Some folks are so amazingly productive, you’d swear they had figured out a way to clone themselves—or at least bargained to add a few hours to each of their days that the rest of us can’t access. Our old friend, the indefatigable Yves Cuilleron, is one such person. When Neal began working with the Cuilleron domaine in the early 1980s—with Yves’s uncle Antoine—there were three wines in play: a Saint-Joseph Rouge, a Saint-Joseph Blanc, and a Condrieu. Today, Yves produces nearly forty different wines from a mind-boggling array of holdings throughout the entirety of the Northern Rhône. He travels the globe on a regular basis, and is deeply involved with other projects outside of his own domaine—none of which prevents him from constantly seeking out new parcels, planting vineyards in historic hinterlands of the region, and managing the large crew that staffs his winery. The efficiency, precision, and skill with which Yves operates—especially given the scope of his activity—nearly defy belief; each wine, each vintage, is an expressive, satisfying glimpse into its underlying terroir as rendered by a master.
While Cuilleron in his younger days seemed to relish wines of immense color and concentration, we have witnessed with great pleasure his evolution toward a gentler approach. In a true testament to this newfound emphasis on balance, he constructed a vast new winery a few years back—one which allows him an unprecedented level of flexibility in the fermentation and elevage of his many cuvées. But, instead of producing wines that bear the mark of increased control, or of a monolithic house style, he has used this flexibility in the service of terroir, approaching each wine individually and tailoring a regimen to allow for maximum expressiveness. Furthermore, in several cases he has abandoned the old “fantasy” names for certain wines in favor of simply labeling them according to their site of origin. With the just-arrived 2016 reds and 2017 whites, then, we see Yves acknowledging the authorship of the terroir more emphatically than ever before, and this formidable duo of consecutive strong vintages are uniformly outstanding.
The 2016 Red Wines
Although oceans of purple prose were spilled in the press about the 2015 vintage in the Northern Rhône, most growers here remark that 2016 is perhaps even greater. While it may lack the sheer tannic heft and dazzling concentration of 2015, 2016 offers superior elegance—a more fine-grained glimpse into the terroir—while sacrificing nothing in terms of density and longevity. For a grower like Cuilleron, who even with his newfound lighter touch still makes wines of relative muscle, 2016 allowed for wines of impressive balance. The delineation of appellations and sites here is more pronounced than usual in Yves’s 2016s, and the set of red wines that just hit our shores offer both early accessibility (with a few provisos, as outlined below) and surefire ageability.
2016 Crôzes-Hermitage Rouge “Laya”
“Laya” comes from a single vineyard in the southern part of Crôzes-Hermitage on the Chassis plain. Fully destemmed, the 2016 spent eighteen months in used barrels, and it shows impressive richness and depth for the appellation. Fruits veer toward the black, with a subtly somber edge adding nuance to an otherwise fruit-led presentation, and the tannins are relatively gentle and approachable.
2016 Saint-Joseph Rouge “Les Pierres Seches”
Produced from a variety of parcels in the sandy, muscovite-inflected granite soils of Chavanay (in the far north of the Saint-Joseph appellation), “Pierres Seches” was fermented with 30% of its stems and spent sixteen months entirely in used barrels. This 2016 displays similarly ample fruit as the “Laya” above, but with a greater sense of lift and tension, and a more pronounced spice element.
2016 Saint-Joseph Rouge “Cavanos – Vieilles Vignes”
Formerly known as “L’Amarybelle,” “Cavanos”—the old local name for Chavanay—comprises Yves’s oldest Syrah in the village (over 40 years of age), planted in soils of granite and muscovite. The 2016 offers a more overtly smoky character than “Pierres Seches” above, trading a bit of that wine’s sandy-soil-derived juiciness for a thicker palate of greater tenacity. The 20% new oak is all but invisible due to the wine’s impressive density, and this should evolve nicely in bottle.
2016 Saint-Joseph Rouge “Les Serines”
The name “Serines” refers to Petite Serine, the old local strain of Syrah that is said to produce wines of greater expressiveness than more modern clones. Yves’s “Les Serines” comes from old vines in the village of Sarras, significantly south of Chavnay and at roughly the mid-point of the appellation’s north-to-south expanse. Indeed, this 2016 possesses a wilder personality than its non-Petite Serine counterparts, with olive brine, camphor, and exotic spices competing for attention with brooding black fruits. Vigorous acidity keeps everything taut, and the 40% new oak is well hidden by the wine’s formidable concentration—and should be absorbed completely within a few years.
