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Day 3 in the Rhône—Getting the Big Picture

Visitis with Les Vins de Vienne, Yves Cuilleron and François Villard
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 18, 2011 2:05pm ET

One way to learn the quality and style of a new vintage is to taste at a domaine such as Jamet, where a single appellation is broken down to its basic parts. The other way, is to taste a range of wines covering several appellations from within the broader region—such as at Les Vins de Vienne. And then, by using both approaches together, you get both the broad picture and the fine details.

Les Vins de Vienne

This négociant/domaine has grown steadily since it started in the late 1990s—it now owns 37 acres of vines, has contracts for 62 more and produces 30,000 cases annually.

Since Pierre-Jean Villa left to start his own domaine, Pascal Lombard has been in full control of the winemaking—he’s been with the winery since 2001, worked in Tavel and Burgundy before that. Founding partners Yves Cuilleron, François Villard and Pierre Gaillard still take part in the decision making as well.

Though I’m focusing on the Northern Rhône this trip, the winery does produce a few cuvées fro the Southern Rhône and we tasted those to start. For background on Vins de Vienne (as well as Cuilleron and Villard who wines are notes further bewlow) you can reference my blog from my March 2010 visit.

The Vin de France Reméage Red 2009 is a fresh, uncomplicated blend of Syrah and Merlot (from the Northern Rhône, along with some Grenache from the Southern Rhône. It delivers soft cherry and tobacco notes with a dash of spice and a nice easy finish.

“In the south ’09 is a very dry year, a little like ’03, but not nearly as hot as the freshness is much better. It has the ripe fruit of ’07 but fresher structure like ’05,” said Lombard who counts ’04 as his favorite vintage in the Southern Rhône this past decade for its freshness and aromas. “It was a late harvest, but cooler, so with less alcohol.”

The Côtes du Rhône Les Cranilles 2009 is mostly Grenache, with a little Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan sourced primarily from the Gard and Vaucluse areas. It shows nice smoky, plump cherry and currant notes with a lightly firm tobacco streak. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Visan La Tine 2009, is also mostly Grenache with some Syrah and it shows a bright mineral note from the start, with lively acidity, a flash of bay leaf and a nice core of soft black cherry fruit. The wine shows a more Northern Rhône style, thanks in part to the altitude of the Visan vineyards that give the Syrah a cooler climate profile. The Vacqueyras La Sillote 2009 is very plump, with lots of juicy blackberry and melted licorice notes and nice graphite and bay hints on the finish.

“We started to extract less in ‘08 because the vintage was more fragile,” said Lombard. “Then in ’09, the potential was to extract too much tannin, so we stayed with less extraction. We’ve been going in that direction in general, as well as a little less new oak. But the changes are gradual. It’s an evolution for finesse, not a dramatic change.”

The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne La Perpendaille 2009 blends Grenache with 25 percent Syrah. It’s ripe but very focused, with sappy kirsch and tangy red licorice notes, strong spine and nice length. New to the portfolio in ’09 is the Rasteau Le Cancarot 2009, mostly Grenache with a little Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault. It’s quite ripe with bold cherry preserve and blackberry notes but with an elegant, floral-tinged finish.

“It’s an interesting terroir, as it give high phenolic maturity but low alcohol,” said Lombard of the new Rasteau vineyards he’s working with.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Otéliées 2009 is mostly Grenache with a little Syrah and Mourvèdre and it’s always a solid perfomer, with a sappy beam of kirsch and blackberry fruit, backed by dark tobacco and roasted wood notes. The tannins are evident but supple, with a long bay-tinged finish. The Gigondas Les Pampignoles 2009 is an 80/20 blend of Grenache and Syrah and the wine is very juicy, though still a bit compact, with dark licorice, cherry sauce and fig notes. There are hints of fruitcake and nice subtle toast weaving in on the finish.

