Domaine Pierre Gonon, now run by sons Jean & Pierre Gonon, is one of the original game-changers of the Northern Rhône wine landscape. They were the second domaine of St-Joseph to bottle their own wines (as opposed to sell grapes to négociants or cooperatives), and ditched chemicals in the 90s in favour of horse ploughing and organics. They’ve also become renowned for planting vineyards via massal selection instead of clones (‘massal selection’ is the process of reproducing vines via several ‘mother’ plants instead of just one, thereby preserving genetic history and complexity).
LITTLEWINE travelled to Domaine Pierre Gonon right before harvest in 2020 to taste with Jean in the cellar and visit their vineyards
“A vine is a plant of the forest. It needs to grow, and it wants to grow. We think the vine wants to express its true nature as a climbing plant; a liana."
The Gonon Vines
People: Brothers Jean & Pierre Gonon
Place: St-Joseph, Northern Rhône
Varieties: Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne, Chasselas
Farming: Organic (certified)
Wines: Click here
Did You Know? 95% of the Gonon vineyards are planted to massal selection. Some of these vineyards were taken over from the iconic Raymond Trollat vineyard, including an ancient, rare parcel of Chasselas. All the vineyards are trained in the form of arches; this is a historic technique that is nowadays very rare, but which could help to combat disease and the effects of global warming, such as frost and summer heatwaves.
"We didn’t know what kind of wine we wanted to make, as we didn’t have much experience. So, we just took it day by day and adjusted as we went along, doing what made the most sense for our terroir. And we’ll change again: there’s no doubt. Wine is so personal. It reflects your history and your personal story, too."
Massal Selection vs Clones
Jean gives us the lowdown on why the Gonon family prefer massal selection:
“Clones are more vigorous. As a variety, Syrah produces somewhat irregularly. So, the goal in the 70s was to find a version of Syrah which was as regular and productive as possible. Those clones were selected at a time when the climate was very different to what it is now. In fact, back then, it was difficult to get ripe grapes every year. So, the clones which were selected were chosen for their early-ripening qualities.”
The fact they’re so productive means that these aren’t plants for life. Jean says,
“The plant is too vigorous, so they actually end up ageing faster and hence we have a high mortality rate. Often when people plant, they don’t think about the long-term. Vines should be planted for life. For example, we’re no longer so young; we’ll be old when the vines we plant now are producing their best grapes, as that takes around 25 years. So people often plant clones because in three years’ time, they’ll already be producing 40hl/ha every year — for 30 years, until they replant. That’s a lot of fruit, and that’s the short-term vision they have.”
Now that every summer comes with the warning of heatwaves blasted on the radio, the climate situation has done a 180: now Syrah ripens every year, and alcohol levels from clonal material are at danger of regularly exceeding 14% ABV. So, these early-ripening clones have become problematic: the alcohol is too high. In addition, Jean explains that while the fruit ripens fast, the stems tend to stay very green, so the pip of the grape berry is over-ripe, yet the stems are under-ripe. This means it’s very difficult to do whole bunch fermentation with clonal material. In addition, the taste of the wine itself is also different. Jean comments,
“You really have to taste the wines blind. But—in general—the clones give a more standardised taste, slightly like fruit liqueur, whereas massal selection...
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