Condrieu, Northern Rhone
Today dear readers, we travel to the largest white wine-producing region in the Northern Rhone, which to be honest is really not saying much, because Condrieu is the smallest appellation in the whole of the Rhone Valley at 125 hectares. Now before anyone with an intimate knowledge of the Northern Rhone gets too upset, I am including neighbouring Monopole Chateau Grillet in this piece. Chateau Grillet is actually an enclave of Condrieu and therefore will be included in today’s Friday Focus, so you get 2 for 1 this week! A fashionable and trendy monocepagiste region producing only white wines from Viognier, the wines of Condrieu are the classic expression of the Viognier grape that winemakers worldwide attempt to emulate, and the best wines from here often achieve prices in line with the Syrah-dominant wines of northern neighbour Côte Rôtie.
It hasn’t always been that way however- the fame and fortune of Condrieu was almost a dream, with the region near extinction in the 1960s. At this time, heavy, textural dry white was the opposite of the light and fruity styles (Blue Nun, Mateus etc) that were the popular wines of that time, and the Condrieu region shrunk to a minuscule 8 hectares. The wines of Condrieu were basically only sold in local restaurants, as it was the only white wine grown in the northern section of this area near regional capital Vienne. Only a tiny handful of producers, led by the enigmatic Georges Vernay held on, saving this final patch of Viognier on the earth from total extinction. In the 70’s and 80’s, as consumers in the UK and USA sought out regions outside the usual favourites of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy, and people started to shift away from sweet and/or fortified wines, Condrieu was “rediscovered”, and popularity grew. In 1990 the region had grown five-fold to 40 hectares of vines, and is today more than triple that. Phew! Further expansion is basically impossible now with the difficulties of slope and tough soils, meaning the number of bottles of Condrieu is capped to what it makes today.
When you enter a region like Condrieu (which I had the great pleasure of doing in September 2017!), it is like being transported back in time. The steep, rocky slopes make it absolutely impossible to use tractors for viticulture, meaning all processes- pruning, green-harvesting, leaf-plucking and of course the final harvest, must be done by hand, as they have been done every vintage in the 2000+ years grapes have been grown on these slopes. The vineyards are located in the very north of the Northern Rhône on a winding section of the Rhône River (the name Condrieu derives from a local phrase meaning ‘corner of the stream’) and are characterized by south- and south-east-facing granite slopes rising steeply from the riverbanks. The best sites have a topsoil of arzelle which is decomposed mica, which apparently gives the wines a smoky minerality. Aspect is key here, as the south-facing vineyards get full access to the summer sunshine, but also because this puts a hill in between the vines and the northern winds. Cold, harsh winds blow down from central Europe, funnelled into the Rhône River, an almost constant annoyance in this part of the world. The cold breeze can be great on hot summer days, but in the early growth stage of the vine as it is flowering, this wind can interrupt the self-fertilisation process, meaning no fruit is produced- an obvious problem for vignerons.
As mentioned before, Condrieu and its enclave Chateau Grillet are monocepagiste; Condrieu is Viognier, and Viognier is Condrieu. It is a thick-skinned variety that grows well in the sunny, dry weather here in Condrieu. The classic tasting note for the variety is ‘apricots and steel’, and it makes wines with rich oily flavours of tangerine, papaya, lime peel, sometimes herbal notes of chamomile, lavender, thyme and even a hint of pine and a creamy almond finish with rich toasted oak notes of gingerbread, macadamia nut and allspice when matured in oak (as most modern styles are today). This variety typically has quite high alcohol (around 13-14.5%) and moderate acidity. It suffers from coloure, which is the French term for poor fruit set, often brought on by the aforementioned cold north winds, so yields are often painfully small.
Speaking of small, a few words now on Chateau Grillet, one of the smallest Appellations in France at a minuscule 3.8 hectares- one of the very few Monopole appellations. This means the whole appellation is owned by one producer, just like the Romanee-Conti and La Tache vineyards are owned entirely by the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Since 1830, this one vineyard was owned by the Neyret-Gachet family who tended the vines through generations of family members. In 2011, French billionaire François Pinault, owner of Chateau Margaux bought the appellation for an undisclosed sum when the vineyard fell on tough times after the untimely death of the owner and vigneron. The entire appellation is one south-facing amphitheatre carved naturally out of the hard granite soils. This sheltered aspect protects the vines from the constant winds from the north, which can decimate yield as discussed above. This leads to Viognier wines of slightly less concentration, perfume and weight than those from surrounding Condrieu, with lower alcohol but with more acidity, and are usually aged in oak before release. Only 10,000 bottles of wine come out of Chateau Grillet each year, so it is safe to say the prices are pretty steep for a bottle.
Despite the small size and low-production of this appellation, there is an even smaller-production style of Condrieu, which can be identified by the words ‘Selection des Grains Nobles’ on the label. This indicates a sweet Viognier, and historically was the only style of wine Condrieu made. This increased sugar comes from late-harvesting of the grapes so they begin to dry out, and can be carried out a minimum of 8 days after the usual harvest, all the way up to the onset of winter, depending on how sweet and concentrated the vigneron wants their wine! The aforementioned relentless wind prevents botrytis/noble rot infection in the vineyards of Condrieu; however it does help dry out the grapes! Today while the wines of Condrieu may smell sweet due to their abundant fruit aromas and textural, heavy body, they are almost always completely dry, which is in line with almost every other classical wine region and style. A ‘Selection des Grains Nobles’ bottle is tough to find (I have personally never seen one), but would be fascinating to taste!
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles