“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 wines — and the grapevines — of Jean and Pierre Gonon are like finding needles in a haystack. Along with a small handful of independent, organic growers in the Northern Rhône, they are committed to the diversity of Syrah; and to its history; and that means one thing in particular: massal selection.
Syrah has been one of the varieties hit hardest by global warming in recent years, but through the dedication of growers such as Jean and Pierre, the future is as bright as it’s ever been for this variety. And it’s not just through massal selection that they’re seeing it thrive, it’s also thanks to an ancestral training technique, which also happens to be one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen.
LITTLEWINE visited Jean Gonon in August 2021.
Meet the Gonons
After the second world war, Jean and Pierre’s father — also named Pierre — returned home to the northern Rhône in the 50s. By that time, they just had one plot of vines left; the rest had been abandoned. He kept that vineyard, and for the first few years sold the fruit to négociants, Délas and Chapoutier. Although it was just one hectare, it was densely planted, so there were a lot of vines to tend to. It was only when he married that things changed. Jean says,
“My mum was a very dynamic person, so I think she definitely had a role in persuading my dad to make their own wines. Together, they decided to bottle themselves in 1964.”
As such, they were some of the first to bottle their own wines in St.Joseph, second only to Monsieur Raymond Trollat, whose wines have become mystical bottlings since his retirement and are found few and far between.
Unfortunately, the original vineyard of the Gonon family was hit hard by frost and wiped out in 1956, but the next generation has recently replanted it: it has come full circle.
Jean and Pierre Gonon joined their father, Pierre, in the vineyards and cellar in the second half of the 80s. Jean remembers,
“Neither Pierre nor I went to wine school, we didn’t travel to other regions or countries, we didn’t really know any other winemakers… in fact we knew very little. Back then, the vines were treated with herbicides—everybody did that at that time—but very early on we saw we needed to stop that. It was just a sense—for our health, for water pollution…”
But they didn’t know exactly how else to work. So, bit by bit, they trialled other methods. They let the grasses grow out, but by the fourth year realised that wasn’t quite working either. By the time the 2000s had come around, they’d figured out a method that works for them: organics, and working the soils with their own horse and plough, a small tractor, or with a treuil (essentially a human-drawn plough).
Despite having worked organically for a long time, they hadn’t felt the need to certify. But more and more, they noticed a growing amount of winemakers who would say, “we almost work organically” (but they weren’t - a sort of greenwashing). In order to respect the movement, support the cause, and assure their customers, they therefore decided to certify their ten hectares of vines as organic in 2010.
“The world of wine was very different back then. Our great-grandfather had vines, but he also had fruit trees - apricots, cherries, vegetables; onions and beans in particular. But bit by bit, by the 80s, it was pretty much just vines in the region.”
Now, when you look across the vast expanses of vines on the picturesque and at times crazy-steep slopes of St-Joseph, it’s hard to imagine the vines not being here. But in fact, as Jean explains, not all of these vines represent history, but rather modernity. Aside from working organically — when doing so was against the norm — the Gonon family have also been some of the first to decide to move away from clones. In the 70s, clones began to be introduced, and many vineyards were replanted to these new selections in the 80s (and continue to be today). These clones of Syrah guarantee a regular, high production, but there’s another side to them, too.
“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 the long-term. 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. That’s what they’re looking for I guess.”
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, especially with whole bunches, gives more perfumed and floral notes; something more delicate and more complex.”
Like everybody else, however, back in the 80s and 90s it was too early to have all of this knowledge. As such, the Gonons also planted clones in 1990, but after two decades had put two plus two together: many plants were dying and the wine quality wasn’t what they’d hoped for. As such, they realised this wasn’t the path they wished to pursue, and took out the plants in order to replant to massal selection. They’ve left just 5% of the clonal planting, and now solely work with massal selection with vine material taken from the Trollat vines and from other friends of the family.
The vineyards are planted in an ancestral manner that’s almost never seen today; as arches, with one vine climbing onto its neighbour vine. Not only is it beautiful, but the vines also seem so healthy; despite the fact it’s a heatwave, the leaves are green with very little yellowing, and there is an abundance of grapes on each vine. Some of the neighbouring plots, in contrast, look completely fried with very little fruit. We ask Jean about this, and he says,
“The work of the soils is the most important thing, especially now with global warming, as we have very dry years. So we believe in organics, of course, but we also believe in ploughing. We don’t believe in being able to leave the soil completely grassed over in this region, it’s not for a sustainable future for the vines. We have tried, of course, because it’s easy, and there are benefits - like less erosion, but it doesnt work here. The vines suffer very early—even in springtime—and then by harvest there’s almost no production. And honestly, to make wine you need grapes! We don’t look for huge yields, but 10hl/ha isn’t good either.”
And in terms of the arches, he smiles, saying,
“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. That’s why we don’t cut the tips, but rather we make arches, in order to keep the the foliage growing as late as possible. It also means we have slightly slower ripening. That’s also important, especially now with global warming. The grapes need to take their time.”
The Gonon wines have become known as some of the most thrilling wines of the Northern Rhône. We ask Jean what he thinks makes them so characterful: massal selection, of course, but what else?
“You know, we never really think about a single aspect of the wine; rather we think of the ensemble of the wine. We don’t put the young vines in the St Joseph, for example, but rather in the IGP cuvée until they’re 10/12 years old.”
