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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Day 7: A Quiet Sunday with Three of the Four (or Is It Five?) Musketeers

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 1, 2008 7:24am ET

Dinner ended well after midnight at Regis & Jacques Marcon, plus it was Sunday, so I was moving a little slower than usual. I was finally able to motivate by 11 a.m., got in my car and drove back down the gorgeous, winding mountain road from St.-Bonnet-le-Froid. Descending the mountain, I felt like I was in the movie The Italian Job (the original) as a few dozen cars ranging from small Renaults and vintage Citrôens to Ferraris and Rolls-Royces zoomed past me going up the hill in some kind of fancy car rally.

It’s just an hour’s drive to Condrieu, where I meet up with Pierre-Jean Villa, the engaging and intelligent director of Les Vins de Vienne, which includes both a small estate with vines on the opposite bank of the river around Vienne, along with a small, high-quality négociant operation. Villa has been the main force here in recent years since the estate was founded a decade ago by the Rhône's Three Musketeers, Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and François Villard.

I visited with the Musketeers in November and tasted through the full portfolio of 2006 and 2007 wines at that time, so you can reference my earlier blog entry for more detail. Reviews of some of the bottled 2006s from Vins de Vienne also appeared in the June 25 edition of the Wine Spectator Insider, with more to come.

So this time we tasted through a handful of the 2007s again, as some have yet to finish their malolactic fermentations. The St.-Péray Les Bialères (a 60/40 Marsanne/Roussanne blend) sees just a touch of new oak (10 percent) and offers the fresh, enticing melon and mineral profile that makes this overlooked appellation so appealing. A step up in concentration is the St.-Péray Les Archevêques, sourced from an old-vine plot and fermented in 50 percent new oak. The wine, which contains 20 percent Roussanne in 2007 for the first time (previous vintages were all Marsanne) is clearly outstanding, with a mix of lime, floral and melon notes. It’s clear and precise but with a great, creamy mouthfeel.

Among Villa’s Viognier cuvées, there’s a tasty 2007 Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, which is fermented entirely in stainless steel and undergoes no malolactic. Sourced from a newly acquired 1.2-hectare parcel in Sarras, it’s tangy and crisp for a Viognier, with juicy peach and lime flavors. The Condrieu La Chambée, always among the top offerings in the appellation, was bottled just last week. The wine is still tight from the mis, but it’s round and intense, with lots of lime, green melon and mineral notes, and it should stretch out with medium-term cellaring.

The top white wine here has, in my opinion, passed the top red in quality over the past two vintages. Don’t let the lowly appellation fool you: The 2007 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes White Taburnum, made from 100 percent Viognier grown on the schist soils around Vienne, is barrel fermented (50 percent new) and shows a wide range of fennel seed, anise and superripe melon flavors supported by a gorgeous texture and an alluring, mineral-driven finish. Like the stunning 2006, it’s nearly classic in quality.

Villa’s reds are equally consistent. In recent vintages he’s dropped the amount of new oak and the wines have taken on a fresher, racier profile, with lots of raspberry and graphite notes. The 2007 Crozes-Hermitage Les Palignons is textbook, with the appellation’s tangy iron note chiming in on the finish, while the 2007 St.-Joseph L’Arzelle (which sees just one-third new oak and was vinified with 20 percent stems) offers the vintage’s crunchy, vibrant acidity and lovely violet and purple fruit notes. The 2007 Hermitage Les Chirats de St.-Christophe shows gorgeous plum cake and licorice notes with ample grip steadily developing on the finish. From the estate vines around Vienne, the 2007 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Heluicum, which is sourced from the younger vines planted in 2001 and 2002, offers open-knit violet, graphite and pastis hints with a racy finish. It’s quickly improved since the debut 2004 and is now consistently outstanding. The top red cuvée, around which the project was initially based, is the 2007 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Sotanum. This version should be among the best vintages yet (the wine debuted in the 1998 vintage). The wine has seen just 50 percent new oak since the 2004 vintage, which allows its juicy, sappy kirsch fruit to shine, while notes of iron, lavender and violets fill in on the finish. Kudos to Pierre-Jean Villa for harnessing the potential in this project and bringing it the focus it lacked in its earlier years as the original founders also dealt with their own substantial domaines.

