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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Day 6: The Four Musketeers

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 4, 2007 1:32pm ET

Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and François Villard are three Condrieu-based vignerons who have been friends for years. As a trio, they started Les Vins de Vienne, and were the first to try and resurrect the ancient winemaking history in the hills on the left bank of the Rhône, south of Vienne. The project got off to a promising start, but soon its rapid growth was too much for them handle while they also ran their own domaines, and the project began to suffer.

Enter Pierre-Jean Villa, the fourth musketeer. Villa, a childhood friend of the three, had been working in Burgundy, but they convinced him to take over the day-to-day operations at Vins de Vienne, and the progress in the last few years has been impressive.

This micronégociant now produces 26,000 cases a year, and has quickly outgrown its facility in Seyssuel. A new, larger facility is now planned for Chavanay, along the main RN 86.

Villa’s idea for a négociant is to develop long-term relationships with growers and focus on very specific parcels of terroir, rather than buying grapes and wine en masse and blending together to make large-production cuvées. The company now controls the viticulture for 24 hectares of vines in the north (while still buying some grapes in the Southern Rhône).

“I could sell twice as much as I’m making now,” he said. “But that’s not what we want do at Vins de Vienne.”

The 2006 reds are to be bottled in a few months, and Villa likes the vintage for its fresh fruit and balance.

Among the red cuvées, a new cuvée called Archeveques is being introduced. The 2006 St.-Joseph Archeveques is from a single 40-year-old parcel near the town of Sarras, and is aged in 50 percent new oak. It’s dark and structured with lots of iron and sanguine notes. The 2006 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Heluicum, produced from the estate-owned vines around Vienne, is made from the younger vines selected out of the top cuvée. This 100 percent Syrah is floral and bright, with an open-knit texture. The top cuvée, the 2006 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Sotanum is now in its ninth vintage, and it seems to be getting more and more defined every year (thanks to the selection process brought about by the Heluicum). Aged in 70 percent new oak (the only cuvée from Vins de Vienne with over 50 percent), it’s plush but focused, with a racy beam of red and black fruit backed by sanguine, lavender and iron notes, with a long, supple finish.

“This spot,” said Villa, referring to their Seyssuel vineyards, “has got great terroir. It’s the northernmost spot for Syrah in the Rhône, but it produces Southern Rhône aromas of garrigue.”

Other reds include a crunchy, tangy 2006 Cornas Les Barcillants, a bright olive- and red currant-filled 2006 Côte-Rôtie Les Essartailles, and a sleek, graphite- and blackberry-filled 2006 Hermitage Les Chirats de St.-Christophe.

The white wines here are equally strong. The silver-labeled classic cuvées see no oak, and offer fresh, drink-me-now profiles. The 2006 St.-Péray is made from a blend of 80 percent Marsanne with Roussanne and has enticing floral and mineral notes, while the 2006 Condrieu has bracing green almond and quince flavors. The oak-aged cuvées have more heft, but remain pure and bright, as Villa has ratcheted down the use of new oak here over the last couple of vintages. The 2006 St.-Péray Les Bialères (60 percent Marsanne with Roussanne) is creamy textured with anise and stone notes. The 2006 St.-Péray Archeveques is from a single parcel of 50-year-old Marsanne vines, and Villa used just the clear juice from the first part of the pressing. It’s really creamy but has great purity, with a long acid-driven finish. As soon as it absorbs its 50 percent new oak, it should be dreamy. The 2006 Condrieu La Chambée continues to be a star of the portfolio, with the appellation’s full range of star fruit, almond, peach, anise and fennel notes on a remarkably lithe frame. Meanwhile the white wine from Seyssuel, the 100 percent Viognier 2006 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes White Taburnum, also continues to improve in each vintage, offering exotic notes of heather, chamomile, lemon verbena and golden apple backed by a powerful but finesse-filled finish.

