The tempremental queen of Condrieu, or Viognier in the Northern Rhône
The grape Viognier comes into its own in Condrieu. Condrieu is a tiny, white wine area in the North of the Rhône Valley. Viognier thrives in a type of soil called “arzelle” to produce a wine in a category all of its own.
Condrieu is one of the great white wines from the Northern Rhône. Yet only one single grape variety is used to produce Condrieu wines. They are all made of 100% viognier. Although one can now find viognier all over the world, it is still in Condrieu where the world’s finest viogniers are produced. Good Condrieus are sensual, rich, opulent, seductive, and undeniably alluring. They not only portrait the difficult terroir of the Northern Rhône, but also the long history of this famously finicky grape.
Much to my delight, I had the opportunity to taste a number of Condrieu wines from different producers at the 2019 Rhone Valley Wine and Truffle Show in Pavilion Ledoyen Paris. The intoxicating qualities of viognier proved difficult to resist. In spite of its creamy richness, Condrieu never comes across as unctuous or too heavy. Condrieu unquestionably places viognier in a category of its own.
A 20-km stretch of the Rhône River
Viognier grows around the French town Condrieu, about 40 km under Lyon, where the river bends just south of Côte-Rôtie. Hence the name Condrieu, originating from the French expression “coin de ruisseau” meaning “corner of the stream”. Condrieu was classified as AOC for white wines in 1940. The vineyards are situated in Condrieu, Malleval, Vérin, Limony, Chavanay, Saint-Michel-sur-Rhône, and Saint-Pierre-de Boeuf.
Notoriously finicky grape
Viognier is a tricky grape to get right. Harvest them too young and the grapes show a vegetal character and loose intensity, harvest them too ripe they can become too alcoholic, creating a hot, burning sensation in the finish. The critical point is not to make a wine that is high in alcohol. Nowadays it would be easy to make wines that have 15 to 15,5 % alcohol. But that’s not the point. Often these wine are “mou” – flabby or weak- another winemaker explained. But that is not his vision of winemaking. “We are searching for balance with minerality and freshness. It is challenging to keep the freshness and takes a lot of work to keep the alcohol down. We have to pick sooner and sooner.”
Yield is another key factor in creating the best Viogniers. The appellation regulations in Condrieu prescribe a yield no greater than 41 hl/ha. In practice though, the average is 39 hl/ha, but usually well under 30 hl/ha. Viognier also has a small-scale production due to the size of the grape clusters and berries. They are small.
Contrary to the above Viognier’s full aromatic potential can best be realized when the grapes are harvested later, at optimum ripeness. This process is called Engustment. Engustment is a specific stage in grape ripening in which the aromatic and flavor elements are formed until the optimum physiological maturity of the berry. The date of picking is crucial to benefit from optimum ripening. It requires real attention to detail to achieve greatness, to defy Viognier’s finicky reputation.
Irresistible, when good
Balanced Condrieu wines are sensual, rich, voluptuous, and seductive. Condrieu places viognier in a category of its own. Light golden Condrieu viognier has the delicate fragrance of acacia blossom and violets. Aromatic fruity aromas of apricot, pear and peach as well. Sometimes tropical mango, pineapple, and melon. When older nuances of gingerbread, honey, tobacco, umami, and dried spices, such as cloves. Medium to full body, round, dry with a (slight) filming texture, and often a remarkable minerality. Most Condrieu is at is best while drunk young, within 3-5 years.
Condrieu’s ripe fruity character and aromas can evoke sweetness. One winemaker told me: “it’s a dry wine that disguises as a sweet wine, a wine with not a lot of acidity.” Depending on the maturity of the grapes at the time of harvest, the wines can have variable residual sugar content. In very good vintage years, some producers opt to harvest late and using botrytised (beneficial noble rot) grapes.
The arduous queen
It takes true grit to grow viognier on the very steep granite slopes of the right bank of the Rhone. Viognier tests the patience and hardiness of its growers. The best-positioned vineyards are the south- and southeast-facing ones. Their aspect enables maximum warmth and sunlight onto the slopes (and the rocky soils that store heat) of one of the coldest appellations in the Rhône area. The soil contains granite and ‘arzelle’, a mixture of decomposed granite, mica, shale, and clay. The vines cling to the soil thanks to the terraces (named chayées), which are narrow and require continuous care.
The climate is mainly continental, yet with a Mediterranean influence. The Mistral, the notorious strong, cold, northwesterly wind -that accelerates when it passes through the valleys of the Rhône- is both a curse and a blessing. It can wreak havoc in the vineyards, however the mistral also cools the grapes in the hot summer and keeps the vines free of powdery mildew.
Long lasting fame
It is probably safe to assume that the Romans first introduced the Viognier grape varietal to Condrieu. If it was the Roman emperor Probus who first planted the vine from Dalmatia (Croatia) around 281 AD or not, we don’t know. Scientific research seems to suggest that is is more likely to look for viognier’s real origin in the wild Syrah vines of the Northern Côtes du Rhône. DNA profiling furthermore suggests that Viognier is closely related to the Piedmont grape varietals, Freisa and Nebbiolo,
For a long time, Viognier was only known in Condrieu wines. Condrieu wines were already famed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. At the time people mostly appreciated Condrieu as a sweet wine, often harvested around All Saints’ Day. Evidence of Condrieu’s fame comes from Thomas Jefferson’s visit to the estate in 1787. In 1814 the inventory of the cellar of the first wife of Napoleon, Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, mentions “296 bottles of Château-Grillet, valued at 592 Francs.”
The rebirth of Condrieu in the 1980s & 1990s
Viognier’s demise starts at the end of the 19th century, when many a vine succumbs to phylloxera. Also its style changes. Around the start of the 20th century dry wines appear and from the 1950s, on the majority of Condrieu are vinified as dry, although some winemakers continuing to produce sweet Condrieu.
After the First World War the difficulty and cost of cultivating viognier on the very steep slopes prompt the abandonment of Condrieu’s vineyards. Viognier becomes virtually extinct. In 1968 there are only just 8 hectares and simply not enough winemakers left.
The remaining vines were cared for by a small group of passionate producers. One of them, Georges Vernay, kept the flame alive by encouraging his neighbours to work with the temperamental viognier and produce Condrieu. Plantings of viognier in the New World and keen interest of winelovers also helped to secure the appellation’s future. It encouraged demand for the original source. The abandoned hillsides with the best exposure were replanted in the 1980s, and terraces rebuilt. It all helped to give viognier a chance to mature to its best and unrivalled potential. Demand for viognier continued to grow and really explodes in the 21rst century.
At the 2019 Rhône Valley Wine and Truffle Show in Paris I tasted mainly the 2017 vintage. I prefer the less oaky Condrieus. In my eyes the delicate finesse of viognier doesn’t harmonize well with too much new oak. I count the days until I can visit the vineyards of Condrieu again in September. As you can imagine, it it is going to be royal.