Atop a hill in Saint-Maurice-sur-Eygues, in the southern Côtes-du-Rhône, a structure looms at once imposing and beautiful. Constructed of rectangular earthen-yellow stones broader than a human’s wingspan, it is flanked on the entirety of its left side by an Ionic-columned portico, and punctuated on its upper level by three large circle-top windows. This is Domaine Viret, and it is only the beginning of the story of one of southern France’s most fascinating and inscrutable winegrowers.
Our first visit to Viret, we navigated the winding driveway, surrounded by a sprawling amphitheater of vines planted in various configurations (north-south rows, east-west rows, square grids, and yes, spirals), and pulled up to the mesmerizing building whose dimensions up close were even more staggering. Given our trip-typical dearth of proper rest, the uncanny quality of the mise en scène struck us with exceptional force: Is this actually a winery? Are we inside a Stanley Kubrick film? Am I still asleep? Half-expecting a procession of cloaked druids or reanimated mummies to emerge from the colossal lower-level double doors, we were surprised when, ten minutes later, a car—not even a DeLorean—pulled up and a man in blue jeans stepped out: it was Philippe Viret.
Calm and friendly, Philippe, who constructed the winery alongside his father Alain in the late 1990s, immediately began humanizing what our weary brains had been struggling to process. These huge wall-stones were pulled from a local quarry—the same source the Romans used in constructing the famous Pont du Gard (the Viret property itself is an old Roman site)—and were numbered such that the winery could be constructed with the stones in the same configuration as when they were excavated. Their remarkable thickness allows for impeccable temperature regulation without technological interference—a boon in such a warm climate as the southern Rhône. Also, upon closer examination, the structure was not perched fully atop the hill but was built into the side of its peak, thus allowing everything to move via gravity through the winery’s various tiers from the moment the grapes are brought in. This was beginning to feel relatable, familiar even, but we had yet to begin discussing what Philippe is perhaps most famous for: Cosmoculture, a system of farming of which he is the only practitioner and for which he holds an actual patent…
Cosmoculture employs knowledge of the earth’s energy fields, known as telluric currents, in deciding where to plant, how to plant, when to harvest, and many other viticultural activities, as well as dictating the construction and operation of the winery itself. A well-established if not widely exposed field of inquiry, knowledge of telluric currents informs research into fault zones, ground-water sources (Viret is built atop a large underground spring, in fact), geothermal activity, and many more areas. Insofar as it involves homeopathic vineyard treatments, polycultural principles (Viret encompasses 60 total hectares of which 35 are planted to vines), and attention to lunar cycles, Cosmoculture can be seen as a sort of extension of biodynamics. And, like biodynamics, Cosmoculture involves practices which may seem at first arcane or esoteric but are in fact connected to ancient wisdom—to knowledge humans cultivated and transmitted for millennia before we allowed technology to begin to supplant it. Of course, this would all threaten to become grand eco-philosophical performance art if Philippe’s wines were simply ordinary; thankfully, however, they are among the most soulful and evocative wines in the entire region.
Not much that takes place inside the winery, save perhaps the large illuminated crystals resting on pillars at various spots, would shock a well-versed enthusiast of low-intervention wines. No outside yeast strains have ever been introduced here; vinification is never thermoregulated; and the wines all move via gravity through the building’s ingeniously conceived multi-tier system. Philippe favors very long macerations—at least 45 days for the reds, and up to a year for his various skin-contact whites—and extracts mainly via infusion with extremely minimal punching-down. This results in texturally seamless wines of fine and dynamic tannins not unlike those of Château Le Puy, in fact—another of our producers who employs infusion, and another property, with its backyard cromlech and dolmen, well-acquainted with the energy of the earth and the wisdom of the ancients.
Although he is far from dogmatic about it, Philippe generally adds no sulfur at all to his wines at any point during fermentation or aging. And not only are they stable, but they are capable of significant cellaring; in fact, since his first vintage in 1999, he has held back 10% or so of his top few cuvées for late release, and we are excited to be able to offer some 1999 and 2000 with our inaugural shipment. He also gives his wines significant time in barrel to harmonize and stabilize, and while, for instance, a dyed-in-the-wool old-guard farmer like the late legendary Henri Bonneau may well have chuckled at the whole Cosmoculture thing, he would have fully understood the merits of Philippe’s extra-long barrel-aging regimen. Indeed, Viret’s wines, particularly with some age, hone in on some of those same elusive sub-zones of spice-inflected umami and reined-in savory volatility that contribute to the magic of Bonneau’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
We have thus far paid but one visit to Philippe, whose life’s work and philosophy are complex enough to merit a book-length exploration, and there is much more to be learned as our relationship develops. However, the opportunity to represent such iconoclastic and personal wines which nonetheless so deeply articulate the rugged terroir of the southern Côtes-du-Rhône was impossible to pass up. Whether one chooses to ignore Viret’s guiding principles entirely or to plunge into them headlong, these are wines that startle with their immediacy, enthrall with their depth, and enliven with their deliciousness.