From there, we head to the north, starting with the Crozes-Hermitage Les Bascules 2009, made from a blend of parcels in the Chassis area and aged in a mix of cement vat and barrel, none new. It’s sleek and pure, with a bright violet and cassis profile and an almost-brisk finish that sports an iron edge. In contrast, the Crozes-Hermitage Les Palignons 2009, a single-parcel selection aged for 18 months in barrel (only 15 percent new), shows even darker and richer fruit, with more weight and notes of toasted spice, red licorice and roasted applewood. It stays fleshy and supple through the finish though, despite its more powerful profile than the Bascules.

“2009 was very difficult for Crozes, because of the drought,” said Lombard. “You might think the hillsides suffer more [in drought], but the vines in granite and schist have deep roots already. In Crozes, there’s typically more water in reserve and the vine roots are not as deep, so in ’09 they suffered a bit and the tannins are rather firm. These are strong Crozes,” he adds, making a fist.

One of the real strong suits here is the run of St.-Joseph bottlings, which all source fruit from granite soils, primarily on the steeps slopes in the middle stretch of the appellation that are the best sources for quality. The St.-Joseph 2009 is a blend of parcels from Chavanay and St.-Jean-de-Muzols. It’s a touch reduced today, but the core of cassis and violet notes is pure and the texture silky and fresh on the finish.

“In 2009, we did less pigeage, remontage and a shorter cuvaison overall to avoid getting too much tannin. With the drought, some of the tannins could be too firm. But the fruit was so big right away, so we also tried to slow down the fermentation because they moved so fast and got a little warm. We prefer a longer, cooler ferment as we want softer tannins, but obviously we still want to keep balance in the wines. We want fruit but we still want character too,” said Lombard.

The St.-Joseph L’Arzelle 2009 is a selection of old vine parcels in Malleval and Andance. It’s very sleek, with mouthwatering violet and iron notes taking the lead on the cherry and blackberry fruit. The texture is silky and the finish very long, with the violet note echoing nicely. The St.-Joseph Les Archevêques 2009 is from a single parcel in St.-Pierre-de-Bœuf owned by Vins de Vienne. It’s the darkest in profile of the three St.-Josephs, but not heavy at all, with the tannins even silkier and more imbedded in the stylish core of plum, blackberry and cherry fruit. The minerality is buried for now, but there’s ample depth here to stretch out.

“St.-Joseph is a tricky appellation. It’s so heterogeneous,” said Lombard. “You have hillsides, plateau above and below, different expositions. But when you get eastern exposure and granite hillsides, the finesse and minerality is there.”

From the winery’s long-standing project in Vienne (with 11 hectares of vines that were first planted in ’96), the Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Heluicum 2009 remains the selection of younger vine parcels. Aged for 10 months in barrel (none new), this Syrah is very fresh, with mouthwatering cherry, blackberry and plum fruit and a long, graphite tinged finish. The old vine selection is the Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Sotanum 2009. which sees 16 months of aging in barrel, though just 50 percent new since the ’05 vintage. It’s easily the most established of the reds from Vienne, with a track record dating back to its debut in the ’98 vintage. It shows its typically strong applewood, lavender and iron notes, with sleek tannins and lush cherry and blackberry fruit. It’s still quite primal, though its typical singed iron note lies in wait on the finish, which sails on with delicious acidity.

The Côte-Rôtie Les Essartailles 2009 is a blend of parcels including Maison Rouge, Côte Blonde and Brocarde and though it’s sourced mostly from the granite soils in southern portion of the appellation there’s no Viognier in the blend. It delivers a tangy, focused beam of cherry preserve and red currant fruit, with flashes of iron and mesquite. It’s very silky and pure, with a reserved profile and less obvious upfront power than in previous vintages. In contrast, the Côte-Rôtie Les Archevêques 2009 is a single-parcel selection from the Le Plomb lieu-dit in the northern end of the appellation (and it makes its debut this vintage). It is very expressive, with roasted mesquite, dark olive and cherry sauce notes, more of a tannic backbone (as opposed to the silky acidity of the Essartailles) and sports a long, grippy finish.

The Hermitage Le Chirats de St.-Christophe 2009 has always been a sleeper wine here, delivering long, polished, cocoa-tinged structure typical of the Méal and Dionnières parcels it’s sourced from, with supple plum, fig sauce and crushed cherry fruit notes. It has nice power in reserve, but stays poised and stylish from start to finish.

