Få mere end forventet i glasset.
"Also pursuing a dream on the dark side of the moon is Philippe Gimel, though on a smaller scale then at Chêne Bleu. A one-man show, Gimel's domaine is currently housed in some spare space he's rented at a cherry orchard, with a collection of used vats he's picked up along the way stacked on top of each other. The 46-year-old former pharmacist is energetic and talkative, as he jokes that I've just come from the prettiest place in the Ventoux to see his ramshackle cellar.
"It's bigger than what I had when I started in a garage," says Gimel, who purchased his vineyards in 2003 after apprenticing at Château de Beaucastel, Domaine de la Janasse and other places.
Gimel's vines are located outside the town of Le Barroux, just 3 kilometers as the crow flies from La Verrière, though still a 30-minute drive on a winding road to get to. After shopping for a few years for vineyards and not finding what he wanted, this 16.5-hectare property (12.5 hectares of vines) came up for sale. With its collection of 30-year-old (at the time) Grenache, Syrah and Carignan on curving terraces, Gimel knew he wouldn't get another chance.
As we walk through the vine rows, Gimel immediately launches into a description of the '11 harvest, one of his most difficult harvests to date.
"The ripening was so inconsistent, we had vines in the same row with several degrees difference [in potential alcohol]. I had to do four harvests to get everything as consistent as possible," he says, animatedly. "In Châteauneuf, they had their highest yields ever. But here, I had my lowest ever.
"We run about 4 degrees [celsius] lower here than in Châteauneuf, and we ripen two weeks later," continues Gimel. "So you see, things are a little different in the Ventoux!"
When he started in 2003, Gimel produced just 6,000 bottles; today he's up to 20,000 bottles, and he aims to reach 35,000 at some point. "But at 20 hectoliters per hectare, it's not going to happen soon," he laughs.
Working organically, Gimel's narrow terraces of vines curve with the hillsides, funneling a consistent cooling breeze through them. As at La Verrière, Gimel's vineyards face north, set amidst the mixed cherry, lavender, olive and truffle farms that typify the patchwork agriculture in the Ventoux. There are no large rolling tracts of vineyards here, as in Châteauneuf or Costières de Nîmes, for example.
"In terms of growing wine grapes, the Ventoux is still very behind the other appellations," says Gimel. "And it won't grow very fast. We are on the edge here. And when you're on the edge, it's easy to fall over. To grow grapes here you have to adapt to every year. Sometimes I plough between rows, sometimes not. Sometimes I compost, sometimes not. Sulfur, and so on. I've added compost twice in ten years, sprayed for mildew only eight times in 10 years. There is no recipe, either in the vineyards or the cellar."
It has been a struggle for Gimel, who was building his domaine from scratch as the headwinds of the economic crisis buffeted his progress. His initial stock was already labeled for the U.S. market when his importer asked him to lower his price from 7 euros to 5 euros a bottle.
"To survive, and improve, I need to raise my price a little," says Gimel with an air of frustration. "But with a low-level appellation like Ventoux on the label, the market resists that, and so I have to sell it to the importer at a low price, even if the quality is better. That makes it difficult to move out of here and get my own winery," he says, gesturing at the plastic tarp he had to hang to separate his vats from the bins of cherries on the other side.
In the cellar, Gimel's penchant for free-form winemaking is on full display. Tanks are varying sizes and makes-some cement, some steel-along with a hodgepodge of barrels, though none new.
"I have some '10s with the malo not yet finished," he says. "I told you there were no rules here.
"The only thing I want is 'fruit juice.' I don't want to change anything. I want neutral containers to preserve the aromas and fruit," he adds, though he admits he's constrained by his modest cellar.
"Sometimes I have 30 hectoliters ready to rack, but I only have a 45-hectoliter tank. So I have to blend with 15 hectoliters. It depends on what's in the cellar and what I have to work with."
Gimel also has a late-release pattern for his assortment of cuvées, so we bounced from vintage to vintage as we tasted through a range of his wines. The 2006 Ventoux St.-Jean du Barroux L'Argile (the wine was labeled Oligocène in previous vintages) combines Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault to form a brisk, fresh, racy styled wine with mouthwatering plum and cassis fruit and a bright iron edge on the finish. I ask what the percentages of the varietals are in the blend and Gimel shrugs.
"I don't think in terms of varietal. I look for ripeness," he says. "I look for the size of the bunches. The larger bunches are vinified together, the medium-sized ones together and then the smallest ones smaller. I'm looking at the ripeness of the seeds."
The 2008 Ventoux St.-Jean du Barroux La Source blends the fruit from the larger bunches and is vinified without stems for early approachability. The Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault blend provides lovely bitter cherry, plum skin and blood orange notes with a lightly toasted, spice-tinged finish.
Other cuvées are vinified with stems, including the 2007 Ventoux St.-Jean du Barroux La Pierre Noire, which utilizes Gimel's smallest bunches of grapes. It's the darkest wine on the fruit spectrum, with fig jam, plum cake and dark roasted spice notes that all remain fresh and racy through the finish.
Though he does use stems on several of his cuvées, Gimel takes a different approach. He destems all his fruit, then sorts through the stems for the quality that he wants, adding them in layers in between layers of fruit in the fermenting vat.
"If I select grapes, I should select stems," says Gimel matter-of-factly. "I smell the vat of stems after the grapes have been removed. I'm looking for cinnamon, pepper, spice. If I find any green notes, I don't use them."
The 2009 Ventoux St.-Jean du Barroux La Pierre Noire was vinified with 100 percent stems, though it doesn't feel like it. The Grenache and Syrah blend is sleek and fresh, with supple cassis and blackberry fruit and a long, pure finish that is still youthfully fruity (the wine has not been bottled yet).
The 2010 Ventoux St.-Jean du Barroux La Pierre Noire is very intense, with vivid violet, pastis and plum reduction notes and a long, briary finish that drives along. The lots likely destined for the 2010 Ventoux St.-Jean du Barroux L'Argile are a touch reduced, but the core of plum, briar and blueberry is there, along with a smoky edge. The 2010 Ventoux St.-Jean du Barroux La Source is more open and inviting at this stage, with dark, spicy fig and black currant fruit offset by floral notes and a long graphite edge on the finish.
The trio of cuvées in '10 has the brisk, mouthwatering acidity of the vintage. I try again to get an answer on the blend of varieties in the cuvées.
"I really don't know right now," he says of the young, unfinished wines. "I really don't think of the wines as varieties right now. This is why my team hates me during the harvest. I ask them to pick a few rows here, then move to another parcel for a few rows. I wait for the maturity I want, no matter how scattered that might be."
It's a scattered approach, but a very defined result. With his wines often hitting U.S. retail shelves at $30 or less, these are some of the Southern Rhône's most intriguing, age-worthy values.