Yves Cuilleron & Francois Villard at Vins de Vienne
"From the turn of the century to the 1960's this whole area was in decline," said Yves Cuilleron of Vins de Vienne. "At the end of the 19th century, 400ha were planted [to vines]. In the 1960's, only 30ha of Cote Rotie was planted. People drank table wine every day, but it cost too much to plant the vineyards!" As he swept his arm through the air, across the steep hills from which tractors used to fall, Yves added, "If you came here 20 years ago, there were only 50% [of the current vineyards planted]."
In 1987, many vineyards were replanted post-phyloxera. When Yves took over the winery that his grandfather created in 1920, he took to the reigns from his uncle, because there was no one else to follow. 1987 also happened to be the year that Pierre Gaillard, also of Vins de Vienne, began his winemaking career; and 1988 is when Yves met Francois, who was looking to create a winemaking school. "There are many of my generation who became winemakers, starting new in the area with newly planted vineyards," said Yves. And though the three were well established as winemakers in their own right by the time they joined forces in 1996, it was a hill named Seyssuel that brought them together, with its soils of schist and granite, and equally steep slopes, just north of Cote Rotie, where there was once a Roman vineyard, over a thousand years ago.
Planted to Syrah in 1996, Seyssuel was the start of Vins de Vienne, when they recuperated 25ha from six vineyard owners to produce 3,000 bottles of Syrah. Nowadays, the trio owns 3ha on the site, renting their other plots and making 20,000 bottles of red and 8,000 bottles of white from Viognier that was planted to Seyssuel in 1998, yielding a small portion of their overall current 400,000 bottle production. As the first to currently plant vines on Seyssuel, the three vintners now farm alongside 12-14 other growers. And while they didn't initially intend to expand beyond Seyssuel, it was happenstance that led to the expansion of Vins de Vienne. "There was a big warehouse that served as a winery," said Pascal Lombard, who assists in the winemaking at Vins de Vienne, "bigger than the wine we could produce from Seyssuel, so in 1998, [they started] buying more grapes."
In addition to the small owned parcels in Cote Rotie, St Joseph, Condrieu and St Peray that yield their "Les Archeveques" plot selection series, the trio also works with wine growing partners to craft their L'Amphore d'Or and L'Amphore d'Argent wines. "We have contracts with the grape growers," said Pascal. "We talk about each state of the vines, about what to do. [And] the vineyard owners have confidence in the Vins de Vienne team, so they follow the practices that they [VdV] want. " In working with the growers, the team has a role in managing the canopy. They consult with growers to steer them toward more organic practices, not tolerating the use of pesticides nor fertilizers. If the vines need a treatment, they direct growers to adopt techniques that are environmentally friendly.
Pascal Lombard, Yves Cuilleron & Patrick Burke, our French Portfolio Manager
And while Vins de Vienne is trying to establish an AOP in Seyssuel, they realize that this could take time. "Everything is there to have an AOP," said Pascal, "but everything is politics. Others are waiting 30-40 years in Cotes du Rhone to develop an AOP. It'll take a very long time. We're in IGP, and want to go to the top without the baby steps. It's very important for us to have the AOP, but we can make good wine without it."
At Seyssuel, write John Livingstone-Learmonth in The Wines of Northern Rhone, "The incline runs at 50 degrees on the full slopes, so the vines are stake-trained there, wire-trained lower down. The schist congregates around the mid- to lower slopes, with mica and quartz mixed in. The hard rock lies around 80 cm (32 in.) below the topsoil." Livingstone continues, "The location reflects the geological shifts of some millions of years ago. 'The hill is at the same altitude as Cote-Rotie; in effect the Rhone drove between the two hills,' comments Yves."
When harvesting their Syrah, at Seyssuel and elsewhere, they make their fruit selections in the vineyard. For the whites, they harvest everything, "including the grapes that have fallen to the ground because we want the assembly to include sunburnt grapes and botrytis," said Pascal. "Viognier can develop more complex character if you harvest everything."
Applying their vineyard practices to their winemaking techniques, Vins de Vienne is "very non-interventionist" in the cellar, which was constructed in 2009, where no yeast nor tartaric acid is ever added. "They're not technical wines," said Pascal of the 33 different wines that they craft, "we want the wines to be an expression of the vineyards."
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