One cannot think of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the most celebrated cru of the Southern Rhône, without thinking of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. The Brunier family is legendary in its own right, having been rooted to the enigmatic plateau known as “La Crau” for over one hundred years. The wines of Vieux Télégraphe evoke the concept of terroir in its purest form: they reflect their dramatic climate, the rough terrain that defines the soil, their full sun exposure at a higher altitude, the typicity of the varietals with an emphasis on Grenache, and of course, the influence of their caretakers, the Brunier family. For many, La Crau is Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s grandest cru.
The Bruniers’ story begins in 1898 with Hippolyte Brunier. A modest farmer who lived off the land, Hippolyte kept less than a hectare of vines to make his own wines. His small vineyard was at one of the highest points in between Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bédarrides, a stony plateau called “La Crau”. The elevation of this terrain had prompted the construction of a communication tower in the late 18th century to transmit telegraph messages between Marseilles and Paris. Otherwise, the allure of this barren landscape is not immediately discernable—there is nothing but galets roulés, or rounded stones, as far as the eye can see. Up so high, the vineyards are exposed to all kinds of elements—rain, hail, scorching sunshine, and especially the unruly Mistral. This was unwelcome terrain where only the toughest vigneron dare plant, although the notorious mistral works wonderfully to prevent rot.
However difficult to farm, Hippolyte saw how the wine from his parcel pleased others, and he began bottling more, gradually increasing his vineyard holdings to sixteen hectares. His sons helped work the farm, although most of the grapes were being sold off as premium fruit to négociants. The Bruniers weathered many storms—not the least of which was the ravaging of their vineyards by phylloxera. Hippolyte’s grandson, Henri, eventually joined the family business, and with him came great changes: replanting the vineyards, the construction of a new winery, bringing temperature control into the winery to protect the wines during the fermentations, and most importantly, the launching of the domaine’s first bottlings under the Vieux Télégraphe label.
After years of closer study, La Crau proved to be a privileged vineyard site. At the extreme southeast of the appellation, a large three-meter trench in the vineyard reveals its stratifications, millions of years in the making. The layers show early alluvial deposits, limestone, silica, and a robust red clay (known as molasse) that has come to characterize this terrain. Sitting on the surface of the soil, the galets hold important functions: they insulate the vines from both the cold and the heat, and they provide ideal drainage for the roots.
Kermit first met Henri and his wife, Maguey, in the mid-seventies. As Henri began to filter the wine around 1980, Kermit asked that his blend remain unfiltered. When the Bruniers had tasted the results of several vintages, they returned to an unfiltered bottling for their entire production. Henri retired in 1988 and left the domaine in the hands of his two sons, Daniel and Frédéric. The Brunier Brothers have expanded the family’s holdings significantly to seventy hectares, and have boldly expanded their winemaking ventures into new territory. They have created the second label for Vieux Télégraphe known as Télégramme (formerly known as Vieux Mas des Papes), they purchased Domaine La Roquète in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and they joined forces with Kermit Lynch to buy the historic Domaine Les Pallières in Gigondas (which had been in the Roux family for over five hundred years!).
The wines of V.T. are classics, displaying strength, rusticity, earthiness, and tremendous longevity. The old vines of La Crau are all used for the final assemblage. The grapes from the newer vines (still all over twenty years) are used for the wines of Télégramme. The greatness of the domaine is just as much a tribute to the Bruniers as it is to La Crau—they have the ability to make great wine even in tough vintages. Their goal is to find a harmony between aromatic complexity, tannic structure, and richness, which they achieve year after year. The maligned 1984 vintage is still a marvelous wine.
The range of their other projects has served to express the variety of terroirs in the region, representing a diversity that defies any stylistic pigeonholing. For more information on the Bruniers’ projects, please link to the following: