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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The Northern Rhône's New Kids on the Block

More 2012 Côte-Rôties, along with intriguing wines from Hermitage, St.-Joseph and Condrieu at Pierre-Jean Villa and Julien Pilon
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 11, 2013 3:20pm ET

Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France, visiting select domaines of the Northern Rhône Valley, tasting the 2012 vintage and more in Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Hermitage and Cornas.

Pierre-Jean Villa

It's a good thing Pierre-Jean Villa has taken up jogging to get in shape: He's a very busy man these days. This vigneron, who helped get the Vins de Vienne project up and running, continues to grow his own domaine. Villa owns 27 acres of vines planted in the Northern Rhône (17 are in production, the rest coming on line soon). Villa splits his time between the Rhône and Burgundy, where he works on a domaine with Olivier Decelle, the owner of Château Jean Faure in St.-Emilion. The Rhône domaine is producing 2,500 cases annually now, and will grow to more than 4,000 cases as the additional parcels come on line. For more background you can reference my notes from my 2012 visit here.

For the tasting, Villa showed all his most recently bottled cuvées, spanning 2011 and 2012. New to the lineup is the 2012 Crozes-Hermitage Accroche Cœur. Sourced from young vines, the wine is given a short and easy maceration. Only used barrels are used for the élevage, and this wine has already been bottled. It delivers an easy, drinkable yet bright and racy wine with delightful red and black cherry fruit and a hint of white pepper on the finish.

"If you extract too much, the risk is to wind up with vegetal aromas and flavors," said Villa. "So just gentle pump over and no pigéage [punch down]."

The 2012 St.-Joseph Préface is sourced from 25- to 30-year-old vines near Sarras, as well as Serrières and Chavanay. It is very expressive, with nearly ebullient black cherry fruit, light briar stitching and bouncy spice notes running through the nicely crisp finish.

From Villa's vines around Seyssuel, the 2011 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Esprit d'Antan is a very racy, almost taut wine, with lovely bitter plum, red currant and iron notes that stretch out nicely through the finish. Vinified and aged in demi-muid, then aged 16 months, it's a pure, racy style that really shows the extra ripeness of Seyssuel vis a vis Côte-Rôtie, while keeping its distinctive spicy edge and graphite note at the end. Villa is among a dozen growers who have helped develop Seyssuel, where there are now over 75 acres of vines. The group is now combining forces to push for official AOC status for the area.

The 2011 Côte-Rôtie Carmina is the one cuvée to be fermented with some whole bunches (40 percent in 2011). Sourced from old vines (planted in 1955 and 1957) in the Fongeant lieu-dit and aged for 24 months in a mix of barrel and demi-muid, it's a dark, powerful wine with a strong mesquite note piercing the black currant and bitter plum notes. The finish shows nicely rigid grip with a lingering charcoal note.

The 2011 St.-Joseph Tildé is vinfied and aged in the same way as the Carmina. It's the rare St.-Joseph that gets served after a Côte-Rôtie, but this contains fruit from the oldest vines in Chavanay, planted before World War II. The depth is admirable, very dark, with lots of briar and mouthfilling black currant and fig notes that are also very well-defined. The graphite edge on the finish is very prominent too. Overall the range isn't there, but the vivid fruit, intense focus and definition of what is there is dramatic—like a perfectly composed and exposed black and white film, this doesn't need the pyrotechnics of color to display its terroir. Both 2011s show serious grip and are in marked contrast to the friendly feel of the 2012 reds.

"2011 got off to a quick start but then cooled down, so the maturity went very slowly and the tannins are more present than in 2012. The structure of 2012 is sweeter which means the impression of 2011 is more tannins, but they're there in 2012. You just don't feel it the same way," said Villa.

The 2012 St.-Joseph White Saut de l'Ange has fresh green almond, plantain and honeysuckle notes. This rare 100 percent Roussanne cuvée stays fresh and stony through the finish, with a bitter almond edge that adds length.

"I like Roussanne because it's more expressive with more freshness when young. Marsanne needs time, at least five years, to show its complexity. Since I'm looking to make a wine that's drinkable early, I made the choice of Roussanne," said Villa.

The 2012 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes White Primavera is a Viognier bottling. It's very fresh and floral, with plantain, chamomile and fennel notes and a pleasantly stony edge on the finish. It's deceptively long, too, showing nice finesse as it lingers.

"Again, I'm looking for a wine that is drinkable early, so no new oak and no bâtonnage [lees stirring], to keep the freshness," said Villa.

Lastly comes another new addition to the lineup, the 2012 Condrieu Jardin Suspendu, sourced from two parcels planted in 2009. Plump, with green plum, fennel and creamed nectarine notes, it's a flattering, rounded style. Despite it being the first crops vinified from these plantings, the wine has depth and length.

"The difference on young-vine white is totally different than young-vine red," said Villa. "Young-vine whites are hard to tell from older vines. Young-vine reds you can see in the tank, the color and concentration isn't the same. Young- and old-vine whites are much closer to each other in quality than reds. There's still a difference, but not as evident. Maybe in a vintage like 2003, or 2010, where there is either extreme weather or terrific quality, young- and old-vine white cuvées will show more difference. But in a classic, fresh year like 2012, it's very hard to tell."

Julien Pilon

Julien Pilon spent 10 years working in the Languedoc for Olivier Decelle and then moved to the Rhône where he was the cellar hand of Pierre-Jean Villa as he was starting his domaine (see above). Pilon, 36, has since gone out on his own, debuting his wines in the 2010 vintage. The wines entered the U.S. market with the 2011 vintage, which is good news, as this is a very promising project, specializing in white wine.

