When I think of French Viognier I think of the region Condrieu in the Northern part of the Rhône Valley and of course the minuscule appellation, Grillet, home to only one winery, Château Grillet. Viognier is an incredibly sensual variety. The textures are extreme. At one end lies wines like Guigals La Doriane, low acid, high pH, an unctuous almost oily wine with an incredible scent, employing 100% barrel ageing, at the other a suite of wines with less phenolic extraction from the skins and a more acid driven line, often tank fermented. In the middle, Yves Cuilleron, striking a beautiful balance.
The Viognier vines from Yarra Yering made their way from Château Grillet. I devoured my last bottle of 2001 YY Viognier at 16 years of ages a few months ago. We’d bottled it with sulphur levels on the high side, it had maintained the colour of a 5 year old wine, the straw character of aged Viognier was showing, and the colleague I was tasting it with saw notes reminding her of Château Grillet! Only 200L of this wine were made, and only when there was sufficient fruit to avoid detracting from the No.2 Shiraz Viognier and friends. Studying the Viogniers of Condrieu and Château Grillet was always a pleasure.
Studying the Viogniers of Condrieu and Château Grillet is always a pleasure. It’s a curious beast, often drinking beuatifully for a few years, going into a hole for 5-10 and then bouncing back with a new level of secondary, age related characters. Good Viognier has a heady perfrume, apricot, peach, spice, ginger, jasmine, flowers, citrus and beyond often used to describe it.
I first visited Yves Cuilleron back in 1999, primarily seeking his whites, soon discovering he made reds of great personality too. Beyond his stunning Condrieu he maintains holdings in Saint Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Côte Rotie. Making Rousanne, Marsanne, Marsanne/Rousanne blends, Syrah and Syrah blended with a splash of Viognier. Côte Rotie was the inspiration for Yarra Yering Dry Red No 2 and in turn Clonkilla’s Shiraz Viognier!
About Yves Cuilleron
Yves Cuilleron represents the 4th generation of Cuilleron vignerons even though he started his career as a mechanic. He caught the wine bug when he did is military service in Alsace and after a year’s training at Lycée Viticole de Mâcon, Yves took over his uncle estate in 1987. Since then he has built an entirely new winery in Chavanay and acquired additional vineyard in St. Joseph, Côte Rôtie and Condrieu. Yves is also very implicated in the community: he set up the ‘Vins de Vienne’ in 1996 with Pierre Gaillard and Herve Villard to re-introduce vines on the forgotten terroir of Seyssuel (located a few kilometres north of Vienne).’
The top Cuilleron wines are planted 8000-10000 vines per hectare. There are no insecticides (for the last 20 years) or herbicides used in the vineyards. Yves Cuilleron rejects off-the-shelf ideas. His vision of vine cultivation is highly personal: not conventional, not organic, not biodynamic. And his philosophy is simple: “Produce the best possible grapes”. He practises “viticulture raisonnable”, an integrated, eco-friendly approach in which observation is key. All vine work vital to grape quality is conducted: planting of Viognier vines deriving solely from the family’s own yards (“selections massales”), and of Syrah vines from high-quality clones and from “selections massales”.
Where in the World are Cuilleron’s Wines Made?
Yves Cuilleron’s vineyard holdings are spread through the Northern appelations (regions) of the Rhône Valley between Valence and Lyon. These are the home of whites made from Viognier, Marsanne, Roussane and blends of the three, with reds made from Shiraz and blends of Shiraz and Viognier from Côte Rôtie. The sites on the banks of the Rhône River are calf snappingly steep. Pulley systems and vineryard sized monorails often used to haul fruit and earth up the hills. In many vineyards, terraces lined by stone walls as tall as a man are used to hold the mountains back!
The 2015 & 2016 Vintages
The vignerons of the Rhône Valley, and, in turn our mouths, have been blessed with a pair of great years. The 2015’s I’ve tried to date have been rich oppulent wines with lovely ripe tannins, maintaining a freshness and vibrancy. Yves Cuilleron has said 2015 was simply the BEST RED vintage of his 30 years making wine. 2016 was another cracker and ’15 & ’16 are the pair of vintages together since 1998 and 1999. In short we’ve seen two great years from a vigneron who’s at the top of his game.
Having had a glimpse of the 2015 Northern Rhône reds a year ago while in the region last summer, I’ve been counting the nights to get back to taste the wines in bottle. They did not disappoint during our quick trip in early July to the region to taste about 170 wines and visit a handful of producers. The take on the vintage is universally great and, while the good are elevated, the best just get better. It is a vintage in which the whole region has moved up the curve.
In Condrieu a clear contrast between the ripe and unctuous 2015 vintage wines and the more composed and even-handed 2016 wines is more than evident. Both have their place. For white wines in particular, if there’s one appellation that can celebrate richness and density, it is Condrieu. Winemakers Villard, Cuilleron and Vernay have excelled in both harvests and crafted wines that take different stances equally well, while the swagger of Guigal’s 2015 La Doriane is undeniable and seems slight more tame and less woody. Nick Stock
*Many of these wines are available in extremely limited quantities with only 24 bottles of many of the wines available to the entire country. We will do our best to meet your requests.