The Condrieu wine region is an outlier – a dissident in the Northern Rhône. While the vast majority of vineyards in this part of the world are planted with red grape varieties, Condrieu refuses to swim with the tide. Instead, it stakes its entire reputation on a small volume of delicious white wines; oily, richly textured, and imbued with the scent of freesia. Admittedly, they lack both the renown and cachet of top Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. But that scarcely matters to the region’s proud growers; as far as they’re concerned, Condrieu is one of the finest white styles being made in Europe today.
Such a proclamation is open to debate, yet the best Condrieu is undeniably exquisite: mineral-tinted, pure, and unbelievably complex. Unfortunately, the leading brands are often jealously guarded by French sommeliers, never leaving the country’s borders. However, as the area under vine continues to expand, finding Condrieu in the US and other markets is becoming less of a challenge. These inimitable wines, ignored for too long, are well-worth discovering.
Geography and terroir
Condrieu makes its home in one of the most beautiful parts of the Rhône Valley. Situated in south-eastern France, this 250-mile-long body of water flows from the Swiss border to the azure blue expanse of the Mediterranean. To find Condrieu, head south from the village of Ampuis, and you’ll soon arrive at the heartland of the appellation, created in 1940. To the north are the Syrah vineyards of Côte Rôtie – the pretty town of Chavanay lies to the south. The dramatically steep vineyards (hand harvesting is de rigueur) are cultivated on south-east-facing slopes, towering above the village itself. Stretching for just nine miles, the appellation’s boundaries are strictly demarcated. Only vineyards planted in the communes of Condrieu, Chavanay, Limony, Malleval, Saint-Michel-sur-Rhône, Saint-Pierre-de-Bœuf, and Verin are entitled to fly the appellation banner. The climate is continental, with warm summers and cold winters.
Unlike Cote-Rotie and Hermitage, Condrieu does not subscribe to blending different grape varieties. Only 100% Viognier wines are permitted under regulations, produced from grapes cultivated on favorable terroir. The south-facing aspect helps the late-ripening Viognier achieve good phenolic maturity levels, as the vines are treated to prolonged amounts of sun exposure in the warmer months. The soils are a mixture of mica and crumbled, sanded granite, eroded over the centuries. The high concentration of granite is routinely said to be responsible for Condrieu’s trademark minerality and freshness.
Yet the best sites, as any winemaker will confirm, are vineyards planted on sheltered slopes, defined by their mica-rich topsoil called arzelle. Although Condrieu has no formalized vineyard classification, all agree that Chanson, Chery, Cote Bonnette, and Les Eyguets are the top-performing climats. Grapes from these single vineyards will always fetch an inflated price.
However, even in good years, winegrowers can seldom harvest a generous crop of grapes. To put it mildly, Viognier is not an easy variety to manage – especially in cooler vintages. Unfortunately, the vines must be sheltered from the cooling Mistral winds that tend to pick up at the flowering time (June). In addition, Viognier is prone to developing grapevine diseases, while older vines often produce a very meager – if concentrated – yield. The secret to producing superior wines is to harvest Viognier before its alcohol level becomes unwieldy, keeping that all-important acidity in the picture. As ever, balance is all.
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Historically, Condrieu was in the sweet wine business, producing rather sticky and unctuous styles that were admittedly perfect with rich desserts. Some sweet versions are still made, often labeled ‘Selection des Grains Nobles.’ Nevertheless, the vast majority of Condrieu is now a dry white. At its best, it combines a voluptuous texture with the most hauntingly beautiful bouquet, characterized by apricots, passion fruit, and garrigue. The wines come into their own when paired with Provencal cuisine – particularly bouillabaisse and Salade Niçoise. After a slow start, Condrieu is definitely in vogue with aficionados and members of the wine trade.
Of course, the picture looked very different 50 years ago. The difficulties inherent to producing an economically viable crop from such a mercurial and low-yielding variety ensured that much of the acreage was grubbed up in the mid-20th century. By the 1960s, there were scarcely 12 hectares under vine. For a time, it looked like Condrieu would disappear forever.
Thankfully, the small number of remaining fans spread the word, helping an international fan club develop around the style. Today, there are over 170 hectares under vine, with growers looking to new sites (both within and outside the appellation) to expand production. Indeed, several brands are marketing their wines as IGP Collines Rhodaniennes, as their vineyards are located outside the zone’s boundaries. In general terms, Viognier tends to show well very young, benefiting little from extended bottle age.
Few critics would deny that the finest Viognier in the world is made at Château-Grillet. Just 3.5 hectares of vines are cultivated in this single-producer appellation, making it one of France’s smallest. Purchased by Artémis Domaines in 2011 (the company that owns Château Latour), the quality at Grillet has soared in recent years. Many would say that the winemaking has finally caught up with the superior terroir. Others would argue that the wines have always delivered endless pleasure due to the privileged position of the site.
It is undoubtedly true that Château-Grillet is blessed with exceptional raw materials. A majestic amphitheater of vines surrounds the property, sheltered from the Mistral winds and yet perfectly aligned to receive the maximum sunlight. The soils are a potent mix of clay, decomposed granite, and mica. The resulting wine, aged in oak for at least 16 months, is utterly beguiling. It is intensely aromatic; it is usually very complex and long, with notes of stone and tropical fruit on the palate, balanced by textbook acidity. Moreover, unlike Condrieu ‘normal,’ Grillet improves greatly from decanting and bottle age. If you covet texture, opulence, and ripe fruit, Château-Grillet always delivers the goods.