Les Vins de Vienne is invigorated and focused once again, and it shows in the wines. Quality runs up and down the lineup of these modern-styled but distinctive Rhône wines.

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At chez Yves Cuilleron, construction is underway on a new cellar and tasting room, as the soft-spoken but serious vigneron continues to enjoy success.

“The alcohols in 2006 are in the 14 to 15 percent range,” said Cuilleron puffing his cheeks at the high numbers. “But they have good balance thanks to the acidity,” he added with a touch of a sigh of relief.

Cuilleron has added a new white to his portfolio, the 2006 St.-Péray Les Cerfs is a 100 percent Marsanne cuvée with rich golden raisin, chamomile and floral notes. It fits in perfectly with the house style here: richly textured, tropical notes with an overall impression of elegance and finesse. The three St.-Joseph white cuvées feature the 2006 St.-Joseph White Lyseras, made from a split of Marsanne and Roussanne, as well as a 100 percent Marsanne 2006 St.-Joseph White Lombard and 100 percent Roussanne 2006 St.-Joseph White St.-Pierre. The Roussanne cuvée comes out on top in this vintage, with surprising acidity and mouthwatering peach and fennel notes.

Cuilleron’s strong suit is with Condrieu, and from young vine parcels in Chavanay, he produces the 2006 Condrieu La Petite Côte, which sees no new oak and offers green almond and golden apple flavors. The 2006 Condrieu Les Chaillets, from older vines in Chavanay, sees one-third new oak and has richer golden raisin, fennel seed and orange blossom notes. The top cuvée is the 2006 Condrieu Vertige, which typically rivals Georges Vernay’s Coteau du Vernon and François Villard’s DePoncins cuvées for the top wine in the appellation each year. It sees 18 months of aging in 80 percent new oak, and is sourced from the same Vernon parcel as Vernay’s cuvée. It’s a stunner, with fig, pear tartine, fennel seed, cardamom, blanched almond and persimmon flavors on an endless finish.

Though justifiably known for his whites, Cuilleron has a deft hand with reds too. Another trio of St.-Joseph cuvées is topped by the 2006 St.-Joseph Les Serines, sourced from old vines and aged in 80 percent new oak. It’s dark and very juicy, with a great core of plum and blackberry fruit followed by an alluring spice box note on the finish. The trio of Côte-Rôtie cuvées is headlined by the 100 percent new oak 2006 Côte-Rôtie Terres Sombres, which includes fruit from the La Viaillière and Rochains parcels. It’s very suave, with pure graphite, cherry pit and licorice notes and a lingering note of purple fruit on the finish.

Cuilleron continues to expand his red portfolio as well, adding a 2006 Cornas, sourced from a .6-hectare parcel of vines. It’s loaded with macerated cherry fruit and a chalky spine. In addition, Cuilleron, Villard and Gaillard have sourced fruit from a one-hectare parcel in their Seyssuel vineyards and are vinifying equal shares of it at their separate domaines. Cuilleron’s 2006 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Ripa Sinistra (100 percent Syrah) is very juicy with lots of licorice and violet notes and a sappy finish.

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The bouncy, always laughing François Villard has his cave located up on the plateau above Condrieu, in St.-Michel-sur-Rhône. As with Cuilleron, Villard specializes in white wines - but don’t overlook his reds.

The 2006 St.-Péray Version is new this time around, and this 100 percent Marsanne cuvée is peachy and broad, with a fresh, inviting finish. The St.-Joseph cuvées feature a 50-50 blend of Marsanne and Roussanne, the 2006 St.-Joseph White Mairlant, which has showy quince and glazed peach notes.

All three of Villard’s Condrieu bottlings are easily outstanding, starting with the 2006 Condrieu Les Terrasses du Palat, which has a gorgeous, porcelain-like texture and clarity to its apricot and mineral notes. The 2006 Condrieu Le Grand Vallon is broader, with juicy quince, pineapple and quartz notes. The 2006 Condrieu DePoncins, sourced from a single parcel in St.-Michel-sur-Rhône that includes some 40-year-old vines, combines the best of both though, with stunning richness and purity, it offers both powerful quince and pineapple fruit with elegant quartz and honeysuckle notes. The finish just sails on. It should be in the league of the ’04 and ’05 vintages, both of which I rated classic in quality (95 points or better on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale).

Among his reds (which include some fun Merlot blends from the Vin de Pays and even a Bordeaux) Villard’s 2006 Côte-Rôtie Le Gallet Blanc, aged in 60 percent new oak, offers telltale olive, blue and purple fruits and a long iron- and lavender-filled finish. In contrast is the 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Brocarde, a microcuvée of just 200 cases, it includes a hefty 15 percent Viognier (cofermented) and offers exotic floral and perfume notes with a lacy palate of cherry, plum and incense.

As for Villard’s cuvée from the Seyssuel fruit, he hasn’t named it yet, but the 2006 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes (Unnamed cuvée) is brighter and more high-toned than Cuilleron’s Ripa Sinistra, with a red fruit core. While both Villard’s and Cuilleron’s show the schist terroir, with a tangy, flinty note, they are both distinctly different as well—the result of good terroir and individualistic winemaking coming together.

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Heading out from Villard’s cave, you take a narrow, winding road to the hamlet of Malleval, where Pierre Gaillard makes his wines. Gaillard is a lot like his wines: big and powerful at first glance, but with more complexity upon further inspection.

Gaillard started his own domaine in 1983, and at 63, is the father figure of the our musketeers. He ferments his reds in stainless steel, destems entirely but does a lengthier than normal cold soak, five to six days long. Gaillard prefers to punch down the cap for extraction and ferments at a slightly higher temperature (than normal for the region) before moving the wines to barrel for 18 months. While there is a mix of medium and medium-plus toast barrels in the cave, the wines are distinctly toasty. The domaine totals 26 hectares and produces 10,000 cases a year of mostly red wine, covering the St.-Joseph, Côte-Rôtie, Cornas and Condrieu appellations.

The basic 2006 St.-Joseph is a blend of various younger vine parcels, including Gaby and Côte Belley. It’s dark but supple, with fig cake, coffee and purple fruit notes. The 2006 St.-Joseph Clos de Cuminaille is aged in 50 percent new oak and offers an even darker profile, with a layer of bacony toast. The 2006 St.-Joseph Les Pierres is aged entirely in new oak, which shows in its coffee, bittersweet cocoa and Port reduction notes.

New to the portfolio is a small cuvée of 2006 Cornas, made from vines formerly used by Marcel Juge. It’s really showy, with mesquite, bacon and roasted beef notes.

We also tasted through the various parcels that make up Gaillard’s two Côte-Rôtie cuvées, including lots from the La Viaillère and Rozier parcels, among others. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie is made from a blend of parcels, and offers a very smoky profile, but is really focused, with musk, beef and iron notes. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Rose Pourpre comes entirely from the Rozier parcel, and it offers a wide range of fig, raspberry ganache, molten chocolate, applewood smoked bacon and even a hint of harissa, all carried by superfine and supple tannins—an admirable bit of winemaking. Gaillard's own cuvée made from the shared Seyssuel fruit has the racy profile of its schist terroir, with the extra oomph of this domaine's toasty style.

We also tasted through the bottled 2005 reds, which showed the domaine’s typically smoky, dark fruit profile along with abundant tannins.

“The vintage really closed down in a hurry,” noted Gaillard.

The U.S. market is Gaillard’s best, taking a quarter of his production. Note that North Berkeley Wine Company carries Gaillard’s wines, but they make a selection of barrels for their own cuvée, and do not offer the wines that are bottled for general distribution (and are the ones discussed above).

If you like powerfully rendered, toast-driven reds, then this is the domaine for you.

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