French winemaker Philippe Guigal is asking about the Canadian rock band Rush. Specifically, do I know the members personally?
"No," I reply, hastily reaching for another fact that might forge common musical ground. "But I did see them at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1978."
Turns out Mr. Guigal, who with his father Marcel runs E. Guigal, the most acclaimed winery in the northern Rhône Valley, is no prog-rock fan. By his own account, he's not even much familiar with Rush's music.
"We're good friends," he says of the power trio's two Toronto-based members, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. Mr. Lifeson, a grape groupie, has vacationed with Mr. Guigal in Greece and even attended the 35-year-old's wedding two years ago.
Such is the odd reality of the luxury-wine world. It's Mr. Guigal, not Rush, who can claim bigger "rock star" status among lovers of the vine. His top wines command $300 to $700 a bottle, depending on vintage, and typically can be purchased in significant quantities only by insiders with tight connections to the trade.
A regal cellar is incomplete without a stash of E. Guigal's own power trio, La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque, all reds named after tiny vineyards in the Côte-Rôtie district. Aficionados call them the "La-Las."
I have come to Ampuis, a remarkably dull-looking little industrial town north of Lyon, to taste the newly released La-Las from the good 2006 vintage. I've also come to savour something more special, at least to me, about the Rhône Valley.
In terms of profile, the Rhône, stretching roughly from Lyon in the north to Avignon in the south, has always ranked as France's "third" great vine land, behind Bordeaux and Burgundy. But it can boast something those places cannot - a vast quantity of affordable wines that represent some of the best-value drinking anywhere. If you're familiar with such place names as Côtes-du-Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage, Cairanne, Vacqueyras and Gigondas, you'll know what I mean.
Nowhere is the Rhône's broad appeal more evident than in the vast, barrel-crammed cellars of E. Guigal. The family-run winery's anchor product, Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône red ($17 to $24 across the country), which accounts for half the estate's six-million-bottle annual production, is a standard-bearer for consistent quality. Though fruit-forward and easy to gulp, the syrah-grenache blend usually manages to deliver the savoury notes of licorice and herbs so prized in Rhône wines.
Even during the recent recession, which pummelled French exports generally, including Guigal's, value-seeking local consumers turned in growing numbers to Guigal's reliable entry-level wines. "We are the type of estate where French people who are searching for good Côtes-du-Rhône say, 'Let's go. Let's drink Guigal,' " Mr. Guigal says. "That's it. Easy."
The red Côtes-du-Rhône also happens to be widely available across Canada, which ranks third among Guigal's 93 export markets, after the United States and Japan. Canada, you could say, loves Guigal.
So do the critics. Influential U.S. wine scorer Robert Parker Jr. often is credited with igniting the fortunes of E. Guigal 25 years ago, after Philippe's dad, Marcel, took over from his own father, Etienne. Mr. Parker enthused that he has "never seen a producer so fanatical about quality as Marcel Guigal."
Founded in the post-war haze of 1946, E. Guigal was something of a gamble in the northern Rhône, whose vineyards, interspersed between more lucrative apricot orchards, fell on hard times. It's haunting, upon tasting a rare, aged bottle of Guigal's top Côte-Rôties, to think that much of the land here had been targeted for non-agricultural development by Ampuis's mayor.
The single-vineyard reds from the Côte-Rôtie, so austere and perplexing in their youth, can blossom into multilayered explosions after two decades or more in bottle, offering up flavours of leather, tobacco, black pepper, underbrush and roast beef or bacon drippings, all carried on a core of succulent dark-skinned fruit. Are there more transcendent wines on Earth? If so, not many.
Sadly, they'll set you back more than a pair of floor seats at a Rush concert.
The 2005 La Landonne, for example, quickly soared to $750 from a release price of just over $300 after Mr. Parker's gushing review. (In Ontario, the Vintages department of the LCBO is currently offering limited quantities of 10 top Guigal wines from the 2006, 2007 and 2008 harvests in a special phone-order release. Visit Vintages.com or call 416-365-5767 or toll-free 1-800-266-4764.)
Just a fraction of Guigal's wines come from its estate vineyards in the northern Rhône Valley, which encompasses such storied districts as Hermitage and Saint Joseph in addition to Côte-Rôtie. The tiny zone features some of the steepest hillside plantings on the planet, all harvested by hand from well-drained soils that enable the parsimonious old vines to concentrate flavours. Most of Guigal's more affordable products are blended from components that Philippe and Etienne purchase as finished wines in the vast southern Rhône, home to such districts as Côtes-du-Rhône, Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Philippe, who personally sifts through thousands of components with his father each year, credits the winery's blending skill and willingness to pay top brokerage commissions for the best juice for its success as a large-scale producer.
The winery also takes the costly step of skipping production in tough years, when the fruit isn't up to snuff, as in 2008. "My production for Côtes-du-Rhône 2008 red will be zero," Mr. Guigal says. "My Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2008 will be zero. My Gigondas 2008 will be zero."
Not every wine is stellar, to be frank. I'm not smitten with the 2008 Côtes-du-Rhône rosé. But I wouldn't turn down a chilled glass on a sunny spring day.
In a year when Bordeaux is enjoying crazed demand for wines still maturing in barrel from the hyped 2009 harvest, Mr. Guigal is eager to set the record straight on Bordeaux's debatable image as France's greatest wine region. Sure, the top 5 per cent of châteaux deserve glory, but the thousands that make up the rest can disappoint from a quality-price perspective, he says.
"Today, when you say Bordeaux you think of Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Petrus," he says. "You think the big names. But we have a plus in the Rhône. We have a lot of appellations where we have a very good pleasure-price ratio. They're not very well-known. But people, they normally find delicious wines for affordable prices."
Even people who aren't rock stars.