I had become aware of the mysterious Philippe Gimel owner of the Ventoux winery Saint Jean du Barroux via some Danish guests who spoke highly of his efforts. As our season had slowed down I finaly found the time to seek the man out, hear his story, and taste his wine. And what a truly fascinating story it is….I feel a tad embarrassed that we have only just caught up with this neighbour of ours, he is a genuine one-off… but at least now we know each other.
Philippe’s background was in pharmacy in the Lorraine area – a training in chemistry that has proved extremely useful as a wine maker. After taking an Oenology qualification in Toulouse he entered the wine business and learnt his craft via internship and later full time employment with two of Chateauneuf du Pape’s finest domaines Beaucastel and Jannesse. With ambitions to make serious wine himself he set about acquiring a vineyard with a terroir capable of emulating the quality level of his mentors…but at an affordable price. In 2003 he purchased 16 hectares of land (12ha of terraced vines) to the north of the Malaucene – Barroux road on the lower foothills, 300m-400m, of Mt.Ventoux. Philippe explains its advantages “ The vineyards not only have elevation they face mainly north providing a cooling counterbalance to the fierce summers. The soil which is stony clay is likewise cool whilst providing superb water retention properties. The terroir here may be humble Ventoux but in terms of its geology, elevation and aspect it is a potential match for Chateauneuf du Pape.” The existing vines were around 30 years old at the time of purchase, the grapes being sold to the co-operative. The usual Ventoux varieties are here- a majority of Grenache amongst the reds plus Syrah, Carignan, Counoise and for the whites Grenache blanc, Bourboulenc and Clairette. Philippe is proud of the bio-diversity in his vineyard…small terraces interweave with brambles, cherry trees, oak woodland and garrigue brush. I wasn’t surprised to hear the farming is fully organic and the domaine carries the Ecocert stamp though no great play is made of this in the promotional material or on the bottle. Yields here are dramatically lower than the norms for the appellation…around 20hl/ha..and these are achieved naturally via the poverty of the soil rather than any greenharvesting intervention. The vineyard is a gorgeous place to stand..even on a cold November day…the terraces here enjoy a panoramic view, looking across to the Dentelles and the monastry of La Madeleine…..there is a smaller chapel/farm of Saint Jean just across the road from which the wine takes it’s name. I asked Philippe about the style of wine he was aiming to achieve – he told me it was about using the natural resources available to make a great Ventoux wine, a wine that not only gave great expression to this special terroir but defys expectations of the appellation. On returning to La Madelene yesterday I looked up the Ventoux entry in the Oxford Companion to Wine, normally a reliable guide: it’s summary of the quality level available: “ the reds…lack substance and real interest”. On the evidence of my tasting yesterday Philippe in just 5 vintages has aleady achieved much of his ambition in that he is producing wines with tremendous concentration and power yet balanced with an elegance and a complexity that I havent yet encountered elsewhere in the appellation.
So far so fascinating…but the knock out for me is to find that Philippe doesn’t yet have a winery…he is renting a corner of a shed from a farmer in the valley just the other side of Malaucene from us. Here a jumble of mostly second hand concrete cuves and other wine making equipment – a few barriques in evidence but in principal Gimel is not a big oak fan- purchased from his Chateauneuf contacts form the basis of his operation for the time being. And whats more he manages everthing on his own..the viticulture, the wine making, the administration at his home in Caromb and a vigorous marketing campaign…he had just returned from Denmark when I met him yesterday. Amazing energy!
The wines: in truth the range is somewhat complicated to get your head around…partly because of the difficulty of managing a small production whilst being totally reliant on export sales. As a consequence some decisions seem to be driven by specific important customers – notably the Rhone/Ventoux loving Danes, there is a bottling made with a lighter style exclusively for their market. It was a bit too chilly to show the wines at their best but we persevered: I tasted the the red Oligocene 2004 (dark fruit, pepper, superb ripe tannins and a long long velvet finish, ready to drink), the 2005 (a little closed in the cellar but the bottle I took home to enjoy with my Magret de Canard last night had opened out wonderfully…lovely garrigue herb/pepper aromas), a super concentrated 2006 and a stunning white - the 2006 – white flowers, melon and a delightful melange of dairy fat and minerality on the palate. These wines are not cheap…if you can find them they will be around €17-20, ex-domaine prices….but the quality level is what can I say?…remarkable. Thank you Philippe.You can read more about this winery at Philippe’s web-site: