I remember my first sip of Viognier. It smelled of peach and oak, was thick and heavy on my palate, a wine I was not eager to run out for again. It was not flawed, but a very ripe style. It caused me to avoid the grape for years. Then I tasted a Condrieu.
Just south of Lyon from Vienne to Valence, the Rhone River traverses the valley. The majority of the wine is red- Syrah. However, the tiny Condrieu appellation on the west side of the river (right bank) is dedicated to Viognier; this is where it’s rich, opulent and beguiling, and possibly the world’s finest expression of the grape. This article with the #Winophiles focuses on Condrieu.
From When to Where
Viognier is planted all over the world, although thought to be indigenous to the Rhone, thanks to the ancient Greeks. It dwindled to just 23 hectares (57 acres) in the Northern Rhone by the mid-1980s. The early 2000s saw a reversal- as of 2018 the entire Rhone Valley had 1,448 hectares (3,500 acres) per France Agri Mer.
Now days it grows in several areas of France, although two appellations are one hundred percent Viognier: Condrieu and Château-Grillet, the later is a small, single property appellation. Both lie between Côte Rôtie and Saint-Joseph. You also find it in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and a few other areas.
From Vineyard to Winery
Vineyards in Condrieu and in many Northern Rhone areas are on steep to very steep, terraced hills. Many face south and southeast for a particular reason. This aspect protects vines from the cool northern Bise wind and Mistral winds, minimizing humidity, moderating temperatures and preventing frost. And it provides warmth and sunlight to help ripen grapes.
An issue with Viognier as a grape is the imbalance of sugars versus phenolic ripeness during the growing season. Harvested too young, it lacks aromatics and has a vegetal side. Too ripe, wines can be flabby, overly alcohol and lack freshness. Because it’s a lower acid grape, finding that optimal ripeness is key.
From Winery to Glass
This aromatic grape has gorgeous stone fruit characters, white flowers and creamy textures. Some are rich, full-bodied and rather viscous, coating your glass and mouth. A brighter, elegant side exists too with a medium body yet just as intensely aromatic. We opened a handful of gems that showed a bit of all these characteristics. Information about them follows.
Pierre Gaillard Condrieu 2014
- Fermentation in used barrels, 100% malolactic fermentation.
- Six months oak aging, 10% new with lees stirring (bâtonnage).
This wine is about intense aromatics and ripe textures with mineral bright freshness. A lovely mixture of white floral, stone fruits combined with a touch of citrus and pinecone aromas. In the mouth it’s precise yet fruity and refreshing, finishing with an undercurrent of granite-laced minerality.
Importantly, this has appealing acidity and freshness, not something Viognier exhibits everyday being a lower acid grape. Purchased for 34€ at the Domaine.
Vidal-Fleury Condrieu 2017
Guy Sarton du Jonchay, viticulturist and winemaker, and his wife Monika manage the estate owned by the E. Guigal family.
- Fermentation in stainless steel tanks (50%) and used barrels (50%) with indigenous yeast, 100% malolactic.
- Twelve months aging on lees with lees stirring; clarification by settling, one filtration; unfined.
This is a superb Condrieu. Delicate and elegant medium aromas of mango, pineapple, acacia, white grapefruit, and vanilla bean; medium acidity and body; a voluptuous rich mid-palate of apricot, citronella, and brioche lasting well into a long finish. There are layers of flavors here and effortless energy. Special stuff! Purchased for 39€.
Cuilleron La Petite Côte Condrieu 2015
- Fermentation in used oak barrels with indigenous yeast, 100% malolactic.
- Nine months aging in same barrels, no racking, periodic lees stirring.
Yves Cuilleron has four different cuvée from Condrieu. This one is fresh, bursting with honeysuckle, peach, guava and orange zest. These follow to the palate with green tea and honey hints. A refreshing bitterness lengthens the persistence of the wine on the palate. Great quality, super fresh and higher acidity than many Condrieu at 39€.
Find this wine in the States via Rosenthal Wine Merchants.
Maison Christophe Pichon Condrieu 2016
The Pichon family is producing quality Viognier from about 5 hectares (12 acres) of vines in Chavanay.
- Fermentation in 30% new oak barrels, the remainder second use. 100% malolactic.
- Nine months aging in the same barrels with periodic lees stirring.
Characterful, precise aromas of apricot, nectarine zest and honey hints were a bit shy but opened up as I swirled. In the mouth it’s rich, round and coating with nectarine zest and apricot flavors and a mid-palate lift of brightness. A bit more oak detected and a savory vanilla quality. A soft lingering finish with bitter almond notes. That bitterness slightly detracted from the wine. I saved a glass to taste day two: bitterness gone, still bright! Mark and I concluded it was something in the food pairing. Nice at 33€.
Find this wine in the States through Voix de la Terre Wine.
Domaine Richard Condrieu 2016
- Fermentation in large barrels (foudres), 100% malolactic.
- Aged in new and used barrels one year.
Third generation Herve Richard produces a lovely and super example of an affordable Condrieu at 26€. Vibrant aromatics of floral, peach and honeyed tangerine zest follow to a silky and sharply focused palate; it offers citrus and honeydew flavors complemented by subtle chamomile creaminess. Balanced, medium-bodied and a lengthy finish. A nice representation for 33€.
In conclusion, each wine was fermented and aged in oak, and had a certain richness on the palate yet still bright. All except the Gaillard and Vidal-Fleury had mild savory notes. Condrieu is not like the heavy, oaky Vigonier I first tasted but crisp, creamy, elegant and savory. I’d happily sip any of these again. Bottom line- there is Viognier and then there is Condrieu. Everything is better with a few bottles of Condrieu in your house!
The French #Winophiles Talk Northern Rhone with host Rupal, from Syrah Queen.
Join us on Twitter Saturday, April 18th at 11am EDT, 17:00 in France using hashtag #winophiles.
- Cindy from Grape Experience writes Strength and Power Meet Balance and Elegance in Syrah from the Northern Rhone.
- Wendy from A Day In The Life On The Farm presents To Syrah with Love.
- Lauren from Swirling Dervish explores Old World Syrah from the Northern Rhone: 2016 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage.
- Jeff from Food Wine Click offers A View of Northern Rhone’s Saint Joseph through Three Wines.
- Linda from My Full Wine Glass posts Crozes-Hermitage: A Gateway to Northern Rhône Wine.
- Jill from L’Ocassion asks What’s the Difference Between France’s Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône Valleys?
- Gwendolyn from ;Wine Predator writes In These Times, Drink from Deep in The Cellar: Two from Northern Rhone’s St Joseph’s.
- Robin from Crushed Grape Chronicles is Finding Connections in the Northern Rhône.
- Susannah from Avvinare writes about Virtually Visiting Crozes-Hermitage Through Chapoutier’s Wine.
- Camilla from Culinary Adventures With Camilla pairs Chicken Chasseur + Guigal Crozes-Hermitage 2016.
- Nicole at Somm’s Table serves A Simple Spring Lamb Feast with Maison Nicolas Perrin Crozes-Hermitage.
- Jane from Always Ravenous pours A Taste of Hermitage Marsanne.
- Martin from Enoflyz Wine Blog suggests Looking For Value in Northern Rhône? Look For Crozes-Hermitage!
- Here at Savor The Harvest I go Exploring Treasures of the Northern Rhone.
Terri from Our Good Life sings Hey Syrah, Syrah, Whatever Will Be, Will Be.
- Our host, Rupal on Syrah Queen is Exploring Côte-Rôtie –Syrahs With A Twist.