Some folks are so productive, you’d swear they had figured out a way to clone themselves—or at least bargained to add a few extra hours to each of their days. The indefatigable Yves Cuilleron is one such person. When Neal began working with the Cuilleron family 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 staggering array of holdings (75 hectares in total) 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 but long-neglected parts 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 glimpse into its underlying terroir as rendered by one of the region’s greatest growers and ambassadors.
While Yves in his earlier vintages favored ultra-deep color and intense concentration, we have witnessed with great satisfaction his evolution toward a gentler approach over the past decade. In a true testament to this newfound emphasis on balance, he constructed a large new winery in 2015—one which allows him an unprecedented level of flexibility regarding fermentation and élévage. But, instead of producing wines that bear the mark of increased control, Yves has used this flexibility in the service of terroir, approaching each wine individually and developing a regimen to allow for maximum expressiveness. Each of his many parcels is vinified and aged separately, which allows him to tailor the type of fermentation vessel, length of maceration, method of extraction, and type of aging vessel to the type of wine each plot tends to produce. Furthermore, fully trusting the quality of his fruit—he uses no insecticides and practices only organic vineyard treatments—Yves allows fermentation to proceed spontaneously for all his wines and employs a sulfur regimen that is particularly modest considering the scale of his operation.
We at Rosenthal Wine Merchant are preparing to receive an array of 2017s and 2018s from Cuilleron in early January, comprising our 31st and 32nd vintages in partnership with Yves—a vigneron operating at the peak of his formidable powers.
The 2017 and 2018 Vintages in the Northern Rhône
Yves describes the 2017 vintage as a hypothetical blend of 2016 (for its sense of equilibrium) and 2015 (for its core of power). 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, with the Syrah-based wines offering marked freshness atop their foundations of smoke, meat, and mineral. The 2018 growing season was quite warm, but relatively high yields compared to 2017 helped offset potential issues with overripeness and elevated alcohol. After a particularly humid start to the season, mid-June saw the onset of exceptional weather which persisted through harvest, and the vintage overall was relatively problem-free in comparison to the more challenging 2017. Yves compares 2018 at this early stage to 2015 in its richness, but remarks that 2018 possesses more elegance and lift.
2018 Marsanne IGP Collines Rhodaniennes
Yves treats his basic white wines with the same sensitivity as his more lofty appellations, aging them in a combination of large foudres, small barrels, and stainless steel, and always allowing malolactic fermentation to occur; Yves insists that these indigenous northern Rhône white varieties require both malolactic and slow oxygen intake in order to fully express terroir, and his versions are indeed always exemplary. The 2018 Marsanne combines lemon-lime elements with riper notes of peaches and cream, offering a mouthcoating richness that stops short of overt viscosity.
2018 Roussanne IGP Collines Rhodaniennes
Aged one-third each in stainless steel, foudres, and small barrels (none of which are new), this 2018 Roussanne displays greater acidity and drive than the Marsanne above, in keeping with the typical nature of the variety. Fruits show more snap and tension, and a subtle saline element combines beautifully with flavors of fresh nuts on the relatively intense, driving palate. It carries slightly over 14% alcohol but wears it with grace, coming across as fleet of foot and highly drinkable.
2018 Viognier IGP Collines Rhodaniennes
Yves has a particularly preternatural touch with Viognier, a famously difficult variety to tame, and even his basic bottling offers greater balance and depth than the majority of Condrieu from other growers costing far more. This 2018, aged in a combination of steel, foudre, and barrel like its siblings above, provides the spicy, floral, pit-fruited aromatic fireworks typical of the variety, but with phenomenal tension on the palate, as well as a lightness that belies its 14.5% alcohol. It manages to offer plenty of flavor authority without being at all cloying—a remarkable achievement, particularly in a warm vintage like 2018.
2018 Saint-Peray “Les Potiers”
“Les Potiers” is a blend of equal parts Marsanne and Roussanne planted in the poor granitic soils typical of the appellation, fermented and aged in a combination of foudres and smaller barrels (10% new). The 2018 presents focused, high-toned aromas of lime zest and quinine, rounded out by fresh peaches and acacia honey on the palate. Interestingly, only 100 hectares of Saint-Peray (out of a possible 500) are currently under cultivation, making a wine such as this fairly rare to encounter.
