1970. The demand for Condrieu had declined for a longer time which also resulted in low prices. Only ten hectares of Condrieu remained. 2013. Still a tiny appellation but now with almost 140 hectares of the difficult to cultivate-Viognier. The reason for the upswing, the boom over the last decades? Have a Condrieu from one of the masters – André Perret for example, introduced in this post – and you will realize that it’s one of the world’s most seductive and fascinating white wines!
A quick introduction to Condrieu & Viognier
First, how much is roughly 140 hectares? To compare, the Chateau of Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac is around 110 hectares in size. That’s one property. One. In Condrieu more than 70 producers share 140 hectares! Add a quite strict regulation to that, saying 41 hectoliters/hectare in yield as a minimum demand and a further requirement on 6,500 vines/hectare as the minimum density. A quick estimate results in around 5,000 bottles produced/hectare. In other words, Condrieu is still a tiny appellation.
Condrieu is just a few kilometers from Ampuis and the slopes of Côte Rôtie in northern Rhône. Just like its neighbor, Condrieu is all about steep slopes with built terraces to reduce the risk of erosion. The soil is rich in different kinds of granite which is important for the Viognier since granite can keep water. Hence the root system of a Viognier goes deep into the soil and makes it less vulnerable for heat stress and drought.
Having the deep root system in mind, Viognier is still not for the faint-hearted. You need to be a bit crazy and really like the challenge the grape provides you with. Prone to powdery mildew and irregular in flowering which results in low yields. Furthermore, the time of picking is essential because it quickly looses its delicate and floral aroma and becomes fat and oily instead. The pH in a Condrieu normally is around 4, that is, higher than many white wines. The reason for a higher pH can partly be related to the soil being rich in potassium which gives a higher degree. However, the typical bitterness one will find in the taste of a Viognier, balances the pH excellently.
I’m meeting André Perret in Ampuis. A humble man who almost blushes when I praise his 2011 Coteau de Chéry. The wine is so good. I want to give the man a hug for showing the world that Viognier belongs to the elite and that Chéry is perhaps the best site of them all. For Viognier. But it’s the way André interprets Chéry that makes it an amazing wine. Forget all you thought you knew about Viognier and pretend you’re having the 2011 Chéry.
The nose offers subtle scents of violets, white peaches, a touch of grass, oozing wet rocks and just a dash of toasted oak. Still young but as elegant as one can dream of. On the palate it’s more stone fruits driven and will most likely surprise many Viognier prejudiced. Again, violets, a dash of oak, wet rocks, a delicate bitterness and alcohol in impeccable balance with the other components. It’s long, precise and the essence of purity. It takes a master to produce stuff like this!
André explains that the vines in Chéry are up to fifty years old and that the yield is extremely low. He also believes the wine need a few years to show at its best, something that contrasts the general view, that Viognier should be drunk as young as possible more or less.
The 2011 Clos Chanson differs from Chéry. It’s more right to it, expressive. Also the toasted oak – André uses a fifth new in this one – is evident at the current stage. Still, it will settle and probably be an even greater wine in a year or so. Floral, wet rocks and peaches mixed with green apples. Lovely concentration and freshness on the nose. On the palate – the old vines has resulted in an impressive body – the Clos Chanson offers great gentle tropical notes, the newly rained dusty summer road, summer flowers and vanilla from the oak. Long, pure and expressive finale.
Rather buy the introduction wine from a top producer like André Perret than the premium wine from a so so estate. The 2011 Condrieu is honestly not a cheap wine and I can understand why when André tells me he’s using grapes from the younger vines at Chéry for this one. That and a parcel in Verlieu. Yet an elegant wine which also in its current phase shows a need for some further aging. Some toasted oak, green apples, newly mowned grass, peaches, violets and net melon. Fine balance, lovely restrained stone fruit and gently toasted oak which is contrasting the nose. Wet rocks and a great purity. Not as intense as the other two but still a top effort.
Does a great Condrieu need oak to be considered great? In my opinion yes, when it is handled the André Perret way. A majority of the oak he’s using is seasoned and he only allows a fifth new every year. All top producers in Condrieu are today most careful with the oak treatment and the style produced, more emphasising stone fruits and wet rocks than a tropical and rich, oily style, makes the wines more similar to a white Bourgogne. A floral Bourgogne that is.
Never cheap, a great Condrieu, but now you know why. The working conditions in the vineyards, the moody Viognier and the few hectares of Condrieu. Having all this in mind, then 50-60 euros for a top effort isn’t much. Is it?
Find the wines of André Perret? Use the wine-searcher box on the top right corner of the site.
For a layman explanation of pH and acidity in a wine, check out Dr. Vinny in Wine Spectator. Otherwise, most of the statistics and technical details were written down at a Condrieu masterclass in Ampuis.
A must read! Chris Kissack’s a k a The Wine Doctor’s, great piece on the Chéry.