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The Syrah grape can count no less than four Northern Rhône areas as truly providential. One, of course, is the renowned Hermitage. The other three—Côte Rôtie, Cornas and St. Joseph—are less well-known but their best wines can rival anything their famous neighbor can turn out.
And in the latter half of the twentieth century, each had a small grower as its spiritual leader: Marius Gentaz, Noël Verset, and Raymond Trollat, respectively.
Fortunately, each of these icons also had at least one natural heir: a younger winemaker who has preserved their classic ideas, producing wine of comparable expression and purity. Raymond Trollat’s heirs, as Trollat told us himself several years ago, are the Gonon brothers.
The brilliance and traditionalism of Pierre and Jean Gonon’s wines is only recently becoming widely understood. Until four to five years ago, their wines were the well-kept secret of a small circle of insiders.
What these connoisseurs knew was that the brothers’ classic methods—taught to them by their father Pierre and applied to the domaine’s holdings in St. Joseph’s historic heart—perfectly capture the appellation’s wild and savory, yet fresh and mineral character with great purity, in both rouge and blanc.
With Bernard Gripa and Jean-Louis Chave, Gonon is one of the last remaining old-school St. Joseph growers based in the original appellation around Tournon, Mauves and St-Jean-de-Muzols. And the brother’s unwavering adherence to the old ways, as well as the fact that they work Trollat’s old vineyard, is why they are St. Joseph’s champions of traditionalism today.
Like Trollat, Pierre and Jean learned directly from the previous generations, and have seen no reason to change. The Gonon vineyards are all located in St. Joseph’s granitic heart, distinct from the rest of the appellation as the extension of the Hermitage hill, separated from it by the Rhône.
The brothers work their vines organically, plowing by horse on the steep slopes, with all new plantings a sélection massale from their old vines, and yields are kept low through ruthless pruning.
The brother’s St. Joseph “Les Oliviers” blanc comes from the Coteau des Oliviers, 200 meters above Tournon, where their father Pierre first planted Marsanne in 1958, followed by Roussanne in 1974.
As Rhône guru John Livingstone-Learmonth notes “the two combine extremely well,” the Roussanne’s hightoned complexity leavening the Marsanne’s richness. Through old vines and Olivier’s pebble-studded clay soil, co-fermented and aged in neutral foudre, the Gonon St. Joe blanc seamlessly blends power and nuance in a white easily capable of two decades of development.
In contrast, the Gonon St. Joseph rouge is sourced from all three of the main original St. Joseph villages. Two of the primary lieux-dits are Tournon’s Oliviers and Mauve’s Montagnon. The third is Trollat’s 1915 Aubert planting in St-Jean-de-Muzols, purchased from him upon his retirement.
As Jean Gonon told Livingstone-Learmonth, these diverse sites provide the brothers with “a good spread of soils and exposures,” which they masterfully blend into a marvel of depth, nuance and structure through time-honored methods: up to three weeks’ whole-cluster fermentation in open wooden vats, with both pumpovers and punchdowns for extraction, followed by just over a year’s aging in old 600-liter foudre.
On rare occasions—only four times since the first vintage in 2006—the brothers bottle a separate St. Joseph Vieilles Vignes cuvée, all from the old Trollat vines. A remarkably complete St. Joseph combining power and depth with nuanced finesse, its less than 100-case production makes it almost impossible to find.
Lastly, there is the delicious Les Îles Feray, from 30-year-old Syrah vines on the plain outside the appellation, augmented according to the year by the St. Joseph lots “we don’t consider merits going into the main St Jo red.” Made along the same lines, though destemmed and with no punchdowns for more gentle tannins, it is a seductive Gonon wine to enjoy while the more seriously-structured Grand Vin ages.
The purity and distinctive character of their wines, achieved through great terroirs and absolute commitment to their ancestor’s methods, has brought Pierre and Jean widespread recognition as the Second Coming of Trollat’s classic St. Joseph.
But, as we’ve seen with Allemand and Jamet, demand is putting significant pressure on Gonon’s total annual production (factoring in all cuvées) of no more than 3,500 cases. And with very few offers for the current releases, and older vintages nearly non-existent, prices are skyrocketing.
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