2019 “Horus” Vin de France
Philippe has been producing skin-macerated white wines in amphorae since way back in 2005, and “Horus”—after the ancient Egyptian sky god—is a blend of Grenache Gris, Vermentino, Viognier, Muscat d’Alexandrie, and the obscure Aranel, planted in pebbly limestone. He ferments it half in amphorae built by a local artisan and half in steel, keeping the wine on its skins for six months, after which point it is pressed and returned to said vessels for another six months. The finished wine is exuberantly spicy, with a nice punch of tannins and tons of energy; think Collio, but less overtly powerful.
2019 “La Coudée d’Or” Vin de France
“La Coudée d’Or” combines a panoply of better- and lesser-known white Rhône varieties such as Clairette, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and various ancient obscurities (Viret has over 100 varieties planted on the property). Grapes begin fermentation on their skins and are pulled off after a few days and pressed, and the wine ages for two years in well-used oak barrels. Compared to the robustly tannic “Horus” above, “La Coudée d’Or” drinks like a more straightforward white wine, but with its luscious, pulpy, lip-smackingly salty fruit, and its intense vibrancy boosted by a hair’s breadth of appetizing volatility, it fully transcends the often underwhelming and clunky category of southern Rhône whites.
2019 “Energie” Vin de France
Built primarily from young-vines Syrah with a splash of Mourvèdre and tiny sprinklings of old Rhône varieties like Picpoul Noir, Vaccarèse, Muscardin, and Counoise, “Energie” is vinified and aged in a combination of cement and steel tanks for one year with no added sulfur. The long but gentle infusion-method of extraction gives this wine great clarity of line, with pure, ringing acidity and a tasteful spiciness that speaks more of the northern Rhône than the frequently coarse Syrah of these southerly zones; its name could hardly be more apt.
2016 “Renaissance” Vin de France
A blend of the classic varieties of the area, “Renaissance” combines Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Carignan (in descending order of prominence) from parcels scattered throughout the property. It ferments naturally in concrete and undergoes a 45-day-long maceration, then spends nearly four years in concrete with no added sulfur whatsoever. The phenomenal 2016 offers a layered, meditative character, with ripe but beautifully controlled fruits unfurling slowly throughout the gently extracted, vibrant palate. This is expertly rendered zero-sulfur wine that speaks clearly of the terroir and is viscerally expressive of its impeccable fruit of origin.
2018 “Sylibre” Vin de France
“Sylibre” shows off Philippe’s extraordinarily deft touch with Syrah in this southerly climate. Aged two years in a combination of concrete vat and used oak barrels and produced with no added sulfur at all, the 2018 is soaringly expressive on the nose, full of fresh-laundry spice and pepper. It offers an elegant, relatively silky palate with elongated, ultra-fine tannins, and it peers into the black depths Syrah can express in this region without slipping down the sides of the well.
2016 “Maréotis” Vin de France
From a single parcel of white clay and limestone, “Maréotis”—named after a lake in northern Egypt near Alexandria—combines 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah which are harvested and vinified together during a lengthy 45-day maceration. This 2016 spent four full years in a combination of mainly concrete and a touch of old barrels with no added sulfur, and despite its 15.5% alcohol it still offers lift and freshness—a testament to the way a wine can articulate the natural headiness and heat of its terroir in an appealing way if it is crafted with a thoughtful and attentive lack of interference.
2016 “Les Colonnades” Vin de France – Library release: 1999 “Les Colonnades” Saint-Maurice
Another single-vineyard wine, “Les Colonnades” is planted to 100-year-old Grenache and Mourvèdre in pebbly red-clay and limestone. Philippe picks purposefully late so that the Grenache teeters on the brink of over-maturity, but it remains adamantly on the fresh side of the divide, and this tardy harvesting imbues it with a wealth of autumnal character and spicy, tobacco-y depth. The articulation of iron-inflected minerality here is truly profound and it blossoms as the wine ages, as evidenced by the 1999 we are pleased to offer here—Philippe’s first ever vintage, and from an era before he had deliberately departed from the appellation (hence its labeling as “Saint-Maurice”). “Les Colonnades” spends four years in concrete vat with no added sulfur at all after a 45-day maceration.
2014 “Emergence” Vin de France – Library release: 2000 “Emergence” Saint-Maurice
“Emergence” comes also from a single parcel, this one with deep clay and lots of limestone pebbles, and it is planted to Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan in descending proportions. It ferments in cement with a long 45-day maceration and spends a staggering five years aging in well-used oak casks with no sulfur added at any point during the fermentation or aging. The 2014 is youthfully dense but beguiling in its tannins and impressive in its caressing energy, and the library 2000 is a dead ringer for a well-aged Châteauneuf-du-Pape from an old master such as Henri Bonnea