale. In 2016, I added Le Plateau and Les Routes and in 2019 Les Roches and Le Regard Loin. I came from making one wine to making seven with the same vineyards, like they did in Pouilly-Fumé and Burgundy. This is the opposite philosophy of the region but it works. 20 years ago, what were the wines of Gigondas like? Some were a bit like copies of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and others were very hard. There was not enough care taken in the vineyard and the cellar. At that time Châteauneuf-du-Pape was influenced by Robert Parker and the international press who gave fantastic scores to ripe wines with big extraction and Gigondas started to follow that route, but it didn’t correspond to the terroir. You also had the traditional estates that made wines a bit more austere, less ripe, with hard tannins so you had to wait. In the cellar the wines lacked precision. They were too much but at the same time not enough. Today, our wines are fresh, with more minerality because of the limestone, and later maturity so you have to wait a little bit more than Châteauneuf. People here have understood that, so the quality level has increased. The difference between 20 years ago and today is more balance than anything else.
Up until now what has been the happiest moment in your life as a winemaker? I was the happiest one-and-a-half years after the moment, but it started when I did my first real vintage. From 2009 until 2014 I was the director but I felt like an imposter. I was in the cellar just to check on things and I was not exactly a winemaker. Then in 2015 my cellar worker broke his leg on the first day of the harvest and I had to do all the work alone. I said to my oenologist, Philippe Cambie: ‘Tell me what to do. Even if I have to work 23 hours a day. I will do the job.’ I worked 70 consecutive days, 15 hours a day, and I made wines with my spirit inside them. I could feel in the wines the energy it took to make them. And then 18 months later you could taste them. Yes, I tasted them with Jeb Dunnuck who was at that time working for Robert Parker and he felt something different. Much more energy and spirit. It was my first vintage alone and he rated the wines 99 points. There was an explosion in demand and it helped to make the estate known. The year after I sold my part of the family company and with that money I bought this winery from them, so I became independent. I signed the papers in December 2016 and on the 2nd of January 2017 the ratings appeared. Everything exploded just at the moment I had become independent. I was so happy that people valued the work that I cried for two hours. I didn’t know how I had done it. You would have been crying different tears if you had got 83. You say something true. When Jeb Dunnuck left Parker, the new correspondent rated the wine that had received 99 points the year before at 82 to 84. I was with Jeb the week before and he rated the 2016 vintage 100 points. The week after, Parker released the ratings and I went from the top of Gigondas to the bottom. Then I realized the ratings are not the reality. It’s the spirit that I put into my wines. If I do that I will be more secure and happier. You have great respect for Philippe Cambie, who sadly passed away last year. He was your oenologist and a friend but also part of the Parkerization of the Rhône. How did you manage to make your style of wines when it is quite different from his taste? With Philippe, at the beginning, I just applied his advice. I made wine with very high maturity and extraction, aged with a lot of new oak. I made all the mistakes that I could. It wasn’t really bad advice because the style corresponded to the taste of the market. Because I did that it helped to make the estate a bit more famous. The wines were valued, so I could buy some new equipment to work better. Paradoxically, I didn’t make that kind of wine for a long time. Very quickly I discovered that it was not my taste. Philippe understood that I don’t like new oak, so it became old oak. I wanted to bring length and to concentrate the wines without bringing other flavours. The most important things are to feel the place and the grapes. So, I made less and less and less until finally I made more. Today the wines correspond to my taste, the place, the terroir and I prefer them today than to 10 years ago. But you have to start somewhere.
I am sure that not everyone in Gigondas has been happy with your approach. How did you deal with criticism? When I started to make single vineyard selections some people were doubtful. I spoke with Philippe, who was a really close friend, and he said: ‘You are young and you want to break everything but stay cool. We will do something clever. We will make a blend of the single vineyard selections which will be the top wine of the appellation. You will see. They will stop saying bad things about you because you will be respecting the appellation and beat them at their own game.’ Le Regard Loin is the reply to show that we can produce a really high-level wine by blending. We blended La Colline, Le Lieu Dit, Le Plateau, Les Roches and Les Routes in secret proportions, only making 900 bottles to show that if we are angry we can do something. Did your critics accept that you can make a good Gigondas wine? Yes, but it is true what they say. By blending you can make a higher level of wine than in the single vineyard selection. For me the quality is undeniably better. But the purpose was not just to make quality wines. I’m a Burgundy wine lover, and the purpose was to show the pedigree of the place and its origin. When you close your eyes and taste the wine, you see the place. I love that. It’s more precise. We came from making wines of impression to wines of expression. They speak for themselves. There is no need for us to talk about them. In 2023 the production of white wines will be permitted in Gigondas for the first time. Can we expect to see great white wines or will these be more humble table wines? It wasn’t evident when the appellation was created 50 years ago, but we have a good terroir for whites. We have western and northern expositions, limestone, shade and woods. It is one of the best microclimates in the southern Rhône. The problem was that the president of INAO at that time was the president of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. He wanted to just have one cru in white in Châteauneuf. With Louis Barruol as president the Gigondas appellation has finally come back to sense after 11 years of work. Gigondas will be among the top appellations in the southern Rhone within 10 years because it’s small at 1,200 hectares and very complex. The quality is increasing each year and we have a lot of young winemakers pushing to the maximum to reveal the potential.
A visit to Domaine des Bosquets is highly recommended, though be sure to bring your hiking boots. The views are breathtaking and there is no better way of appreciating the different expositions and micro-climates than to walk through them. Even if you can't make it to the source, the wines are available in the UK from Hay Wines and VINVM.
Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in France in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.
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