After all the silky and grace of the St.-Josephs and other reds, the Cornas Les Barcillants 2009 always stands out, as it should, thanks to the appellation’s more briary texture and chewy olive, bay and raspberry fruit notes. It blends fruit from the bottom of the slope—“not the best terroir but very old vines” said Lombard, along with 30-year-old vines at the very top of the hill, which ripen three weeks after the bottom of the hill. Though it shows it’s Cornas terroir, it’s still an elegantly-styled Cornas, keeping with the general house style here.

Yves Cuilleron

YveCuilleron was off in Prague, working the Czech market.

“Is that a good market,” I asked, half jokingly.

“He’s just start to open it. Plus maybe there are a few bars there too,” said maître de chai Lionel Brunier with a laugh.

Brunier has been at Cuilleron since ’06—he was at Vins de Vienne the year before that. And alas, he is not related to the Bruniers of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe—“I wish!,” he said.

Cuilleron has built quite an empire for himself, based in St.-Joseph but spread over Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie and the other appellations of the right bank of the Northern Rhône. His large winery on the main road touts a bright, modern styled tasting room, open to the public and with all the trappings of a Napa-styled tasting room.

Starting with the Marsanne cuvées from the southern most appellation in the Northern Rhône, the St.-Péray Les Poitiers 2009 is a creamy wine offering melon and peach notes and a kiss of toast. The St.-Péray Les Cerfs 2009 is the old vine selection with vines covering both the hillside and bottom of the limestone appellation, just across the river from Valence. It’s brighter, with more honeysuckle, melon rind and white peach flavors and a light bitter almond hint that adds more length on the finish.

“There’s not much change here in the vinification, except we’re doing some fermentations in larger vats as opposed to only barrel for the St.-Pérays, to ease off on the oak flavor a bit,” said Brunier.

The St.-Joseph whites are still fermented entirely in barrel, though with a touch less new oak than in the past as Cuilleron and his team now aim for slightly cooler but longer ferments. “You get more fruit but more freshness too, better balance,” said Brunier. “I think in general the region is trying to preserve acidity in the whites. Plus 2009 is a lower acid vintage for the whites than usual, so keeping the freshness was key.”

The St.-Joseph White Lyseras 2009 is a 50/50 blend of Marsanne and Roussanne that offers enticing chamomile, salted butter and Cavaillon melon flavors. The St.-Joseph White St.-Pierre 2009 is all Roussanne with just 15 percent new oak. It’s inviting, with apricot, mango and peach notes that stay fresh on the finish, without the slightly ponderous feel of some whites in ’09. The St.-Joseph White Le Lombard 2009 is the all-Marsanne cuvée, also just 15 percent new oak. It’s the raciest of the three, with nice cut to the chamomile, white peach, quinine and heather flavors all piercing through the core of Cavaillon melon fruit.

The Viognier cuvées (all barrel fermented) start with the Condrieu La Petite Côte 2009, which sees only used oak and it shows very inviting anise, peach and mango notes and a friendly, round, toasted almond finish.

“The ripeness for Viognier always comes quickly and ’09 was a year where everything ripened fast as well. But August was not too hot and the beginning of September was fresh, so the Viognier performed really well,” said Brunier.

The Condrieu Les Chaillets 2009 sees 20 percent new oak and it shows more flesh, with nicely layered creamed apricot, tangerine and clementine notes followed by hints of ginger and honeysuckle. The Condrieu Vertige 2009 is sourced fro the prime Vernon parcel and its density merits 60 percent new oak aging, which is easily absorbed by the lush mango, papaya and Jonagold apple notes that sail along, laced with fresh sweetened butter through the very long finish. Once again it is one of the top wines in the appellation, though perhaps not quite as vividly defined as the sensational ’06 vintage.