They were some of the first to kickstart what has arguably become a whole bunch revolution in the world of red winemaking. We ask Jean about the stems’ contribution:
“Traditionally, people didn’t do destemming here, but the vines were different, too. When we began, we destemmed—as we had clones—and those clones had those greener stems. You were also told in the 80s to destem, to make this rounder style of wine. So, we destemmed some fruit, and bit bit by bit we were destemming more and more, until we got to the point where we reflected on our winemaking. By the year 2001, we said: stop, else before we know it, we’ll be destemming everything and we’ll be making wine that’s like everybody else’s. What’s more, our vines were getting a bit older, so we needed to destem less, and now since 2011 we only destem circa 0-20% — so our wines are between 80 & 100% whole bunch.”
It’s funny, as these things come and go. When destemming was the fashion in the 80s, whole bunch has now become on-trend. Jean nods, saying,
“Yes, it’s now fashionable to do whole bunch fermentation. But — if you have a very small harvest, or very green stems, it is better to destem, not to just follow fashion. You need to adapt to the vines you have. You need to have a balance, not lose yourself in the fashion of the moment.”
Alongside their Roussanne Marsanne blend, which creates the iconic Les Oliviers cuvée, they also have an oddball wine: a varietal Chasselas. Jean says,
“Yes. In 2006, we took a parcel of vines over from Mr. Trollat: old-vine Syrah planted just after the war in 1920; a real treasure. In the middle of the vines, there are five little terraces planted to Chasselas. They were planted just after phylloxera, so they’re around 130 years old. Mr Trollat kept the Chasselas, so he had a little to look after himself.”
Historically, the area was known for fruit production, not just wine. In order to keep the fruit season going on for longer, the Chasselas was grown as table grapes which could be sold in September, brought via the railway to Lyon and sold at the market. Anything that wasn’t sold, became wine. As the berries are very large, they contain lots of juice, which in turn means lots of wine: an advantage.
Eventually, another grower took them on, but in 2011 the Gonon family took the Chasselas over, too. He adds,
“It might never create a grand vin, but it’s historic: these are old vines that are little genetic treasures. They are adapted to that terroir; to that place.”
So, they’ve replanted all the missing vines to massal selection from the surviving Chasselas, and rebuilt all the walls. It’s a true labour of love: these Chasselas vines aren’t going anywhere.
The white wines are made as simply as possible: pressed with a pneumatic press, then in the case of the Roussanne and Marsanne, they’re blended together, then the juice is chilled so it can settle naturally, after which it is transferred to barrels where it ferments naturally. They stay in the barrels for a year, on the lees, with no racking, after which the wine is racked, lightly filtered and then bottled in December.
For the reds, it is equally simple: after the whole bunch maceration, they are aged in barrels on the lees. In the 90s, they were fined with egg whites, but throughout the 2000s, they were bottled unfined and unfiltered. However, they’ve returned to gentle egg white fining. Jean explains,
“Three years ago, we did some trials. We always want and need to reflect on our winemaking. We found that egg white fining made our tannins slightly gentler, and it was also interesting from a microbiological point of view. We want to make wines as naturally and simply as possible, but the liquid of wine — as a medium — isn’t naturally stable. So, we want to keep the wine in the most stable state, and we think that the egg white fining helps the wine to stabilise naturally.”
While they believe in organic farming and using minimal intervention, they don’t ditch the sulphites. When the grapes arrive in the cellar, depending on how healthy they are (if there are signs of rot, etc) they’ll either add some sulphites or none. Then, the wine is aged without sulphites in barrel during the winter, on the lees. In spring, when they rack, they’ll add some sulphites, then check in the summer to see how it’s going. In the autumn, when they rack and reassemble the wines, they’ll add a little bit, in order to not add any sulphites again at bottling. This is the inverse to what many natural winemakers do — who won’t add any until bottling. Jean explains,
“Many people age their wine without sulphites, and then add some right before bottling. We kind of do the opposite, as we find adding sulphites right before bottling ‘dries’ the wine in a sense. Also, we can’t fix a problem right before bottling. It’s a natural antiseptic, and for us it’s better to use it to anticipate any problems that may occur. Saying that you ‘vinify without sulphites’ doesn’t really mean anything. Fermentation creates a reductive and protective environment, with lots of carbon dioxide, so if you have good grapes, that’s not the hard part. In fact, that’s the easy part. In winter, it’s cold, so yeasts and bacteria don’t evolve anyway. With Syrah, our problem is that as a variety, it’s naturally reductive, so we sometimes need to aerate the wine. And then — the problems arrive when you introduce oxygen. Problems start when oxygen comes into the situation, so that’s when we use sulphites, just to be safe. That’s our theory. We just use our common sense after observation.”
It’s been decades of examination and introspection. And the most important thing is it’s not about to stop — Jean & Pierre remain humble as ever. Jean muses,
“I actually think… Sulphites don’t erase terroir, rather they do the opposite — they insist on terroir. Otherwise all the wines can end up looking like each other. Sometimes wines without sulphites and without faults can be simpler. When you add some sulphites, you bring some sort of complexity. That might not be the case every vintage, or in other areas or with other varieties, but that’s our story.”
He thinks for a while, then adding,
“In theory, it’s great to want to make wine without sulphites. But many people are doing it without knowing how to make wine, and then it’s ever harder. Despite what we’d like to think, wine isn’t natural. It’s a human reflection — fruit juice is natural, and vinegar is natural — but wine is this thing in the middle. It’s something in between the two, that us human beings wish to keep in that state. So is that why we prefer wine to vinegar? It’s cultural. Keeping wine in its state is hard, especially if you wish to age it. So, we don’t want to play too much, and we also can’t financially let ourselves lose a harvest.”
Ultimately, when speaking to Jean and drinking a glass of Gonon St-Joseph, there’s an unmistakeable visceral tug at our heartstrings. This is amazing wine, made by people who really care — for their environment, for their wines, and for their consumers. And they did it all from scratch:
“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.”
And isn’t that what wine in a glass is all about, really?