Years ago, Florent Viale and his brother made the decision to split the responsibilities of their family farm. Florent, the eldest, took charge of the wine and his younger brother took the apricots. While Florent’s job seems to be a little more complex than apricot growing, he doesn’t hold his task in any greater importance than that of his brother. He says that in the end, they work together and share the workload equally.
Whenever we visit Florent Viale we somehow end up talking about bicycling, volleyball or reminiscing on his early years of parading through the jungles of South America while tripping on some type of mushroom, or peyote. Like many Frenchmen I know, he is a man of the world in spirit and longs for travel, adventure and contact with the outside world. The first time we met, I was a bit surprised as he’s just a few inches shy of seven feet tall. Physically he is lean and strong, but his personality is jovial, unpretentious and, most of all, generous. He is a gentle giant, and his wines are a match.
Lay of the Land
It’s impossible to comment on the appellation of Crozes-Hermitage without acknowledging the big gorilla in the middle of it—the famous hill of Hermitage. Hermitage is one of the most recognizable terroirs in the world. It’s a south-facing amphitheater split into two distinguished sections. On the western side, there is a gnarly, chunky granite outcropping that is hundreds of millions of years old, which accounts for a very minor part of the surface and bedrock. On the eastern side, there is a smooth layer-cake of glacier and river deposits that sit atop a formation of alluvial limestone. Hermitage produces some of France’s most powerful and long-lived wines.
The Crozes-Hermitage appellation is equally complicated and diverse as Hermitage, but with a far more expansive amount of land within eleven communes and more than ten times its surface area. To the north, behind Hermitage, there are terraced hills of granite and gneiss, with river alluvium and loess brought in by the wind toward the bottom of the slopes. Colombier’s vineyards are located to the east and south of Hermitage where glacial and river alluvium makes up the topsoil. In the upper terraces of their vineyards there is also loess and limestone—just like the eastern section of Hermitage. A good portion of their younger vines are located south of Hermitage on Les Chassis, an alluvial plain created by the Rhône and the once torrential Isère River.