David 1 September 2016
The northern Rhône has some of the oldest vineyards in France and makes some of the most sought after Syrah in the world. It also produces one of France’s great white wines, a real favourite of mine, Condrieu (con-dree-oo), made from Viognier.
The vineyards of the northern Rhône sit in a narrow band on the steep banks of the Rhône River (mainly on the western side) as it flows south from Vienne to Valence, a distance of only about 65 km.
Mention the Rhône and most people think of Grenache based wines from the Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But these are from the southern Rhône and despite their proximity, the northern and southern Rhône are completely different regions, producing very different wines.
The most significant difference between the two is their climate. The northern Rhône is much cooler, especially in winter, than the sunny vineyards of the southern Rhône. There’s also a big difference in varietal make up. While Syrah (Shiraz) is the lone red grape of the northern Rhône, there are 10 red grapes permitted in the southern Rhône including Grenache, Shiraz, Mouvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. Three white varieties; Viognier, Marsanne andRoussanne are permitted in the northern Rhône, while in the southern Rhône 9 are allowed. And lastly, the northern Rhône is much smaller in area than the southern Rhône. In an average year the south produces around 20 times more than the north!
The appellations of the northern Rhône contain some of the world’s most famous names:
* Côte-Rôtie, red only - Syrah (but up to 20% Viognier may be added)
* Condrieu, white only - Viognier
* Château-Grillet, white only - Viognier
* Saint-Joseph, red and white - Syrah and Marsanne/Roussanne blend
* Crozes-Hermitage, red and white - Syrah and Marsanne/Roussanne blend
* Hermitage, red and white - Syrah and Marsanne/Roussanne blend
* Cornas, red only - Syrah
* Saint-Péray, white only - Marsanne and Roussanne (sparkling wines make up a third of production)
One of the leading winemakers of the northern Rhône is Yves Cuilleron. Not a household name like Guigal but still regarded as a “superstar of the Northern Rhône,” The Wine Doctor.
Way back in 2000, Robert Parker identified Cuilleron as one of a small number of young winemakers transforming the Rhône in a way he’d never seen, with “a refreshing new, open-minded approach to winemaking where the goal is simple - high quality… they are revolutionising the quality of wines consumers receive.” Parker said later that “Yves Cuilleron has become one of the bright shining stars of the northern Rhône.”
Wine Spectator said Cuilleron “continues to assert himself as one of the northern Rhône’s most dynamic vignerons… the leader of Condrieu's new generation of winemakers.”
“In the space of a decade, Yves Cuilleron has established himself as one of the leading lights of France’s northern Rhône.” TheWine Anorak.
In his fantastic book The New France, Andrew Jefford lists all the producers in his Rhône chapter (north and south combined), but features only 4. One of these is Cuilleron, about whom he writes; “the talented, dynamic, yet affable Yves Cuilleron is one of the great northern Rhône success stories.”
Cuilleron is based in the village of Chavanay just south of the town of Condrieu, it’s also the most northern village in the St Joseph appellation. Yves’ grandfather Claude established the family estate in 1920, handing it over to his son Antoine (Yves’ uncle) in 1960. When Antoine died without children in 1987, there was no obvious successor. Yves had studied mechanical engineering, with wine only an interest, albeit a serious one. But he took the plunge, assuming full control of the estate, at the time a mere 3.5ha.
Since then Yves has embarked on an ambitious path of continued growth, expanding the estate far beyond its initial toeholds in Condrieu and Saint Joseph. He built a new winery in 1992, renewing and adding to it in 1999, 2007 and 2014. Yves seems blessed with great energy, constantly upgrading, improving and acquiring. The estate is now at 59ha, spread across some of the most prestigious appellations of the Northern Rhône, with vineyards in Condrieu, Saint-Joseph (red), Saint-Joseph (white), Côte-Rôtie, Croze-Hermitage, Cornas and Saint-Péray. Yves also has a substantial holding of vineyards (15ha) in and around the town of Chavanay.
Yves has farmed sustainably,for over 20 years. In the winery “ he is a modernist but not overtly, so his wines straddle neatly the divide between traditionalists and the new-wave, in that they retain their sense of place, but express their site in a slightly more approachable, immediate way. There’s purity to the fruit, and where new oak is used it isn’t excessive,”TheWine Anorak. Yves prefers to use natural yeasts and avoid additions. He also likes to vinify his many parcels of fruit separately in order to express what he calls “maximum typicity.” It also explains why he has over 30 wines to sell each year!
Yves is a wonderful white winemaker, often referred to as the King of Condrieu. But his reds are sharp too, with his Saint-Joseph rated by Robert Parker alongside those of Chapoutier and Chave.
