Pierre Jean Villa, Saint Joseph

Domaine Pierre Jean Villa label

Country & RegionFrance, Rhône Valley
Appellation(s)Saint-Joseph, Croze-Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie
ProducerPierre Jean Villa

Pierre-Jean Villa has established himself in a few years as one of the most gifted winegrowers of his generation, creating his domain by the strength of the wrist and especially the pick … PJV is now one of the greatest winegrowers in the northern Rhône.
        –2020 Guide to Wine, Bettane & Desseauve

Pierre Jean Villa is a solid, well-built man, and maybe that’s why he gravitates toward elegance in wine. He grew up surrounded by vines and vignerons in the northern Rhône town of Chavanay, but learned to make wine in Burgundy, which may also explain his bent for finesse. He first learned the ropes working at Mommessin’s Clos de Tart. After Boisset bought the Mommessin firm, Pierre Jean worked in Beaujolais and then for three years at Domaine de la Vougeraie with Pascal Marchand.

Pierre Jean Villa of Domaine Pierre Jean Villa

In 2003 he returned to the Rhône and became the manager for Vins de Viennes. This is the company that Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard, and François Villard created to resurrect the ancient vineyard area of Seyssuel, just north of Vienne on the left bank, as well as to do business as a négociant. For seven years Pierre Jean handled the administration and winemaking at the firm, eventually becoming the fourth partner. The other partners had their own domaines to run; Vins de Viennes was Pierre Jean’s bailiwick, and he made it what it is today.

In 2009, after a lot of thought, he handed in his keys and started his own Domaine Pierre Jean Villa from scratch, and this is worth pausing over, because that’s no mean feat. He began with parcels in St Joseph, Condrieu, and Côte-Rôtie, plus he had a parcel in Seyssuel for his Esprit d’Antan. Some of these parcels–notably, the long-ago abandoned terraces behind his new winery in Chavanay–had to be cleared and planted. He made vintage 2009 at his buddy Jean-Michel Gerin’s domain in Ampuis while overseeing the renovation of an abandoned fruit-processing building on the western edge of Chavanay. He moved into his new winery the following year. That’s Chavanay below, and PJ’s Roussanne vines are in those hills.

Domaine Pierre Jean Villa in town of Chavanay

In 2013 a young man named Justin knocked on his door in Chavanay to ask for a job. He had impressive degrees in both viticulture and wine-making from Toulouse and Montpellier, and he was doing an internship with Yves Cuilleron at the latter’s nearby domaine. Villa declined; he could just manage on his own. Justin returned several times and made it quite clear that he wanted to work here and no where else. Pierre Jean said okay, we’ll give it a trial run.

Now Justin is a full-time employee and Pierre Jean says it’s the best decision he’s made since starting off on his own. Moreover, Justin became a member of The Grapeful Dead, the famous northern Rhône band you’ve never heard of featuring Paul Amsellem from Domaine Georges Vernay, Yves Gangloff, and Pierre-Jean Villa. Thanks to Justin, and a growing team, the domaine has been able to farm its 42 acres in an increasingly organic manner and with ever more detail. Of course, it’s the details that count. In 2017, experiments began on the hillside parcels using a special mulch under certain vines and sowing sedum under others to see if either worked well enough to replace herbicide, which would be the final step for 100% organic farming (the domaine will be certified in 2021). The photo below shows a patch of sedum beneath Roussanne vines, and sedum seems to work the best–it takes little water, it grows low to the ground and so doesn’t attract humidity, and it checks erosion. Plus the stuff is local–it grows on the rock walls!

Domaine Pierre Jean Villa's sedum in vines

In 2018 he entered into an agreement with the French park service to farm a new experimental organic vineyard in the hills completely surrounded by forest. He’s working with state biologists to study the effects of agroforestry on, in this case, a grape crop. Pierre Jean likes his wines, of course, but it’s the vineyard work and the progress he is making with cutting edge organics that he is most proud of.

Pierre Jean is also pretty happy and proud of the fact that his son Hugo and daughter Pauline have decided to join him at the domaine (decisions long in the making, but formalized in 2021).

The cellar work remains hands off: spontaneous ferments–many with a percentage of stems, some without any, a decision taken at each harvest–normally no fining or filtration, and racking and bottling is done according to the lunar calendar. The domain started in 2009 with a cellar full of new barrels, but by vintage 2015 Pierre Jean managed to transition to having most of his élevages take place in older barrels. In 2018, he got a number of 15 and 13-liter foudres to age a portion of his two whites in, and in 2019 he bought a number of clay jars for aging the whites plus large wood uprights for the reds. Specifics are enumerated below.

Stylistically, Pierre-Jean takes the best from the traditionalists and from the modernists (those who dominated late in the last century) to make wines that are clean, pure, deep, mineral and elegant.

Domaine Pierre Jean Villa bottles

Thanks to Jeff Bramwell for the above photo.

Watch a video filmed in late 2019 of the domaine, the vineyards, and the wines.

