Hospice du Rhone Seminar Series: A Collective Quest: The History of Les Vins de Vienne
Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron and Francois Villard are three of the most important producers in the Northern Rhone. They are important not just because of their vast energies and passion for sharing and their fantastic wines. Rather, their most significant impact has been their forward thinking – always seeking to respect tradition while keeping it relevant and always seeking to challenge the status quo.
Les Vins de Vienne is a joint project between the three producers that has its roots in the rediscovery of a long lost vineyard in the Northern Rhone. Seyssuel, near the town of Vienne and north of Cote-Rotie, dates back to the Roman period and records of its importance and quality can be found in writings by Pliny the Elder. The schist soils here are the same as in Cote-Rotie but the vineyard has remained fallow for generations.
Pierre Gaillard is the senior of the three, having started making wine in 1981. He now owns 25ha in the Northern Rhone and also has a small estate in Faugeres and Roussillon.
Cuilleron began making wine in 1987 when he inherited a 4ha vineyard from his grandfather. Now Cuilleron owns 50ha and makes wines from across the Northern Rhone’s AOCs.
Villard was a cook until 1987 when he took sommelier training and then viticulture training in 1988. He planted his first vineyard in 1989 and made his first wine in 1991. Villard was an intern at both Cuilleron’s and Gaillard’s domaines. He now owns 26ha of vines.
The story goes that in 1995 Pierre Gaillard and Francois Villard were in a restaurant smoking cigars when they decided to replant Seyssuel. It only made sense to bring along their great friend Yves Cuilleron for the journey, with the first plantings being done in 1996. Each of the three had actually independently developed an interest in the vineyard, and so it only made sense for them to combine their efforts to revitalize Seyssuel. Each producer also makes his own wine from Seyssuel, but it is the Vins de Vienne that have really got the party started.
Wines from Seyssuel can still only be labelled Vins de Pays because there is no official AOC for the region. The three producers seek to form a new AOC here, but changing french Regulations requires epic patience and will likely take years. The trio thinks this makes little sense since replanting Seyssuel is not about forming a new AOC, but rather about reviving a historically significant vineyard. Back at the end of the 19th century there were over 100 ha planted, though the vineyard
disappeared in the 20th century. Despite this history, the vins de pays moniker remains on the wines for now. There are now 13 winemakers in Seyssuel with 30ha planted.
Seyssuel is now planted with Syrah and Viognier, and mostly with serine clones. Given the labelling challenges, the wines from Les Vins de Vienne all have latin names to memorialize the history of the vineyard.
The 2009 Taburnum is 100% Viognier and is just as high quality as the best Condrieus. This is a dark and nutty wine with an extremely long herbal inflected finish. Of course it is as lush and voluptious as you’d expect from a Northern Rhone Viognier. Excellent.
The 2009 Sotanum is 100% Syrah planted in the schist soils of Seyssuel and with southwest exposure. There is about 15% stem inclusion in this modern, yet delicious floral and spicy Syrah. The oak and fruit have not yet fully integrated and this needs five years, but it is undoubtedly a good wine. I have to admit that I tend to prefer a more traditional style to this, but nonetheless it is Excellent.
Les Vins de Vienne is also a negocient business for the trio, who purchase fruit from good small growers from around the Rhone to make a series of high quality wines that yet don’t quite match the excitement of the Seyssuel project or the wines from the named domains of Gaillard, Cuilleron and Villard. All the wines made focus on typicity, and succeed without being mind-blowing. All are from smaller growers and are not meant to be the huge production wines of Delas or Jaboulet. Rather, these are a notch up in quality. If the price is right, these are very good wines.
2010 Les Laurelles Cotes du Rhone Blanc: A blend of viognier, marsanne and roussane. Orchard fruits, minerals, clean and delicious. This was one of my favourites of the entire lineup for its easy drinkability, freshness and great minerality. 100% tank. Highly recommended. Very Good+ to Excellent.
2010 Les Vialeres Saint Peray: Another great white with creamy pineapple and an intense and structured palate. Beautiful, dense wine. Very Good+ to Excellent.
2010 Les Archeveques Condrieu: Classic hugely lush white peaches and flowers. The wine is yet elevated and fresh enough to be bright. I think 2010 really seems to be an exceptional year for white wines in the Rhone. Excellent.
2010 Les Cranilles Cotes du Rhone Rouge: Classic meat and pepper. Tannic, rich dark fruit and garrigue. A good value wine that is ripe, concentrated but also fresh. Very Good.
2009 Les Pimpignoles Gigondas: Dark cherry fruit, meat. The tannins are intense and the finish drying. The 2009’s continue to be overly tough for me. Good+ to Very Good.
2009 Les Oteliees Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge: Ripe and sweet, dark fruit. Minerals. A firm wine that is a bit fresher than the Gigondas but not exciting. Very Good+.
2009 Les Archevueques Saint Joseph Rouge: Classic St. Joseph meat and peper with nice minerality. Clean, fresh and full bodied. Very Good+.
2009 Les Essartailles Cote-Rotie: A bit closed right now, but very meaty. The 100% Syrah shows in the dense core of blackberry. A complete wine that reminds me of Ogier. Excellent.