For the reds, the tasting starts with the St.-Joseph Les Pierres Sèches 2009, sourced from young vines on both the slopes and plateau. It’s a fresh, violet and cherry filled wine with silky tannins and a nice mineral edge on the finish. It’s joined by the other non-new oak cuvée, the St.-Joseph L’Amarybelle 2009, from older vines, with the wine showing a slightly darker, riper black cherry and raspberry profile with hints of spice on the finish, while staying fresh and unadorned. The St.-Joseph Les Serines 2009 comes from 40- and 50 year-old vines and sees 60 percent new oak. It’s clearly plusher and darker in profile, with more black currant, plum and fig, but it stays silky and focused too, without the toast taking over on the finish, where a dusting of cocoa lingers gently.

“2009 was very easy to vinify. The structure and the fruit was extracted easily and quickly. The seeds were so ripe. As long as you paid attention and didn’t go too far, you wouldn’t get any harsh tannins,” said Brunier.

The trio of Côte-Rôtie cuvées also shows the subtle changes in recent years here, to less overly toasted notes and more finesse. The Côte-Rôtie Bassenon 2009, has 10 percent Viognier in the blend as it’s sourced from parcels that run along the border between Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu. Aged in 50 percent new oak, it’s very perfumy, with anise and warm cherry confiture notes leading the way, followed by mesquite, more licorice and a long, sandalwood and Damson plum-filled finish. The Côte-Rôtie Madinière 2009 is sourced from four parcels in the Northern end of the appellation (including Rochains, Rozier and Viallière), all on schist soils without any Viognier and aged in 50 percent new oak. It’s muscular, but supple with a perfumy start followed by dark fig and mulled blackberry fruit all supported by roasted applewood and black tea notes. It has structure for sure, but stays integrated and velvety throughout. The Côte-Rôtie Terres Sombres 2009 is also all-Syrah, with a touch more new oak (60 percent) from old vines in the Côte Brune parcel, among others on schist. It’s easily the fleshiest of the three, but the fruit—plum, cassis and boysenberry—is pure and silky in feel, with lovely graphite and black tea stretching out on the finish. It’s perhaps the purest vintage I’ve tasted yet for the wine.

“But that’s ’09 as well,” said Brunier when I ask if the purity is a result of the subtle shift in oak. “The fruit is so ripe and pure. It’s a very expressive vintage.”

With his connection to Vins de Vienne, Cuilleron also has additional vines across the river which go into his Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Ripa Sinestra 2009. The wine is very supple, with dark violet, anise and plum notes and a long blueberry and spice-filled finish. At the very end, a flash of Vienne’s typical sanguine note checks in, keeping it all honest—though this is the richest and most fruit driven example yet of the wine. Have fun trying to find some of the 4,400 bottles produced.

Though known for his St.-Joseph, Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, Cuilleron’s Cornas Les Vires 2009 should not be overlooked. A wine that has improved nicely since it debuted in 2006, it marries the house style of lush anise and violet aromas with the appellation’s telltale briar, sweet tapenade and graphite notes. It’s grippy, but not overly so, with fresh acidity carrying the finish. Sourced from 90-year-old vines, there are just 2,700 bottles produced.

Cuilleron produces a late harvest styled Viognier as well, the Condrieu Ayguets 2009, which in the dry 2009 vintage is made from a majority of shriveled, rather than botrytized grapes, though there was a touch of botrytis present. It’s a hedonist’s delight, with lush apricot, creamed peach and ginger notes, followed by glazed pear and green fig on the long, sweet finish

“There were four or five passes through the vineyards, stretching into November,” said Brunier with a jovial roll of his eyes.

François Villard

After driving up the winding road past Château-Grillet and into St.-Michel-sur-Rhône, I arrive at François Villard’s cave. I joke that his close friend Yves Cuilleron has a very Napa Valley-like tasting room now, complete with decanters and bars of soap for sale. Villard laughs,

“I know. I have to open a wine shop next door to him. He’s getting all the traffic now,” he said.