The Wines

SyrahSyrahThis comes from two parcels of old sélection massale vines formerly classed as AOC St Joseph but reclassified as Vin de France in 2018 under the rules restricting the total surface of the appellation. In addition, it comes from young vines in Villa's other parcels. The wine is aged entirely in large oak uprights. Production averages 2,400 bottles.
Croze-Hermitage "Accroche Coeur"
SyrahThe name refers to the tendrils that sprout out of very young vine leaves in the springtime and form a kind of cowlick or the curling shape of a heart. The domaine owns 1.5 hectares (about 4 acres) in the Chanos Curson zone in alluvial soils with galet stones. The grapes are all de-stemmed and aged in older barrels for 12-13 months.
Condrieu "Jardin Suspendu"ViognierFrom three parcels totaling five acres. About half was planted in 2009 while the other half dates from the 1970s. The young vine parcel was put in by Pierre Jean behind the original Villa winery on the hillside back of Chavanay; the two older parcels are in the commune of Vérin. About 50% of this is raised in foudre, 25% in neutral demi-muids, and 25% in clay jars. Normally, there's no fining and one minimum filtration, but this depends on the year. Pierre Jean loves the textured fruit that Condrieu amply provides and aims to couple this with lift and freshness. Production averages 1,667 6-packs.

The name comes from the post-WWII days, when the terraces behind Ampuis were largely abandoned and the locals took to growing vegetable gardens on the steep hillsides. Jardin referred to vegetables, not grapes.
Saint Joseph blanc "Saut de L’Ange"
RoussanneA lovely, dense 100% Roussanne from a parcel in the northern end of the appellation in Chavanay and three smaller ones in the southern end of the appellation. This is one of the few 100% Roussannes made in the north (only four or five producers make one, and indeed very few growers in the north are interested in Roussanne because it is, as Pierre Jean says, un aspirateur pour la maladie--a vacuum cleaner for illness--but he stubbornly sticks with it). The total surface comes to 0.6 hectares, or 1.5 acres. Like the Condrieu, some 50% of this is raised in foudre, 25% in neutral demi-muids, and 25% in clay jars. Normally, this is bottled without filtration.

The name—Angel’s Leap, or Swan Dive—comes from the parcel growing on a steep hillside that ends at a cliff above the winery. Production averages 1,500 bottles.
Saint Joseph "Préface"SyrahThis is the first red cuvée of the domaine, a wine with a terrific core of Syrah fruit, and it sets the tone (hence its name). At roughly 12,000 bottles, it’s the largest production. The vines grow in the northern, cooler sector of the appellation, the wine is made in a mixture of 225-liter and 600-liter barrels, all older, and the élevage goes for 12-13 months (which will probably increase in the years ahead). The vineyard parcels total two hectares, or five acres, and normally as much as 30% of the grapes--especially those from the old vines of Serine--are fermented with stems.
Saint Joseph "Tildé"
SyrahThis is the old vine cuvée made from four parcels planted in 1963, 64, 65, and 1970 in the very center of the St Joe appellation in the commune of Sarras. The four parcels grow close to one another at roughly 300 meters in altitude, high on the hillside. Total vineyard surface is one hectare, or 2.5 acres growing in sandy soils on top of a mother rock of pure granite. Depending on the year, some is declassified into Préface. Like its sibling, this is made in a mixture of large and small barrels, but here the élevage goes for up to 24 months. In addition, ferments are always done with a portion of stems, and since vintage 2016 that figure has been for at least 60% whole cluster in the ferments.

Pierre Jean’s father came from Spain, and the word Tildé refers to the Spanish accent mark ˜ which forms the logo on Pierre Jean’s labels. In the old dialect of Occitane, Tildé refers to an inscription, a stamp or seal put upon an object, and this cuvée could well bear the seal of the domain. Average annual production is 3,000 bottles.
Côte-Rôtie "Carmina"
Syrah Pierre Jean has two parcels in Côte-Rôtie for this wine: an old vine parcel (Fongeant: 1954 and 1964 plantings) measuring an acre and a quarter plus five acres of younger vines to the north in the Vereney lieu dit of Lézardes. Thus the blend is roughly 20-80 from these sources. All of this is Syrah except for two lonely vines of Viognier that somehow got planted by accident, and these grapes are tossed into the vat.

Carmina is the proprietary name of a cuvée that is made primarily with old vine grapes and fermented with 30% (up to as much as 50% in good years) of whole clusters. Half of the élevage is done in a large oak upright while the remainder of the wine is raised in older demi-muids. It is bottled if possible without fining or filtration. The soil here is very fine mica schist, and the wine has a great deal of breed with a redder flavor profile than Préface, which definitely leans toward a darker profile. Average annual production is 3,600 to 4,800 bottles.
Côte-Rôtie "Fongeant"SyrahFongeant is a lieu-dit at the top of the Côte Brune hillside. Villa has a parcel of just over an acre planted in 1954 and 1964, and since 2013 he has plowed this parcel with a horse. Depending on the year, the wine is made with between two-thirds and 100% whole cluster after a strict triage and is not fined or filtered. Elevage takes place primarily in older demi-muids, with a few 228-liter barrels in reserve. Production averages 2,400 bottles.

The vines pre-date clonal selections. They are not the small berry serine strain of Syrah; rather, these vines constitute an old sélection massale plantation. Each vine is distinctive, there is little rhythm or reason about them, and their grapes range from small to large.