Despite Yves’ range of wines, it’s his entry-level red and white that recently caught my attention. What’s impressive is that he gives the same level of care and attention to these wines as those from top appellations. For a fraction of the price you’ll see why northern Rhône wines and Yves’ in particular are so sought after.
1. Yves Cuilleron Les Vignes d’a Côté Syrah 2015
The fruit for this wine is sourced from vines in Chavanay - nearby, but not actually within a recognised AOC (appellation). This explains the generic Vin de France on the label.
The grapes were handpicked before being sorted and destemmed. Fermentation was carried out with native yeasts in open vats with grape skins left in the wine to macerate for about 2 weeks. The wine was then matured for about 8 months in vats and barriques.
The wine is a lovely dark purple, the colour of blackberry jam. On the nose and palate you’ll find bright cherries, almonds and pepper. The wine manages to be at once fresh and generous, yet elegantly lean, structured and focused. Tempered by great acidity and a dry savoury finish, its density and concentration contrast with the rounder, riper wines of the southern Rhône. 13% alc/vol, with minimal oak influence and soft tannins, it’s smooth and delicious - not to mention superb value.
A great introduction to northern Rhône Shiraz, and a nice reflection of Yves’ more expensive wines. Newly released so no notes from critics yet - no need to put this one in the cellar, enjoy it straight away.
I can offer it for $25 a bottle. Click here to order.
2. Yves Cuilleron Les Vignes d’a Côté Marsanne 2015
Northern Rhône is the traditional home of Marsanne. Interestingly, despite not being widely planted or well known in Australia, Chateau Tahbilk’s 38ha in central Victoria is not only the world’s largest single holding of the variety, it also includes some of the oldest vines. Flavours associated with Marsanne “range from honeysuckle to rich almond paste via pear,” Jancis Robinson, from her epic tome Wine Grapes.
Like the Syrah above, the fruit for this wine was sourced from around Chavannay, near but not in a recognised AOC (appellation), hence the Vin De France designation. The grapes were handpicked before being sorted and crushed. The juice was left to settle before natural yeasts initiated fermentation, which was carried out out in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. The wine then went though malolactic fermentation, a process which converts crisp malic acid (think apples) to softer lactic acid (think milk or butter). The result of this is lower acid, more weight and richer flavours. The wine was then aged for 6 months on lees (dead yeasts cells) in vats and barriques.
The wine is a bright, crystal clear yellow gold. On the nose it’s fresh but delicate with classic Marsanne aromas of honeysuckle, pear, caramel and musk. These delicious flavours follow through to the palate, where you’ll find them intermingled with lemon, peach, beeswax and nuts - yum. I love the way this starts out so zesty, gaining weight and viscosity, filling out generously across the mid-palate, and finishing crisp and dry with a fresh kick of acid and minerals.
Like the Syrah, this is newly released so no notes from critics, but this is classic Marsanne. 12% alc./vol, drink young - up to 3-4 years.
I can offer it for $28 a bottle. Click here to order.
3. Yves Cuilleron Condrieu Les Chaillets 2013
How can you not like a wine that’s regularly referred to as heady, exotic and intense? Welcome to Condrieu, one of my favourites.
Condrieu is a dry white wine made entirely from the Viognier grape, the only variety permitted in the Condrieu appellation. The appellation itself is tiny which means you don’t see much of this wine around. Viognier is grown in other areas around the world, but there’s no doubt this is where it finds its best expression.
So what is it about Condrieu that makes it so appealing? Andrew Jefford: "great Condrieu makes a plausible case to be the world's most powerfully scented white wine, and it is most sensually overwhelming (its textural richness matches it embedded scents)." General flavour descriptors for the variety include; white flower, apricot, nectarine, peach and spice.
The fruit for this wine was sourced from the oldest and best vines on the estate. “Les Chaillets” is the local name for terraces and it’s on these that the densely planted vines sit overlooking Chavanay. The grapes were hand-picked when fully ripe and hand-sorted. Fermentation was with native yeasts in barriques, followed by a further 9 months maturation in old barrique on lees, with regular stirring and no racking - 13.5% alc./vol.
This wine has an extra dimension that only Viognier grown in Condrieu has. “A powerful and pure wine. Complex nose composed of the typical aromas from the grape variety (apricot, violet), interlaid with mineral aromas from the terroir and the roasted ones from the maturing. Straight and slim on the palate with a velvety touch. A few sweet spices at the final. Drink for the primary aromas during 3-4 years, but also for the secondary aromas from 6-10 years.” Winemaker’s notes.
The complete package - I think it’s sensational.
I can offer it for $130 a bottle (limited). Click here to order.