Nicolas Gonin. Photo: Mike Foulk

Nicolas Gonin: Patron Saint of "Orphan" Grapes

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Though the town is only forty-five minutes east from the bustling city of Lyon, you’ve probably never heard of Saint-Chef. It is tucked away in the department of Isère -- not a well-known wine producing region by any means (all wines made here must be labeled either Vin de France or IGP Isère, which replaced Vin de Pays des Balmes-Dauphinoises in 2010) -- and perhaps the closest thing resembling a brush with fame is the fact that Chartreuse is produced some thirty miles away. A bit of history: before phylloxera ravaged France in the late 1800s, Isère boasted 35,000 hectares of vines -- one and a half times what Beaujolais has today – with 1,000 of them planted within Saint-Chef. After that the region was replanted heavily with hybrids, but due to the lack of organization amongst growers to form an AOC during World War II, viticulture all but disappeared. In stark comparison, today there are just 600 hectares of vines planted in Isère (25 in Saint-Chef) and only 300 of these are in commercial production, the rest being used for consommation familiale, or personal consumption. These small vineyards cannot be larger than 2,500 square meters and the owners of these parcels are not allowed to sell the wine made from the vines.

Enter Nicolas Gonin. Not only is Nicolas a talented winemaker who trained as an enologist in Beaune before working for the likes of Domaine Tempier, he is the Vice President of the ambitious Pierre Galet Alpine Ampelography Centre. This group scours historical documents and, even more importantly, the aforementioned small family-farmed vineyards that dot Isère, looking for ancient grape varietals that have long been forgotten in terms of producing wine. He started studying ampelography during his enological studies (he discovered the red grape Persan at the age of 22, and he farms .8 hectares of it – one of the largest plots of Persan in the world!) and has been actively, almost instinctively, pursuing his goal of documenting these “orphan” grapes.

Nicolas’ own vineyards cover 5.5 hectares planted in sandstone-rich, gravelly soils and he achieved organic certification in 2012. Vinification and élevage are done with indigenous yeasts in enamel vats; the vessel that Nicolas thinks is optimal for minimal impact on the wines. Sulfur additions are kept to a minimum and are made a few days before bottling, a length Nicolas deems crucial to the SO2’s integration with the finished wine; bottling is done without fining or filtration. In short, these are pure, well-made wines.

Nicolas in the cellar next to his enamel vats. Photo: Mike Foulk

Even though we are just starting to see the fruits of Nicolas’ labor (most of his vines are still too young to be in production), there’s no doubt that it’s the beginning of something great. It’s not every day that you are able to drink a small piece of winemaking history. Tim Gagnon

Gonin 2014 Isère - Balmes Dauphinoises Blanc Classique

The blend for Nicolas’ Blanc Classique cuvée changes every year and this vintage is a lip-smacking and delicious combination of Viognier, Altesse, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris planted in mainly gravel soils. It opens up with gorgeous fleshy tropical fruits on the nose followed by distinctive aromas of walnut shells, lime sorbet, and purple wildflower. On the palate it is mouth-coating with waxy citrus, pear skin, and honeydew melon flavors anchored by minerals and a nice jolt of acidity. This wine is an excellent value to be enjoyed on its own or alongside full-flavored fish dishes! Tim Gagnon

  • Out of Stock
  • white
  • 0 in stock
  • $19.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Gonin 2013 Isère - Balmes Dauphinoises Altesse

This is a classic and delicious Altesse from Nicolas Gonin! It is rich, honeyed, and a bit toasty on the nose with aromas of walnuts, flowers, butterscotch, and tropical fruits. The palate is refreshingly crisp with sea salt, minerals, and a delicate peppery kick balanced by luscious tropical fruits and citrus pith. This a serious contender at the dinner table alongside a multitude of poultry dishes or with soft, tangy cheeses. Tim Gagnon

  • Out of Stock
  • white
  • 0 in stock
  • $20.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Gonin 2014 Isère - Balmes Dauphinoises Verdesse

2014 was the first year Nicolas' Verdesse vines were old enough to be harvested for production, and we are extremely pleased with the results! Verdesse is a variey that ampelographers widely agree is very old, most likely originating in the Drac and Grésivaudan valleys in Isère. This drinks like a true mountain wine with heady and complex aromas of jasmine, mountain meadow, Meyer lemon, Bosc pear, and a touch of melon. The palate is invigorating, skewing a bit more lean than expected, with a racy acidity, fleshy fruit and a graceful salinity. This wine made from such an obscure varietal is well-worth exploring for a distinctive, cerebral experience. Tim Gagnon

  • Out of Stock
  • white
  • 0 in stock
  • $22.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Gonin 2014 Mondeuse Rose

This is the first time we’ve had the pleasure of drinking Nicolas Gonin’s rosé and we love it! It is a blend of 85% Mondeuse, 10% Pinot Noir, and 5% Gamay planted in soils rich with sandstone. The grapes are allowed to ferment naturally in concrete tanks and are bottled with a minimal amount of S02 making for a fresh and zippy wine that’s sure to quench your thirst! Cranberries, clementine, and ripe black cherries come to mind on the nose along with a more exotic note of guava. On the palate it is dry and lean with minerals, juicy watermelon and an invigorating acidity. At 10% in alcohol, and being an excellent value for a truly well-made wine, we’ll be gulping this all year! Tim Gagnon

  • Out of Stock
  • rosé
  • 0 in stock
  • $14.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Gonin 2012 Isère - Balmes Dauphinoises Persan

Although the exact origins of this grape variety are unknown, the earliest mention of Persan was in 1846 in the department of Isère. This is exactly what has brought Nicolas Gonin to work with this variety. Nicolas farms 4.5 hectares in the village of Saint-Chef and spends his time between his own domaine and working in a nursery tracing the lineage of ancient grapes and trying to bring back the lost varieties of his region. Gonin’s Persan is harvested by hand and destemmed before it is fermented with native yeasts in enamel vats. With 8-10 days of maceration before pressing, the wine gains a lot of depth and beautiful color. On the nose it shows dark plum, pomegranate seeds, and blackberry compote. The palate shows more plum with white pepper and minerals balanced by a fresh acidity and supple tannins. While not necessarily full-bodied, this would pair well with heartier food this coming winter! Tim Gagnon

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $23.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur