Our meeting with Jean Gonon was much anticipated. We had heard about his magnetic personality and how much we would learn from our time with him. And all of it was true. Jean Gonon is a pleasure to be around. He’s articulate, has a good sense of wine in its global setting and he’s very knowledgable about wine in the Northern Rhone.
Domaine Gonon is run by siblings Pierre and Jean Gonon. As the younger brother, Jean was not necessarily expected to play such a large part in the family winery but he came back from college to do some seasonal work when his father became ill. The wine work intrigued him and he just kept doing it. After their father’s death, he and Pierre share all the work in the winery and have what Jean describes as a problem-free working relationship.
Gonon’s vineyard holdings are ten hectares and include their own vineyard holdings above the town of Tournon planted by their great grandfather. This area is referred to as Les Oliviers. Other grapes come from holdings in Mauve and parts of Raymond Trollat’s famed vineyard. These holdings are the ones from which they occasionally make their special Vielles Vignes bottling. The Tournon vineyards are mostly granitic soils.
When it comes to vinification, the Gonons are rather traditional. The wines are aged in neutral oak 600 liter casks. A high percentage of whole cluster is used in the vines but the percentage varies based on the vintage. The vineyards are organic and to that end the Gonons are very proud of the horse they’ve purchased to help plough the vineyard rows. Given the steep slopes, many vineyard owners in St. Joseph still resist ploughing in favor of easier to administer herbicide sprays. The horse has been a revelation.
The Gonons are also big believers in massale selection and are replacing clones when they can. They feel that the clones just produce and produce without moderation and are also generally shorter lived than the original vines that were planted. The old version of Syrah originally endemic to the region produces less grapes but the grapes are of higher quality and the vines tend to live longer. In the 1970s the region saw practically an obsession with clones and now in Jean’s estimation the entire St. Joseph appellation is 90% clone. Like Clusel-Roch in Côte-Rôtie and some of the other organic wineries in the Northern Rhone, turning the tide against clones to return the vineyards to their original historic version of Syrah is a pivotal concern.
The Gonons harvest as late as possible and Jean finds the current fashion and fascination with “fresh” wines in the global wine community rather amusing. In the Northern Rhone, Jean says, “freshness is not the thing, ripeness is the thing”. The struggle to ripen grapes fully is always the main concern. The grapes never get over-cooked. To that end the Gonons and, in fact, many of the winemakers in the Northern Rhone are very excited about the 2015 vintage. It was a consistently sunny vintage which has resulted in richer, darker, more tannic but perhaps less floral versions of Syrah.
The 2014 seemed to me a classic St. Joseph with its floral aromas and distinct mineral edge. It also has less tannin and more acidity. The 2013 was a lot like the 2014 with its elegant floral component. Jean had an interesting observation in which he referred to the aroma in cool-climate Syrah as “dead flowers”, I like this description for Northern Rhone Syrah, the wines often have a floral component (whether or not they include Viognier) but that floral component also has a meaty, rotting, almost bloody element to it.
We also got to taste a 2001 St. Joseph which took its time to open up but was a more rounded and fresh version of the 2013 and 2014 we tasted. A beautiful wine that Jean referred to as “…perfect for a winter day.” I’d have to agree, in the almost 100 degree weather we experienced while in the Northern Rhone the only place to drink these Syrah was the Gonons cellar or better to save them for a wintry day.
The Gonon cellar is dark and cold. Perfect for tasting brooding Syrah.
We had a spectacular and informative time with Jean Gonon. He’s an effusive, amiable and articulate representative of his winery and the Northern Rhone in general.