Spotlight on Rhone Valley White Wine: Domaine Yves Cuilleron St. Joseph Blanc ‘Le Lombard’ 2005

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As with most wine regions in Europe, in St. Joseph there is a tension between the old and the new. At what point does a producer cease being traditional and become modern? One point of comparison might be to look at vinification practices, but who is to say when any one technique bridges the purportedly vast gap between memory and anticipation.

When History Becomes Modern

If Domain Courbis attains venerability with its history dating back to the 16th century, then Domaine Yves Couilleron must look elsewhere for like wisdom. Within itself the Domaine lives its own tradition, with its oldest syrah vines being planted in the time of Yves’ grandfather in the 1930’s and 40’s. If we see things from the vine’s perspective – the oldest vines in the world top out at around 100 years – wisdom and time acquire a different meaning. And, indeed, the Marsanne vines for this wine were planted in 1967, thus sitting comfortably amongst the most venerable of its peers.

So what makes Yves ‘modern’ in the eyes of critics? Perhaps because his partnership with Pierre Gaillard and Francois Villard in planting old vineyards and focusing on fruit has earned him and his partners the reputation of New World influenced upstarts. Gaillard, for instance, was the first in the Northern Rhone to use oak for his whites. It could also be because he carries an American style passion for inventiveness and risk – which could also be why he is shaking up the region and helping to breath new life into some underdog styles, such as this white St. Joseph.

When is a Wine Natural? And Does it Matter?

There is much talk these days of ‘natural’ wine making. For Yves, ‘natural’ must be considered in context. If, for example, he eliminated all weed killing chemicals, he would have to increase his work force and increase the price of his wines about 35%. He feels this is untenable in the current economic climate. Furthermore, while he likes to use only natural yeasts, he does find that he cannot make his white wines dry without the addition of yeast towards the end of fermentation.

The question some might ask, then, is at what point do his wines cease being ‘natural’? For Yves, on the other hand, he is simply attempting to add his touch to wines so they can best express their terroir. He believes that the 6-7 grams of residual sugar that would result in naturally fermented whites would mask the terroir of the various plots in St. Joseph from which he makes his wine.

He also cask ferments his whites, using 25% new oak, but does not stir the lees. The fermentation lasts up to four weeks, to fully maximize the sugar in the fruit, which is often picked fairly late.

A Taste of the New

The Lombard, pure Marsanne, presents itself in the glass with a deep rich golden-hued yellow. The nose provides honey, toast, apples, and a hint of quince. One simply feasts on the palate, with its honey-apple spice and lonely rocky undertones. A delicate and structured wine, the Lombard is also elegant while holding more weight on the palate than the Courbis. I suppose if the Courbis is ‘traditional’, then this is ‘modern’ St. Joseph – but the differences are all those of perspective as both wines are delicious.

$45 at Marquis Wine Cellars


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