2016 Côte-Rôtie “Bassenon”
“Bassenon” is produced from a hectare and a half’s worth of gneiss and granite vineyards in the southernmost stretch of the Côte-Rôtie appellation, in the communes of Tupin and Semons near the border of Condrieu. “Bassenon” contains 10% Viognier, which lends the Syrah’s smoky aromatics a lifted, floral quality while easing their tannic grip. Produced with 30% whole-clusters and raised in 50% new oak, the 2016 is a spice-driven, stylish Côte-Rôtie. As befits the appellation, there is a more pronounced mineral streak here than in the trio of Saint-Joseph above, and the wine exudes a certain classicism that speaks to Yves’s newfound lighter touch.
2016 Côte-Rôtie “Madiniere”
In contrast to “Bassenon”, the “Madiniere” cuvée—also named after a Rhône tributary—is pure Syrah from the Côte Brune, in the northernmost swath of the appellation. The soils here are rich in iron and dominated by schist, and the wine is subsequently more chiseled than “Bassenon”—though it certainly doesn’t lack for power. This 2016 combines plush fruit and a sense of stony rigor, and its rugged tannins beckon for a bit of patience.
2016 Côte-Rôtie “Bonnivieres”
Labeled “Terres Sombres” until the 2015 vintage, “Bonnivieres” is an east-facing lieu-dit of mica-schist in the very center of the appellation close to Ampuis. Typically the last of Cuilleron’s Côte-Rôtie to be harvested, the 2016 displays greater complexity than its two siblings above, with a striking and exuberant nose of black pepper, woodsmoke, and savory meats. It wears its 60% new oak quite well, and the intense tannic cling on the lengthy and focused finish suggests it has a long life ahead of it.
2016 Cornas “Le Village”
Cuilleron produces “Le Village” from holdings in the vineyards of “Reynard” and “La Côte” in the prime swath of the Cornas appellation. Raised in 20% new oak, the 2016 is thick, sweetly ripe, and brooding on the nose, with classic gutsy animale notes peeking out from below the big, dark fruit—notes which should gain prominence over time and bring harmony to a wine that is currently quite primary.
The 2017 White Wines
Yves describes the 2017 vintage as a hypothetical blend of 2016 (for its balance and relative elegance) and 2015 (for its core of power), and certainly he achieved a great equilibrium between approachability and structure with the below set of wines. A bout of hail toward the end of July, coupled with the seemingly annual struggles with hydric stress in this part of France, resulted in lower-than-usual yields, but the 2017s here show excellent verve and expressiveness. Yves’s hand with these sometimes unwieldy Northern Rhône white varieties is like that of a lion tamer: he allows them to roar and stomp around enough to thrill the crowd, but he knows exactly when and how to rein them in and instill discipline. Each and every wine, in every appellation, imparts a sense of mastery; one senses, when drinking these wines, that they are in the hands of someone for whom mistakes are a foreign concept. And, as seductive and expressive as they are in their youth, Yves’s white wines always dazzle with age, revealing hidden layers of mineral complexity as they shed their youthful chub. You owe it to yourself to lay a few of these down and wait for their fireworks to be unleashed.
2017 Saint-Joseph Blanc “Lyseras”
“Lyseras” is a blend of equal parts Marsanne and Roussanne planted on various parcels of sandy granite, aged in a combination of foudres and smaller barrels (none new) for nine months. The 2017 deftly balances exotic varietal character—apricots, white flowers, tangerines—with high-toned Indian spices, creating a harmony driven more by tension than by overt acidity. A captivating white-truffle note lurks in the background, adding another dimension to this very impressive wine.
2017 Saint-Joseph Blanc “Le Lombard”
“Lombard” is pure Marsanne from 55-year-old vines planted in east/southeast orientation on the slopes of the Côte de Verlieu, and fermented and aged in various oak vessels (20% new). This 2017 is aromatically powerful and bold, offering a sense of solidity which echoes in the wine’s texture—an almost chewy concentration of fruit and mineral elements anchored by subtle lemon-like acidity.
