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 circular 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.
Philippe Viret constructed the winery alongside his father Alain in the late 1990s. The 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, 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.
Philippe is perhaps most famous for: Cosmoculture, which is a system of farming that 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 viticulture activities, as well as dictating the construction and operation of the winery itself. Knowledge of telluric currents informs research into fault zones, ground-water sources (Viret is built atop a large underground spring), 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. 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 maceration—at least 45 days for the reds, and up to a year for his various skin contact whites—and extracts mainly via infusion with minimal punch downs. This results in texturally seamless wines of fine and dynamic tannins.
Although he is far from dogmatic about it, Philippe generally adds no sulfites 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. He also gives his wines significant time in barrel to harmonize and stabilize. 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.