It was Henri Brunier who laid the first stone in 1891. He bought some land to the east of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and gave it to his son, Hippolyte. 'Why did he buy it? We don't know,' says Daniel. 'It wasn't even vines, it was woods.'
At this time, Châteauneuf was already internationally recognized for the quality of its wine, so even if clearing the land was hard work, deciding what to plant was less of a challenge. Hippolyte's son Jules extended the domaine to 17ha and named it after a nearby stone tower that was used to transmit messages by semaphore.
The following generation, another Henri, enlarged the estate to 55ha before bequeathing it to current owners Daniel and Frédéric. Under their command, expansion has been rapid. They've grown their Châteauneuf holdings to 100ha, bought 20ha in and around Ventoux, acquired Domaine les Pallières in Gigondas with US importer Kermit Lynch, and created Massaya estate in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley with partners Sami and Ramzi Ghosn.
Family members each have their own area of responsibility. Daniel's duties are principally commercial, and his son, Edouard, 27, manages their three Rhône wineries. Frédéric and his son Nicolas, 30, concentrate more on the vineyards, and Frédéric's daughter Manon works in the offices. When it comes to winemaking, however, everyone is involved. 'The goal is that you don't know who made it,' says Daniel.
The use of winemaking consultants has become increasingly prevalent in Châteauneuf-du-Pape over the past few decades, but Daniel stresses that there is no outside influence over the winemaking at Vieux Télégraphe. Theirs is a fiercely independent estate. 'It's important to be ourselves,' says Daniel, 'and not to try to copy others.'
At a glance
Location: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Southern Rhône, France
Winemakers: Daniel, Frédéric, Edouard, and Nicolas Brunier
Vineyard area: 56ha
Viticultural approach: Organic, not certified
For the Vieux Télégraphe rouge:
Grape varieties: 65% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah; remaining 5% comprised of Cinsault, Clairette and other local varieties
Average wine age: 60 years old
Average production: 200,000 bottles
For the Vieux Télégraphe blanc:
Grape varieties: 40% Clairette, 25% Grenache blanc, 25% Roussanne, 10% Bourboulenc
Average vine age: 45 years old
Average production: 20,000 bottles
1891 Henri Brunier I bequeathes a parcel of land on La Crau to his son, Hippolyte Brunier
1915 Jules Brunier, son of Hippolyte, names the estate Vieux Télégraphe
1928 Original winery built on La Crau
1945 Henri Brunier II, son of Jules, joins the estate
1979 Construction of modern, gravity-fed winery
1980 Frédéric Brunier, son of Henri Brunier II, joins the estate
1981 Daniel Brunier, son of Henri Brunier II, joins the estate
1986 Purchase of Domaine la Roquète vineyards
1998 Purchase of Domaine les Pallières, Gigondas; creation of Massaya, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon
2002 No Vieux Télégraphe red made due to floods; first vintage of 'Télégramme'
2011 Construction of current winery
2011 First vintage of 'Piedlong'
2015 Nicolas Brunier, son of Frédéric, joins the estate
2016 Edouard Brunier, son of Daniel, joins the estate
2018 Manon Brunier, daughter of Frédéric, joins the estate
La Crau, La Crau, La Crau
When I ask which three things all wine lovers need to know about Vieux Télégraphe, Daniel's answer is immediate: 'La Crau, La Crau, La Crau!' This plateau of galets roulés to the east of the village is one of the highest in the appellation, and it has long been considered one of the best sectors for making wine in Châteauneuf. Their holdings are among the largest in the appellation.
To the naked eye, these endless fields of fist-sized, rounded, beige stones appear callously inhospitable. But it's what's underneath that counts - deep, water-retaining clays which nourish the vines during hot, dry summers. 'The vines need to suffer a little,' says Daniel, but hydric stress arrives relatively late here, which ensures steadier ripening, creating finer tannins.
