A Fascinating Visit to Domaine Bernard Gripa

A visit to Domaine Bernard Gripa was a revelation about the movement to finesse in St. Joseph, as much for whites as for reds. Gripa is one of the old-line domains in Mauves, in the heart of the St. Joseph appellation. “I’m Fabrice, Bernard’s son,” says Fabrice Gripa when I arrive, “I took over the domain in 1993, now I’m the winemaker and manager (and owner). My family has been in France since the seventeenth century, and involved in wine since then; my grandfather made some wine, but mostly sold in bulk, as glass was expensive and he bottled wine only on special demand. My father started bottling in 1974 and since then we have bottled everything.” The address of the domain is in the main street through Mauves, but in fact the premises–an old building and caves–are round the back and quite extensive.

The domain is just behind the main street through Mauves.

Vineyards are half red and half white, all in St. Joseph except for 5 ha of white in St. Péray. “All our St. Joseph plots are in the “berceau” (the heart of St. Joseph),” Fabrice says, “divided between Mauves and Tournon.” Winemaking is traditional. “We are quite classical, there’s really no innovation here.” In each appellation, there are two cuvées, a general blend, and a selection from the best plots (called Le Berceau for St. Joseph in both red and white). The first new cuvée was introduced in 2016, Le Paradis from St. Joseph. “I planted the vineyard 20 years ago and now it’s good enough to be made alone,” Fabrice says.

Whites are an unusually high proportion of production here. Fabrice is interesting about them. “White is a novelty in this area, until recently it was 99% red. The whites used to be powerful. People here like whites that are quite massive, they don’t like acidity. Even now if you try to use a northern vineyard for whites, people don’t like it, they think it has too much acidity. The difficulty with Marsanne is that it needs oxidation, but it becomes over-oaked quite easily. There was no experience with Roussanne until the recent replanting. Then it was trial by mistake.”

“In the 1990s, the most important thing for reds was to be big and concentrated. Everyone was taking grapes off to get down to 35 hl/ha. They made the whites the same way, so the whites were very strong and powerful. It works in Hermitage because the terroir compensates, but in St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, the wines were heavy. When I grew up, whites were heavy and bitter, and made for aging. It’s very easy to put wine into new barrels for two years and then to sell it, but to find the right balance of oak and aging is more difficult.” Gripa’s whites age in barriques or demi-muids with 10-15% new oak.

“The big difference between St. Péray and St. Joseph is of course the soils, the climate is similar, but there’s granite in St. Joseph,” Fabrice explains. The white St. Joseph is 70% Marsanne with 30% Roussanne and is quite aromatic. The Berceau cuvée comes from a single vineyard of 100% Marsanne and is correspondingly more powerful. If you drink the whites young, open a few hours ahead. In St. Péray, Les Pins is 70% Marsanne and 30% Roussanne, while Les Figuiers is 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne, and includes old vines. Usually at 3-5 years the fruits become less obvious, and savory almost herbal notes appear, a bit sooner for a hot vintage, a bit later for a cool vintage. “4-5 years is the best time to drink the white,” Fabrice says, but then he pulls out some older vintages. After ten years, the aromatics have changed completely, from fruity to savory. The revelation is a 20-year old St. Péray, all full of savory flavors. It is fair to say that Les Figuiers is the most elegant wine I have had from St. Péray.

By contrast with the whites, Fabrice prefers the reds younger. “The Syrah with Hermitage has a stage when it goes down quite low, but then it comes back. St. Joseph stays down. I prefer the St. Joseph between 4 and 5 years, I find Syrah less interesting after 10 years than earlier.” The St. Joseph red can be quite stern and tannic on release, but after 3-4 years becomes more fragrant, mineral, and precise. Le Berceau comes from a plot of vines first planted in 1920 in the St. Joseph lieu-dit. Its richer, deeper, more concentrated fruits make the tannins less obvious even though the wine is more intense. It can veer from overtly powerful in hot vintages to relatively fresh in cool vintages.

Le Paradis is a selection from a 2 ha plot­–the rest goes into the St. Joseph blend–and there are only 2,000 bottles. It spends a year in demi-muids with 25% new oak, followed by a year in 4-5-year barriques, and is very fine, with a great sense of precision and tension. Its silky tannins show all the tautness of granite. “Most of the reds of Tournon are powerful,” Fabrice says, “and I wanted to change tradition with this terroir, which is really different.”

Hearing Fabrice’s thoughtful analysis of the reds and whites, not to mention tasting the range through both young and old vintages, made this one of my most interesting visits to the Northern Rhône last week.