Villard starts off with his Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Les Garennes 2009, made not from Syrah, but Merlot, from vines located down by the river. Fermented in stainless steel and then aged briefly for three months in barrel, it’s quickly bottled for freshness and youthful exuberance. It sports 13.8 alcohol but comes off as breezy, with friendly plum and black cherry fruit. The Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Grande Grue Glacée 2009 is a blend of 30 percent Merlot, 30 Cabernet Franc, 30 Syrah and 10 Cabernet Sauvignon, displaying plump, mouthfilling fig, black currant and sweet tobacco notes, backed by a flash of grilled herb.

From there, Villard’s domaine, which now totals 26 hectares and produces 200,000 bottles annually, focuses on the more typical Syrah and Viognier grapes of the area. The Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes L’Appel des Sereines 2009 is fermented in stainless steel then aged in a mix of used barrels and large wooden vats. The vines are just on top of the plateau above the St.-Joseph appellation, though it delivers similar silky plum and cherry notes with fine minerality.

Despite the flashy fruit of, and general hype starting to build for the ‘09s, Villard has a slightly different take on the vintage. “The color really came quickly in the vats in ’09 and the fruit is really up front. It took three days for the color to fill in on the vats in ’10 but less than a day for the ‘09s. The ‘09 is not really my style of vintage,” said Villard matter-of-factly. “2009 is a vintage of warmth and dryness. The ‘10s are fresher and I think they have better balance. It’s a less spectacular vintage than ’09, in terms of fruit. But ’09 has its difficulties, especially for the whites, which struggle for freshness, because they are so large and round in style.”

The St.-Joseph Poivre et Sol 2009 is just the second vintage for this cuvée, which was bottled one month ago. It combines fruit that goes into each of the three additional St.-Joseph cuvées, as Villard chooses lots that are less structured to produce a fleshy, forward, easier drinking style, with dark cherry sauce and sweet notes. The St.-Joseph Mairlant 2009 gets a touch of new oak (10 percent), no pigéage and has the majority of the fruit destemmed. It’s juicy and mouthfilling, with a hint of briar pushing the dark plum sauce and crushed fig fruit. The finish is smoky but still pure.

“Mairlant is for pretty fruit, with just a touch of rusticity,” said Villard.

The St.-Joseph Reflet 2009 is a touch brawnier still, with a nice grippy anise note framing the core of currant paste and crushed fig. The wine was fermented with one-third whole clusters and then saw 50 percent new oak barrel aging, but it’s integrated and juicy.

“The risk with stems in ’09 was to bring to much dryness to the wine,” said Villard, who said he has toned down his whole-cluster percentage in recent years in a search for more finesse in his wines.

The Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Seul en Scène 2009 is Villard’s take on the terroir around Vienne (he and his partners in Vins de Vienne all have their own separate parcels in addition to their collaborative vineyards for Vins de Vienne). The Syrah, which debuted in the ’06 vintage, was fermented with 20 percent whole clusters in ’09 and it shows a vibrant and mouthwatering profile, with blackberry, Linzer and blueberry fruit balanced by a fresh minerality that cuts through the finish with great clarity. There are just 3,000 bottles of this very character-filled wine.

The Côte-Rôtie Le Gallet Blanc 2009 has no Viognier in the blend and sees 50 percent new oak aging.

“And there is just 20 percent whole clusters now,” said Villard, noting that he’s ratcheted down the use of stems over the past few years. “It’s just my idea to look for more freshness and pure fruit. For finesse rather than rusticity,” he said about the shift. The wine is very juicy, with a still-compact core of blackberry and crushed currant fruit, liberally laced with roasted applewood, graphite and licorice snap notes.

The Côte-Rôtie La Brocarde 2009 contains 10 percent Viognier and sees a heftier 80 percent new oak. It’s gutsy up front, showing its 30 percent whole clusters, with muscular anise, fig, blueberry and roasted tobacco notes, but then the acidity melds it all together and the finish turns supple, polished and long.

Villard is equally adept at whites, starting with the St.-Péray Version 2009, a pure, very stylish Marsanne bottling that delivers completely unadorned honeysuckle, salted butter and chamomile notes, despite getting a kiss of 10 percent new oak. The long, quinine finish is polished and thoroughly enticing. It checks in at a modest 13 percent alcohol, about one degree less than usual, according to Villard, and is typical of the whites in ’09.