Speaking of those partners, I was able to taste with two other Musketeers as well, François Villard and Yves Cuilleron. Both showed me an abridged selection of their 2007 cuvées that had finished malolactic. Villard, the overt jokester in the group, has recently switched importers and thus his wines should become easier to locate in the marketplace. His 2007 St.-Joseph White Mairlant (60 percent Marsanne, 40 percent Roussanne) offers the vintage’s racy profile, with melon and anise notes and nice drive on the finish. The 2007 Condrieu Le Grand Vallon is really pure, with a crystalline feel and great crunchy acidity that should allow its range of melon, peach and fennel notes to settle in nicely.

As with Vins de Vienne, Villard has in recent years aimed for more elegance with his reds, as opposed to the more extracted vinifications he practiced in the past (often with 100 percent new oak and 100 percent stems). The 2007 St.-Joseph Mairlant (just 20 percent stems and 60 percent new oak) had not been racked, so it was a touch reduced, but had fine, crackling acidity and lilting lavender and iron notes mingling with its black cherry fruit. The 2007 St.-Joseph Reflet, from parcels around Limony, Chavanay and St.-Pierre de Bœuf, sees a touch more new oak and is vinified with half its stems. The result is a more pepper-filled, briary style, with overt lavender, violet and blackberry notes.

Villard feels that in 2007 the use of stems helped offset the vintage’s high tartaric acid, as the potassium in the stems forces some tartaric to precipitate out of the wine. Northern Rhône reds made without stems in 2007 tend to take on a higher-toned feel, some of which show attenuated finishes, like the 2001s did at an early stage (and that vintage has aged nicely).

Yves Cuilleron is the quiet one in the group. The soft-spoken vigneron has put the finishing touches on his new cellar facility located on the main road through Chavanay. His 2007 St.-Joseph White St.-Pierre (100 percent Roussanne) is very bright, with tangerine, lime, nectarine and mineral notes that are atypically fresh for the variety. Cuilleron noted that while yields were a little higher in 2007 for Roussanne, the acidity was actually better, hence the slightly differing profile. The 2007 Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes is plump, with the grape’s textbook, forward anise and peach notes, while the Condrieu Les Chaillets, from older vines in the Côte Chavanay, shows great focus already, with quartz, lime candy and mineral notes followed by a long, intense finish.

Cuilleron is often first thought of as a white wine producer, but his reds are quietly just as outstanding. The 2007 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Les Candives is forward and elegant with cherry and spice notes. The 2007 St.-Joseph Les Serines shows the crunchy acidity of 2007, along with a mix of fresh cherry and plum fruit followed by a briary finish. The 2007 Côte-Rôtie Terres Sombres, sourced from two parcels in the northern end of the appellation (both planted in 1963) is still very tight and primal, with taut acidity dominant for now over the core of cherry and raspberry fruit. There is also a Vienne-based red here, made from a parcel of vines split amongst the Musketeers, with each vinifying their part separately. Cuilleron’s 2007 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Ripa Sinastre offers a lovely spectrum of blue and purple fruit with an open, inviting finish in the vein of the earlier vintages of Les Vins de Vienne’s Heluicum cuvée.

This tight-knit group of vignerons may also be adding a fifth Musketeer, Christophe Curtat. Curtat, 41, worked with Stéphane Robert at Domaine du Tunnel in Cornas before working alongside both Cuilleron and Villard for a few years. He’s now managed to coddle together 3.5 hectares of vines for himself, all of which are in St.-Joseph. This small, nascent domaine is vinifying its wines in Villard’s facility.

2006 is the first vintage for Curtat, and his 2006 St.-Joseph White Sous L’Amandier is made from a blend of 15- to 25-year-old Roussanne (95 percent) and Marsanne (5 percent) vines. The wine is barrel-fermented, one-third of which are new, and it shows a ripe, fat profile with broad almond, brioche and heather notes. There is also a red 2006 St.-Joseph but it was just bottled and thus not shown. Total production was just 580 cases for Curtat in 2006 but that figure jumps to 1,500 cases in the 2008 vintage. The potential fifth Musketeer (he’s in the group on a trial basis) is off to a good start.

For Monday, I was scheduled to start an immersion class in Côte-Rôtie, with three straight days of tasting and vineyard tours of the roasted slope. Luckily I brought some sunscreen …

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