New Northern Rhône Releases from Yves Cuilleron

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Around January 8th, we will receive a monumental set of wines from the tireless Yves Cuilleron, encompassing his red wines from the majestic 2015 vintage and his appellation white wines from 2016. These represent the 30th vintage we have been working with Yves, and we have witnessed with amazement his development and expansion since his first harvest in 1987. It takes a particularly sharp-minded visionary to watch over the 40 hectares of vineyards Yves now controls and to keep the quality as dazzlingly high and unfailingly consistent as he does. Yet, each year Yves delivers wines of typicity, expressiveness, and power. Whereas, his style in the earlier days tended to emphasize extraction and force—sometimes at the expense of elegance—he has evolved a lighter touch over the years that nonetheless still delivers great intensity, albeit one which allows the great terroirs in which he works to shine through more assertively. With the duo of vintages about to hit our shores, we see a master operating at the peak of his powers, and these wines unquestionably represent the finest offerings we have ever had the pleasure to present from Yves Cuilleron. In fact, it is our view that we stand at the crossroads of a period of exceptional quality for the northern Rhône in general as the duo of 2015/2016 vintages appear to rival in grandeur the exquisite twin vintages of 1989 and 1990

The 2015 Red Wines

Cutting to the chase: Yves believes 2015 to be the greatest vintage he has ever made (his first being 1987). Not only was nature kind enough to provide the optimal conditions for a harvest both healthy and plentiful, but it was Yves’ first vintage vinified and aged in his incredible new winery—a large, optimally equipped facility that allows him to work with the utmost sensitivity to each wine’s particular needs. It is refreshing to see such a state-of-the-art space used in the service of purity of expression rather than heavy-handed manipulation, and indeed Cuilleron’s 2015 red wines possess a combination of power and elegance that represents a new height for the domaine. These are wines of profound intensity yet striking harmony, solidly built wines enrobed in perfectly luscious fruit, each one promising years of positive development. If the Yves of fifteen years ago tended to keep a heavy foot on the gas pedal, 2015 shows he has learned definitively that nature speaks more clearly through a gentle hand on the steering wheel. These 2015s are deeply impressive wines that stand proudly among the very finest in the region.

2015 Crôzes-Hermitage Rouge “Laya”: “Laya” comes from a single vineyard in the southern part of Crôzes-Hermitage on the Chassis plain. Fully destemmed, the 2015 spent eighteen months in used barrels, and it offers an easygoing yet multi-layered take on this great vintage. Juicy, smoke-tinged fruit that veers toward the red end of the spectrum completely coats the not-insubstantial tannins, and the push-pull between acid and ripeness makes this wine eminently drinkable even at this youthful stage.

2015 Saint-Joseph Rouge “Les Pierres Seches”: Always a sweet spot for value, typicity, and deliciousness, “Pierres Seches” especially shines in 2015. Produced from a variety of parcels in the sandy, muscovite-inflected granite soils of Chavanay (in the far north of the appellation), it was fermented with 30% of its stems this vintage, and spent sixteen months in used barrels. Dense yet lifted, it balances ripe smokiness with a lovely purple-flower element, and again the tannins are buffered entirely by the wine’s generous and supple fruit. Great Saint-Joseph should always retain some freshness, and this wine checks that box with aplomb—simply a phenomenal value.

2015 Saint-Joseph Rouge “Les Pierres Seches”: Always a sweet spot for value, typicity, and deliciousness, “Pierres Seches” especially shines in 2015. Produced from a variety of parcels in the sandy, muscovite-inflected granite soils of Chavanay (in the far north of the appellation), it was fermented with 30% of its stems this vintage, and spent sixteen months in used barrels. Dense, yet lifted, it balances ripe smokiness with a lovely purple-flower element, and again the tannins are buffered entirely by the wine’s generous and supple fruit. Great Saint-Joseph should always retain some freshness, and this wine checks that box with aplomb—simply a phenomenal value.

2015 Saint-Joseph Rouge “Cavanos – Vieilles Vignes”: As of 2015, Cuilleron will no longer produce his well-loved “L’Amarybelle,” his oldest Syrah vineyards instead being used for this cuvee, “Cavanos”—the ancient local name for the village of Chavanay. Made from densely planted Syrah over 40 years of age, “Cavanos” offers a profound, more overtly smoky character than “Pierres Seches” above, trading a bit of that wine’s straightforward snappiness for a broader palate of greater opacity and thickness. That said, it is still beautifully balanced, showcasing the unique tension of the 2015 vintage and promising stellar drinking for many years.

2015 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 more visceral terroir expression and greater complexity than more modern clones. While Cuilleron’s 2015—produced from vines of said strain located in his home village of Chavanay—is not blatantly bigger than his other Saint-Joseph cuvees, it is undeniably more gutsy: smokier, richer in savory elements, and with a punchier and more forbidding minerality. This will require a few years for its true voice to emerge, but it should age effortlessly for several decades.

2015 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. As allowed by appellation regulations, “Bassenon” contains 10% Viognier, which lends the Syrah’s smoky aromatics a lifted, floral quality while easing the tannic punch. This 2015 certainly bears the mark of the vintage with its dark, concentrated character, spicy sandalwood and fresh-ground black pepper but the overwhelming impression is one of finesse wedded to a high-toned complexity with tannins whispering in the background.