Irrigation is allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but only to aid ripening during the growing season, and only when officially sanctioned. This was once only sporadic, but due to the increasingly parched summers, growers now get the go-ahead almost every year. Some producers believe irrigation is now crucial to making balanced wines. But Daniel Brunier is not a fan. 'You could turn it on at night - who's going to check?' says Daniel. 'I'm not saying it should be banned, just managed. And for now, it's not.'
Either way, he wouldn't use it for mature vineyards, as he believes it rubs out the expression of terroir. In this sense, avoiding irrigation is even more important that working organically for Daniel (they work organically but aren't certified). Avoiding irrigation is so important to him, that he believes non-irrigated wines deserve to be authenticated in the same way organic viticulture is certified.
Wish such a vast vineyard area under their control, one cumbersome challenge they face is replanting. Vines die for many reasons, whether it's young vines that don't survive the summer, disease, vineyard accidents, or old age. Every year they need to replant the equivalent of 3.5ha of vines, and they favour time-consuming mass-selection where possible, as opposed to buying clones. 'It's a colossal job,' says Daniel, and one that needs addressing every year.
'No pumps, no pipes, no screws'
On the day I visited the winery, the small wooden vats had all been drained to blend the contents before further maturation. The little door at the base of each one was wide open, and the air was heavy with black cherry jam and sweet cedar. We stuck in our heads and took deep nosefuls of the narcotic fug.
'Granche is fragile, it oxidises easily.' says Daniel. The winery moves grapes and must by gravity and vibration, 'so no pumps, no pipes, no screws'. The oldest vines on La Crau are 110 years old, and these bunches keep their stems during fermentation. Others parcels are destemmed, and they ferment with natural yeasts; 60% in stainless steel, 40% in vat. Wines are matured for two years before bottling, the first year in wooden vats of various ages, the second year in large foudres.
'What we look for is the tannic structure,' says Daniel, 'the most elegant and the most adapted to the vintage. Aromatically speaking, what matters is that the aromas come from the terroir, not the vinification; that they are created outside, not inside.'
Most of the production is red, but they produce 10% white Châteauneuf, more than the average. They've been makling white wine since the beginning, and these grapes are also grown on La Crau. It's a blend of Clairette, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc that's matured for a year in barrels of various sizes, with a minimal use of new oak.
They do not make a cuvée spéciale, neither do they intend to (their bottles state 'La Crau' on the label, but this is not a cuvée name as such.) They do however make some other Châteauneufs since purchasing another domaine.
'Piedlong' is a blend of old-vine Grenache from lieu-dit Pied Long with 10% Mourvèdre from lieu-dit Pignan.
'Clos la Roquète' is a fine and mineral white from lieu-dit la Roquète, a third each of Roussanne, Clairette and Grenache Blanc. Both can rival Vieux Télégraphe in quality, if not ageing potential.
'Télégramme' is a destemmed red cuvée from other parcels and young vines. You may have heard a whisper of the legendary 'Cuvée Hippolyte' - it does exist. It's an experimental cuvée, different each year, made in reasonable quantity - but not sold commercially.
For the cellar
All these wines can be drunk straight away, but when it comes to Vieux Télégraphe, try to hold onto the reds for at least 10 years before drinking. This isn't because it's particularly robust or tannic when young; in fact, the opposite is true. It's so silky and welcoming straight after bottling means that a lot gets drunk on release. At this stage, although delicious, it can lack complexity. Although he loves drinking it young, Daniel admits, 'to know it, you have to age it.' To ensure more drinkings get to experience Vieux Télégraphe at its peak, he is currently overseeing the construction of a new cellar specifically for bottle ageing.
It will be the next generation who benefits from this. The 1990s and 2000s were a period of prosperity for Châteauneuf, but Daniel and Frédéric didn't take it for granted; they invested in the firm and have created an empire. His son Edouard is ready to grasp the baton. 'Our main objective is to follow the family line,' he says, 'respecting the raw materials. The grapes of La Crau, without mask or make-up.'