2018 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 (10% new) for nine months. The 2018 offers varietally true notes of apricots and tangerines on a succulent, texturally open-knit frame, with a subtle floral undertone providing aromatic lift.
2018 Condrieu “La Petite Côte”
Cuilleron produces “La Petite Côte” from a variety of southeast-exposed, terraced vineyards of muscovite-rich granite overlooking the village of Chavanay. Fermented and aged 40% in foudres and 60% in two-and-three-year-old barrels, the 2018 showcases Yves’s skilled hand with the exuberant Viognier, with exotic notes of pineapple, mango, and peach offset by an overall sense of ebullience and precise acidity.
2018 Syrah “Les Vignes d’a Côte” IGP Collines Rhodaniennes
Always a textbook bullseye of a northern Rhône Syrah, Cuilleron’s “Les Vignes d’a Côte” blends fruit from the communes of Chavanay and Saint Pierre de Boeuf (in the northern part of the Saint-Joseph appellation) with splashes from just outside Crozes-Hermitage. Fully destemmed and raised half in stainless steel and half in used oak demi-muids, the 2018 is both juicy and taut, both savory and pleasantly plump in its fruit profile. Classic flavors of red licorice and smoked meat are supported by gentle but present tannins and pert acidity, and an overall sense of complexity which far exceeds this wine’s modest price.
2018 Syrah “Les Candives” IGP Collines Rhodaniennes
“Les Candives” is a selection of Yves’s oldest parcels of Syrah in the Collines Rhodaniennes, aged entirely in barrels (in contrast to the “Les Vignes d’a Côte” above). Presenting an appropriately notable step up in aromatic intensity, this 2018 also displays more overt minerality—a warm granitic swelling which amply supports the sappier fruit profile here. Its texture is finer, tighter-grained, and less openly juicy than its baby brother, with a longer and slightly more structured finish.
2017 Crôzes-Hermitage Rouge “Laya”
“Laya” comes primarily from a single vineyard in the southern part of Crôzes-Hermitage on the Chassis plain, augmented by a smaller parcel in Beaumont-Monteux. Fully destemmed, the 2017 spent eighteen months in used barrels, and it shows impressive depth for the appellation. A gently brooding, black-fruited nose gives way to a palate of notable intensity, with well-buffered tannins hinting at several years of positive evolution.
2017 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 two- to four-year-old barrels. Remarkably fresh and vibrant, the 2017 presents an elegant, mineral-marked version of northern Rhône Syrah devoid of chub or overripeness.
2017 Saint-Joseph Rouge “Cavanos – Vieilles Vignes”
“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 2017 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 barrels here are younger—one to two years old—than the “Pierres Seches” above, but the wine’s greater concentration masks their influence. This shares a real sense of varietal purity with its baby brother, and should age positively for at least a decade.
2017 Côte-Rôtie “Madinière”
Cuilleron’s Côte-Rotie “Madinière”—named after a Rhône tributary—hails from Côte Brune, in the northernmost swath of the appellation. The iron-rich soils here dominated by schist, and the subsequent wine is chiseled and tension-filled (though certainly not lacking for power). Comprised of 95% Syrah and 5% Viognier (co-fermented), this 2017 spent eighteen months in barrels, and its dense, tight-grained structure and impressively concentrated fruit do a fair job masking its 40% new oak; a few additional years of age should swallow it entirely. This offers explosively high-toned aromas of savory spice (partly due to a vinification with one-third whole clusters), and an assertive mineral streak which combines with its robust acidity to convey a sense of enormous kinetic energy.
2017 Cornas “Le Village”
Cuilleron produces “Le Village” from holdings in three renowned vineyards: Reynard, Caillerets, and La Côte, all in the prime swath of the Cornas appellation. Raised in 20% new oak, the 2017 is deep and strapping on the nose, with classic gutsy savory notes peeking out from below the big, dark fruit. A Cornas through and through, its palate is more rambunctious and far more tannic than the preceding wines, yet exceptionally firm acidity keeps it from becoming at all ponderous.