2015 Côte-Rôtie “Madiniere”: In contrast to “Bassenon”, the “Madiniere” cuvée—also named after a Rhône tributary—is pure Syrah from the northernmost reaches of Côte-Rôtie. The soils here are schist-dominated, and the wine is subsequently more chiseled—though it certainly doesn’t lack for power in 2015. The direct but complex nose reaches higher notes than those of the “Bassenon,” with a more pronounced spice element and less brooding smokiness. It comes across as firmer yet more refined on the palate, with a similar tug-of-war between fruit, acid, and tannin, yet on a more sinewy and lanky frame. This is a multi-dimensional Côte-Rôtie that will develop slowly and beautifully in bottle.

2015 Côte-Rôtie “Bonniviere”: “Bonniviere” 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 holdings to be harvested, the 2015 is more primary and backward at this phase than its two siblings above, offering enormous ripeness and neutron-star density on a frame of formidable tannins that are coated in sappy black fruits. It is denser than “Bassenon,” and more brooding than “Madiniere,” showing the savory power of its sector and requiring some patience on the part of the buyer.

2015 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. This 2015’s deep, dark color hints at its ultimate intensity, but the nose offers exuberant, exotic incense and violet notes that beautifully offset a rich smoked-meat and mineral core. The palate is full and fleshy, with well-rounded tannins and a long, fresh finish—an ultra-ripe wine that nonetheless manages to achieve a sense of harmony and lift.

The 2016 White Wines

One can certainly argue about which of these two vintages (2015/2016) is the greater but for Yves Cuilleron the whites of 2016 make a compelling case for the supremacy of that vintage, at least in the white realm. The higher acidity and lower alcohol (the lowest in a decade for the whites that mark this vintage in the Cuilleron cellars have produced wines of impeccable equilibrium. The growing season began with its share of difficulties, including an attack of mildew, but the beginning of July brought glorious weather that continued through harvest, and Yves was able to produce wines that combine succulent fruit with excellent freshness and minerality. His vinification methods reflect his desire for balance: fermentations take place partly in stainless steel and partly in wooden casks for all the wines, with proportions varying based on the character of the terroir, as he feels these varieties must take in oxygen as they ferment but wishes to avoid overly rich or oak-marked wines. Yves has always had a particular skill for achieving harmony with the challenging varieties of Marsanne and Roussanne and the 2016s represent his most poised and finely wrought white wines to date.

2016 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 2016 shows the verve of the vintage, with lifted acidity and a tight-grained, mineral-dominated palate whose varietally expressive, fleshy orchard fruits are more of a background note than the main event. This wine exemplifies Cuilleron’s uncanny knack for keeping these northern Rhône white varieties reined in to the point of highly drinkable harmony.

2016 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, fermented and aged in various oak vessels in the manner of its little brother above. This 2016 offers a big, assertive, saline nose bursting with fresh almonds and quince. A higher presence of granite in the soils here manifests in the wine’s deeply dense and stony core, and the sappy, viscous palate turns bright and clean on the lengthy finish.

2016 Saint-Joseph Blanc “Digue”: “Digue” is a highly granitic lieu-dit with due-south exposition from which Cuilleron produces this impressive pure-Roussanne Saint-Joseph. An undeniably rich wine, the 2016 nonetheless maintains a frankly surprising level of balancing acidity, which buoys the vivacious, multi-layered flavors and allows the profound minerality of the wine to grab a firm hold of the palate. This highly concentrated wine should cellar splendidly.

2016 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. A rich, luscious nose of hazelnut cream and honeysuckle gives way to a round, intensely spicy palate that carries its alcohol deftly and finishes long and fresh.

2016 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 than “Potiers” above. This 2016 offers an appealing tension between its richer and its higher-toned elements: musky, ripe notes of poached pear and grilled peach lurk below a delicate acacia-flower overlay, and a candied-citrus element lends welcome brightness to the palate.

2016 Condrieu “La Petite Côte”: Cuilleron produces “La Petite Côte” from a variety of southeast-exposed, muscovite-rich, terraced vineyards overlooking the village of Chavanay. Fermented and aged 40% in foudres and 60% in two-and-three-year-old barrels, the 2016 really showcases Yves’s skilled hand with the sometimes overly exuberant Viognier. Classic varietal notes of ripe peach and apricot stop just short of exotic on the smoke-tinged, assertively stony nose, and the luscious palate offers plenty of acidity and not a trace of heat. A true classic that sets the standard for Condrieu.

2016 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 parlance. Aged in a similar proportion of foudre and barrel as “Petite Cote” above, it sees more new wood (around 25%), but the density lent by the old vines renders the oak all but invisible. Speaking from the same basic aromatic and flavor palette as its little sister, “Chaillets” offers more of everything: more thickness of texture, higher-reaching acidity, a longer finish, and a more profound sense of rock.

2015 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 600-liter demi-muids, one-third of which are new. This 2015, massive and primary, spills forth apricots both fresh and dried, with an undertone of new-barrel vanilla that a few years should subdue. Its sheer density verifies the vineyard’s vaunted status within the appellation, but not even all that primary fruit can obscure the wine’s granitic heft.

“Roussilliere” Blanc Liquoreux Botrytise: 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. This release, registering 12% alcohol and carrying 80 grams per liter of residual sugar, offers an enormous nose of orange blossom, musk, and honey. Its thick, viscous palate displays a balancing acidity that prevents it from going over the top, and a pretty white-flower note lingers on the finish.

2016 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, this fascinating wine clocks in at 11.5% alcohol and carries 110 grams per liter of residual sugar, yet its vibrant acidity keeps the ripeness in check. “Ayguets” blitzes the senses aromatically, with peach, warm stones, fresh-ground cinnamon, porcini, and a savory edge.

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