2017 Saint-Joseph Blanc “Digue”
“Digue” is a highly granitic lieu-dit with due-south exposition from which Cuilleron produces this pure-Roussanne Saint-Joseph Blanc. Less monolithic and imposing than “Lombard,” the 2017 has a spice-tinged, lifted nose, with a palate driven more by acidity and salinity than by sheer fruit power. Notes of herbal tea and honey contribute to an overall impression of relative subtlety, and the 20% new oak here is beautifully integrated.
2017 Saint-Peray “Les Potiers”
The limestone-dominated terroir of Saint-Peray lends its wines a different character from those of Saint-Joseph: more finely mineral, more floral, and less viscous. “Potiers” is a blend of equal parts Marsanne and Roussanne planted in the poor alluvial soils typical of the appellation, fermented and aged in a combination of foudres and smaller barrels. The 2017 is gentle, exuberant, and easygoing, with notes of lime zest, quinine, and peaches atop a base of honey and stones.
2017 Saint-Peray “Biousse”
“Biousse” is a hillside lieu-dit just south of the village itself with a greater concentration of granite than is typical in Saint-Peray. Cuilleron produces a wine of 100% Marsanne here, aged in a higher proportion of small barrels (20% new) than the “Potiers” above. Firmer and more authoritatively mineral-driven than its counterpart, the 2017 “Biousse” is nonetheless still quite supple and drinkable, with high-toned citrus and more exotic tropical fruits creating an attractive layered impression.
2017 Condrieu “La Petite Côte”
Cuilleron produces “Petite Côte” from a variety of southeast-exposed, terraced vineyards of granite and muscovite overlooking the village of Chavanay. Fermented and aged 40% in foudres and 60% in two-and-three-year-old barrels, the 2017 showcases Yves’s skilled hand with the sometimes overly exuberant Viognier. Classic varietal notes of peaches, cream, and white flowers stop short of opulence, and though it is certainly thick in texture it is not at all ponderous—a textbook Condrieu from a real master.
2017 Condrieu “Les Chaillets”
Cuilleron uses only his oldest parcels of Viognier with the most optimal exposition for “Les Chaillets,” which means “terraces” in the local patois. Aged in a similar proportion of foudre and barrel as “Petite Cote” above, it sees more new wood (around 25%), which shows in a whiff of vanilla that actually melds nicely into the varietal elements. While it is no doubt richer than “Petite Cote,” it scans as more firmly dry on the palate, with an amplified impression of stone.
2016 Condrieu “Vernon”
“Vernon” is a legendary vineyard of biotite-rich granite and due-south exposition—the jewel of the Côte de Vernon, and the greatest and most age-worthy of Cuilleron’s Condrieu. As befits its concentration and pedigree, “Vernon” spends eighteen months in small barrels, half of which are new. This 2016 (one vintage behind the rest of the whites due to its length of elevage) is massive and primary, possessing a concentration that beckons for a few years of aging, as lurking below the onslaught of fruit is a massive well of granitic power that should emerge in due time.
“Roussilliere” Blanc Liquoreux Botrytisé
An unorthodox wine that is not allowed to bear a vintage, “Roussilliere” is nonetheless always from a single harvest—in this case, 2016—of very late-picked, botrytised Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier from Cuilleron’s vineyards in Chavanay. Aromas of tangerine and honey introduce a thick, viscous palate whose balancing acidity prevents its richness from spilling over into excess.
2017 Condrieu “Les Ayguets”
Cuilleron produces scant quantities of a sweet Condrieu from very late-harvested, botrytised Viognier around the village of Chavanay. Yves contends that, historically, late-harvested grapes blessed by the noble rot were the original and classic version of Condrieu, so he has labored annually (when conditions merit) to produce this unique gem. Aged entirely in small barrels, the 2017 “Ayguets” blitzes the senses aromatically, with peach, warm stones, fresh-ground cinnamon, and porcini. The palate is unabashedly rich, but still preserves varietal character and a sense of drive—an impressive feat, and a testament to Yves’s formidable talent.