The St.-Joseph White Fruit d’Avilleran 2009 is Marsanne with just five percent Roussanne, and it amplifies heather and honeysuckle notes, with an extra hint of white peach and green fig chiming in the background while again staying light in body and very pure despite 15 percent new oak aging. The St.-Joseph White Mairlant 2009 is 65 percent Marsanne and the rest Roussanne, with 30 percent new oak. It’s fuller and richer in style, with more quince, pear and white peach flavors and a creamy finish.

The Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Contours de Deponcins 2009 is always a solid value and in ’09 it delivers textbook melon and anise notes with a solid finish.

As good as the other whites are, the real strength here continues to be the range of Condrieu bottlings, starting with the Condrieu Les Terrasses du Palat 2009 which has a racy pear skin and quince profile, with a very fresh, floral-filled finish that dances nicely, without the ponderous feel typical of the vintage’s whites. It carries just 13.2 percent alcohol, as it was harvested on September 8th, two weeks earlier than Villard harvested the same parcels in ’10. The Condrieu Le Grand Vallon 2009 is livelier, with ripe, succulent pear flesh and extra notes of quince, yellow apple and green melon gliding along. The top cuvée here is the Condrieu De Poncins 2009, which blends three parcels from around the town of St.-Michel-sur-Rhône, including a portion just above the Château-Grillet.

“I did a few passes through the parcels, and even picked a touch of botrytis on September 25, to give it some exuberance,” said Villard.

The wine shows it, with enticing apricot and pear aromas, followed by lush textured glazed pear, quince and green fig notes and a long, mineral filled finish. This has the weight of the vintage, but shows much better focus and length than many of its peers.

A new cuvée, the Condrieu Villa Ponticiana 2009 makes its debut, sourced from fruit just on the southern edge of Château-Grillet. It’s very stylish, with graceful pear and yellow apple notes and flickers of honeysuckle, heather and plantain followed by a very elegant finish.

“After working the one parcel for a few years since I bought it, I think it’s ready for its own cuvée, and the minerality it has is unique,” said Villard of the new cuvée.

Villard finishes the tasting with the St.-Péray Version Longue 2009, an all-Marsanne cuvée that debuted in 2006. It gets the longest élevage of his whites, at 18 months.

“It takes two winters for the wine to settle in,” said Villard, “since it has so much volume.”

It’s a more powerful style, with overt apricot and orange zest notes and plenty of bitter almond on the finish. It hints at botrytis, though there is none.

“Just all ripeness,” said Villard. “For a rich fish or pork or veal with morels,” he adds with a wink.

Tomorrow, I start the spread the radius a little further south, with a visit in Crozes-Hermitage, before coming back up for another stop in Côte-Rôtie.

Sean Gilbert
Yakima, WA, USA —  April 19, 2011 12:15pm ET
What an awesome day! I love reading your notes on your trips along the Northern Rhone. In the middle of a day tasting great Condrieu, St J and Cote Rotie, the cassoulet at Bistro de la gare in Chavanay is an awesome experience. Will you get a chance to go to Monteillet this year? Also, will you get to see Domaine du Tunnel in Cornas? I'm curious to hear what you think of his 09s. Thanks for the updates, keep up the great work.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  April 19, 2011 1:12pm ET
Sean: Thanks for following along. Yes, I have heard Bistro de la Gare is a nice casual spot - it's been almost summerlike here these last two weeks though, so cassoulet is not in the cards...the spring asparagus and morels have been great though...

I did meet up with Stéphane Montez but di not get to formally visit his estate. No stop with Stéphane Robert at Domaine du Tunnel either. Unfortunately, while I like the work they are both doing at their estates, their wines are not being submitted for review to me in NY on a regular basis, and so I have to focus my time elsewhere.

I have visited both estates in the past though, and you can search the website for my blog entries for some background on them, if you need it.
Sean Gilbert
Yakima, WA, USA —  April 20, 2011 9:42am ET
Thanks James. I havent been to the Rhone in the spring but asparagus and morels sound lovely. I look forward to hearing about any great meals you may have this year.

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