Founded in 1948, Domaine Pierre Usseglio is the creation of an Italian whose family, over the course of three generations, has carved out a world-class reputation for making outstanding wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Francis Usseglio left Italy in 1931 to work in the vineyards of France, eventually purchasing just enough hectares in 1948 to start his own winery. A year later he produced his first wine and six years later he handed the reigns to his son Pierre. With Pierre at the helm, the winery increased its hectares substantially and produced very good wine, but it has been the vision and management by Pierre’s sons Thierry and Jean-Pierre who now run the winery that has propelled it to producing wines of excellence that can be counted among the best of the region.
Our visit to Domaine Pierre Usseglio was an absolute highlight of our recent trip to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Sandrine Usseglio (Thierry’s wife) greeted us warmly and was incredibly accommodating making time for us despite the fact they were preparing to depart the next day for a trip to Asia. Thierry was equally gracious with his time and despite his limited English and our very basic French, he explained the region, the location and characteristics of the vineyards, as well as his wines and winemaking style, with a passion that superseded any language barrier. Each of his wines we tasted were excellent (see tasting notes at the end of the article) and validated why Châteauneuf-du-Pape easily ranks among our favourite regions.
Today, Domaine Pierre Usseglio has 24 hectares under vine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape divided into 17 different parcels. Their youngest vines are 30 to 40 years old but more than half of their vines are 60 years old or more. Their vineyards are characterized by sandy soil that is covered in “galets roules”—large pebbles that the region is known for which retain heat and assist in ripening the grapes. These galets, which are roughly the size of your hand, are a key component of the terroir. The rocks heat up during the day and release that heat back onto the vines in the cool of the evenings, enhancing the ripening process.
The Domaine’s traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge is a blend of mostly Grenache at 80%, 10% Syrah and the balance made up of 5% Cinsault and 5% Mourvedre. The average age of the vines are 40-80 years old and the grapes are partly destemmed with fermentation lasting from 30-40 days. This wine is big and full bodied and a very authentic reflection of the terroir.
Thierry & Jean-Pierre’s focus since taking over the family business has always been to continue improving the quality of the wine by introducing some modern techniques while still preserving the traditions of both the winery and the region. For example, they started destemming the harvested grapes for their Cuvées effectively allowing them to augment the macerations and thus produce wines that are less tannic when they are young, but still retain the ability to age.
But Thierry and Jean-Pierre were also keen to experiment with their old vines and make wines other than their signature traditional blend. In 1998 they introduced their first new Cuvée: the Cuvée de Mon Aïeul and followed that up with the Réserve des Deux Frères in 2000. The Cuvée de Mon Aïeul is 100% Grenache from vines that average 75 to 90 years old from such renowned vineyards as La Crau, Les Serres and Les Bedines. The Mon Aïeul has been a darling among wine critics since its inaugural vintage and garnered widespread international attention when the 2007 vintage was given a perfect score of 100 points by Robert Parker.
The Réserve des Deux Frères is a blend of mostly Grenache (70%-90% depending on the vintage) with the remainder made up of Syrah. A more modern style wine, the winery employs a technique common in Châteauneuf-du-Pape of keeping the wines in a combination of oak barrels, cement tanks and demi muids (large 600 litre barrels) for two to three years prior to bottling. The benefit of doing so reduces the impact of oak on the wine which is particularly advantageous with grapes such as Grenache that don’t benefit from the vanilla characteristics. This is a powerful wine that is even more full bodied than the Mon Aïeul and it’s recommended that it be forgotten in the cellar for at least a dozen years!
What became abundantly clear from tasting two of the three Cuvées at Domaine Pierre Usseglio (along with their Côtes du Rhône and Lirac blends), is that Thierry and Jean-Pierre have found the perfect combination of producing wines that simultaneously reflect the terroir in both the traditional and modern style to please both ends of the palate spectrum. We found the more modern style wines very approachable as young wines, and tasted as far back to the 2001 traditional red which distinctly demonstrated how well these wines age.
As we walked away from the winery toward the house we were renting in the Old Village, we could see the ruins of the 14th century castle up ahead. It occurred to us that sitting in the shadow of all this history and under the guidance of its third generation, the future of Domaine Pierre Usseglio is in very good hands.
Bright cherry flavours and aroma mix with lightly floral notes, minerals and an attractive, long finish with notes of pepper. Medium body with medium+ tannins. This is very good quality Cotes du Rhone, especially for the vintage. Would hold its own well against wines from the surrounding appellations.
Here the dials get turned up a bit as this wine sees 12 months in oak. Medium+ body with medium tannin, this is a very ripe, fruit-driven profile with a long herb-tinged finish. Well balanced, and ready to drink now.
2012 Chateauneuf du Pape Tradition
80% Grenache, 10% Mouvedre, 5% Cinsault and 5% Syrah. 40% stems included. Dark cherry fruit is supported by herbs and minerals to form a very complex profile. The tannins provide backbone without being obtrusive and the little acid lets the roundness of the fruit grab your attention. This wine is impeccably balanced and drinking beautifully now, but should see another 10 years or more of good drinking.
2013 Chateauneuf du Pape Tradition
This is an outlier from other 2013s we tasted in Chateauneuf in that the tannins were smooth and polished. Thierry chose to include 20% stems this vintage; a good call and no doubt a contributor to this wines smoothness. A similar blend to the 2012, it does not quite possess the heft of its older brother but must be considered a great success coming from this difficult vintage.
An homage to the family lineage, “aieul” means ancestor. This limited production wine is made from 100% Grenache. Charming, forward and possessing great power this wine thrills at the first sip and somehow manages to get even better as it evolves in the glass! Black cherry on the front with notes of pepper, herbs, and other spices, this wine has a ripe profile that is already complex. Intense flavours marry with a full body in a big but superbly balanced wine. This wine will no doubt go the distance so try to keep your hands off it for a few years and allow a little more development in bottle.
2001 Chateauneuf du Pape Tradition
Thierry opened this bottle to let us see how his wines age. And do they age! The nose showed classic tertiary notes of mushroom, earth, forest floor and a certain funkiness that can only be found in wines with considerable bottle age. The cherry profile of the younger vintages had evolved and taken on elements of prunes as well as hint of tawny port. Very complex and wonderfully smooth this delicious wine was drinking at peak and demonstrated the reward of letting time bring out full development.
2015 Reserve des Deux Freres
Dark red and saturated looking in colour, this powerhouse of a wine shows high impact before you even take the first sip. Like Mon Aieul, this cuvee is 100% Grenache. It is raised in 60% new and once-used barrels. Rich and full in body it also has moderately firm tannin and medium acidity at this stage. While it cries out for time in the cellar (don’t touch it for 5 years!) its magnificent potential is clearly evident. The black cherry flavours are ripe and intense and dominate the profile now. No doubt more complexity will develop over time. To our tastes, the most modern styled in their lineup, it is a hedonistic wine that shows great class!