Pilon is renting cellar space in Condrieu and has an expanding set of wines. For logistical purposes we tasted at chez Villa, as the two are still good friends. Pilon started by buying grapes but has since added 10 acres of rented parcels to his portfolio in order to gain better control over viticulture and quality. And after starting with just white wines, he has added some red as well. Pilon is growing quickly—after making 1,400 cases of eight different wines in 2011, he jumped to 2,333 cases and 13 different wines in 2012. He hasn't set any specific limits either.

"I don't really know," he answered with a half-chuckle when I asked him where he wants to top out at. "The ideal is to have a balance between producing and staying in control of everything, while enjoying life. Maybe that's around 2,500 cases. But then again, it's hard to say 'No' to clients if they like your wine and want more. So, we'll see."

"The main thing I want to develop though is the sourcing," said Pilon. "I want to control the viticulture, rather than just buy grapes. So I'm looking for places where I can plant my own vineyards, as well as rented parcels where I can do the viticulture."

The 2012 Marsanne Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Le Bruit des Vagues is sourced from St.-Pierre-de-Bœuf, just above the St.-Joseph appellation but with the same granitic soils. It's vinified in a mix of stainless steel and used barrels resulting in friendly nectarine and almond notes with a lightly waxy feel through the finish.

"We need some wines to drink now, some to age. This is to drink now, so the idea is to keep it fresh, pure. But the wine is also the introduction to the rest of the production, so you have to still pay attention and keep the style of the domaine," said Pilon.

The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage White Nuit Blanch is all Marsanne, sourced from granitic soils in the appellation. Vinified in used barrels, the wine is filled with honeysuckle and white peach notes backed by a nicely piercing yellow apple fruit note that drives the finish.

"Most of Crozes produces bigger whites from clay and gravel soils, but I wanted something fresh in style, so finding granite was key," said Pilon. "I also do bâtonnage on some barrels, but not all. I decide to do it by taste. Sometimes it's not necessary if the midpalate is already there in the wine. Too much bâtonnage can tire the wine. Marsanne is prone to oxidize and you can smell it easily."

The 2012 St.-Péray Les Maisons de Victor is also entirely Marsanne (though some Roussanne will be added in 2013). The wine's minerality starts right from the start, with a lively chalky note giving it a strong spine while honeysuckle, melon and green plum notes run along the edges. The wine is vinified in barrels with oak staves but acacia heads, which Pilon feels adds a nice tension to the wine.

The St.-Joseph White Dimanche à Lima is an 80/20 Marsanne and Roussanne blend which utilizes a little new oak. The plumper feel is evident, but there's still plenty of purity too, with creamed yellow apple and melon flavors and a kiss of brioche on the finish.

There are just 1,000 bottles of the 2012 Hermitage White Prisme, which is vinified in a 500-liter barrel and regular barrel (225-liter). There's more oak influence on this pure Marsanne bottling as the 500-liter cask is new, and the richly textured wine has creamed apricot, melon and Jonagold apple with a long, heather-filled finish that sails along beautifully.

"But the 500-liter cask has less oak influence than a barrel because the volume of wine is greater, so in that way I keep the amount of new oak down," said Pilon. "But for a wine with this power, because of the terroir, this is the one wine that can handle it."

Starting the Viognier portion of the portfolio is the 2012 Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Mon Grand-Pére Était Limonadier. It combines fruit from Chavanay (granite) as well as the Ardèche (limestone). It's plump but has a good bitter almond edge for balance, letting the plantain and green almond notes linger easily. As with his Marsanne Vin de Pays, it's an ideal introduction to the grape and Pilon's pure, unadorned style.

From vines in Seyssuel (schist soils, instead of the more typical granite for white Rhône wines) comes the 2012 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Frontière, a Viognier that shows more intense fennel, dried pineapple and green plum notes, with a pleasant bitter almond edge for balance. There's a strong mineral edge on the finish too, which stretches the wine out nicely. This is distinctive, as wines from Seyssuel typically are—riper than their cousins on the west side of the river, with vivid minerality.

The 2012 Condrieu Lône is a very racy style, with acacia, honeysuckle and heather notes dancing along, backed by melon rind and yellow apple fruit flavors. A mouthwatering bitter almond note cuts through the finish nicely.

There are just 75 cases of the 2012 Condrieu Vernon, which comes from the lieu-dit of Vernon, arguably the top site on Condrieu. It has both energy and a plump feel combined, with pineapple chutney, heather, white peach and green almond notes backed by a fresh, floral-framed finish. It has more power than the Lône cuvée, but stays focused and driven through the finish.

The lone red wine here is the 2012 Côte-Rôtie La Porchette, sourced from grapes in the Bassenon (granite) and Rozier (schist) parcels.

"I was offered grapes in Côte-Rôtie but, wanting to specialize in white wines, I wasn't sure. But all my friends said I was crazy not to take them, because it's so hard now to find good grapes, let alone vineyards, in Côte-Rôtie," said Pilon.

Good advice. The wine brims with blackberry and black cherry coulis aromas and flavors, lively briar and bay notes and a long, charcoal-studded finish. There's good energy through the finish with an echo of cassis lingering.

This has definitely become a domaine to watch, Pilon has taken the interesting approach of specializing in white wines, in a region where reds dominate (white wine is just 5 percent of Rhône Valley production). The wines are very much in the image of the vigneron too--understated, stylish and relying more on nuance than overt power for most of the cuvées.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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