Pushing Limits in the Rhône

A rare success story of three vignerons: friends, competitors and collaborators

Pushing Limits in the Rhône
From left: Les Vins de Vienne partners François Villard, Pierre Gaillard and Yves Cuilleron on a steep vineyard slope in Seyssuel, overlooking the Rhône River. (Robert Camuto)
Sep 3, 2019

In retrospect, it might all seem obvious:

Three winemakers working at the northern vineyard limits of the Rhône Valley, around Côte-Rôtie, decide to push a few miles north and onto the opposite bank of the river to plant Syrah and Viognier in schist soils similar to those of the famed appellation. And … voila!

But back in 1996, when Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and François Villard formed Les Vins de Vienne and began clearing and replanting slopes around the village of Seyssuel (pop. 2,000), others saw it as folly.

“There was nothing here,” recalls Villard, 57, standing with his winemaking partners on a steep slope rising up from the eastern bank of the zig-zagging Rhône River. On the other side of the river, to the south, is the hill that forms the backside of Côte-Rôtie. “When we told people we were going to plant here, they said ‘Why?’”

But the three—all stellar Northern Rhône producers in their own rights—were not the first to see the potential of Seyssuel, with its steep slopes and southerly expositions similar to those of Côte-Rôtie, thanks to a big bend in the river. The Romans had planted vines here, just north of Vienne. And the wines from Seyssuel were well noted in the 18th century—long before the phylloxera blight led to their abandonment.

The three already had solid reputations, particularly with Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, at their eponymous domaines, begun in the 1980s. Cuilleron had taken over his family estate, while Gaillard did a stint at E. Guigal before working full-time for himself. Villard entered the wine business as a chef-turned-sommelier who interned with Cuilleron in 1988, then Gaillard, before buying his own small holdings.

Yet it took time to convince their neighbors on both sides of the Rhône that their experiment was justified. “At first when they saw us planting here, they looked at us like were extraterrestrials,” says Villard.

“They called us the homo-Seyssuels,” Cuilleron, 58, says with a chortle.

These days, the trio has plenty of reasons to laugh.

Today their project in Seyssuel produces three wines from 25 acres—two acclaimed reds and a white, all classified as IGP Collines Rhodaniennes. More than a dozen other producers have followed them into the area with their own projects. French appellation authorities are considering upgrading the vineyards’ official status by extending the Côtes du Rhône appellation borders to cover the area. The three hope after that to petition for a Vienne-Seyssuel appellation. Around the ruins of Seyssuel’s medieval castle, their efforts are even noted on an historical plaque.

More than all that, Les Vins de Vienne has branched out to become a quality powerhouse throughout the Rhône—with 10 single-vineyard estate reds and whites from Côte-Rôtie to Crozes-Hermitage and St.-Péray and a négociant arm that bottles another 27 labels from as far south as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Total production is around 47,000 cases, and the company has 15 employees.

With 2015, a good vintage for the Rhône, Les Vins de Vienne released a head-spinning 30 wines that scored 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings.

But back in 1996, the three friends with a shared vision began with only 10 acres in Seyssuel, systematically increasing their plantings in the following years. They named the wines after those cited for excellence by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder. Sotanum was the first red, produced in 1998, followed in 2000 by white Taburnum and in 2004 by a second, lighter red, Heluicum, which currently retails around $47 versus $80 for the first two. (All three received outstanding scores in the 2016 vintage, the latest.)

“The wines from here taste a little different than Côte-Rôtie,” Cuilleron observes, adding that the wind and slightly higher temperatures make for rounder wines.

In 2002, despite some outstanding reviews for the early Seyssuel releases, Les Vins de Vienne was running low on cash and the bank forced them to recapitalize, each of the men taking out personal loans to continue financing the project. They suffered financial difficulties through the end of that decade, but were then able to build a new spacious cellar in Chavanay. Their turnaround was aided by a flock of notable winemakers, including Michel Chapoutier and Stéphane Ogier, who followed them to the eastern banks of the Rhône, helping to increase the reputation of the area and demand for its wines.

As the region has evolved, so have the partners. “Twenty-five years ago, we all had the same vision of wine—with extraction and new wood,” Villard says. “Now, it’s [working together on the same wines] more difficult—everyone has their own style.”

For example, Gaillard destems 100 percent of his crop, while Villard prefers whole-bunch fermentations. To allow for those differences, each of three now gets to make their own red under their own label from about a couple of acres of Seyssuel vineyards. Cuilleron’s version is called Ripa Sinistra, Gaillard’s Asiaticus, and Villard’s Seul en Scène.

“We make our livings from our own domaines, explains Gaillard, 64. “We are not dependent on Les Vins de Vienne, but it has bonded us together.”

At tasting times, there is hearty debate between the bosses, which they say they look forward to. “In your own domaine, you go more by intuition,” Cuilleron observes. “In the wines we make together, we go deeper into discussion and analysis. It makes you more precise.”

People Red Wines White Wines Syrah / Shiraz Viognier France Northern Rhône Rhône Valley

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