Condrieu: the Best Viognier in the World

dsc02450You may have noticed that over the last year, I’ve been blogging a bit less frequently and lately there have been more posts about wine. The reason for both is the same: I’ve been studying the become a vinologist (which means someone who knows about viticulture, wine making, grape varieties, terroirs and appellations around the world; a vinologist is not exactly the same as a oenologist or a sommelier). In the meantime I’ve passed the exam, so now I am a Registered Vinologist of the Wine Academy of the Netherlands (which is more or less equivalent to WSET level 4). You may have noticed the new logo on the right-hand side indicating this, and there is also a new page that points to all posts about wine. Now that I’ve finished studying, I have more time to cook and blog again.

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Today’s post is about Condrieu. As this is one of my favorite white wines but I had never yet visited the region, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pay a visit on our way home from Spain. (And we still had some room left in the RV to bring home more wine.) Condrieu AOP is an appellation d’origine protégée in the north of the Rhône valley in the south of France, around the town of Condrieu. The southern part of the AOP is shared with Saint-Joseph. Because of this, most producers produce both Condrieu and Saint-Joseph (an appellation for reds of syrah and whites of roussanne and marsanne).

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Condrieu is the only appellation in the world for wines of 100% viognier (except for Château-Grillet, which is a single château within Condrieu that has its own appellation; unfortunately we could not visit Château-Grillet and therefore I am not covering it in this post). Viognier has been around in the northern Rhône for centuries (at least back to 1781), but in the 1960s it was almost extinct with only 14 ha (35 acres) worldwide (i.e. only in Condrieu). It was not very popular with producers because of the low yields. But luckily the quality of viognier was recognized in time, and now it can be found all over the world; especially in the south of France and Australia, with each over 4,000 ha (10,000 acres) of vines.

Viognier is special because it is so highly aromatic. Varietal wines are full-bodied and have a nose of apricots, honeysuckle and May blossom and have typically quite low acidity but high alcohol. The color is often golden and can sometimes have a slight pink hue.

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As is often the case with autochthonous grape varieties in Europe, if it has been around for centuries in a certain terroir that usually means it is an excellent combination of grape variety and terroir. Condrieu with its steep granite terraces on the west bank of the Rhône is the best terroir to realize the potential of viognier. The granite soil adds minerality and because of the coolish climate the harvest is quite late (around the end of September/beginning of October), allowing the aromas to develop without losing too much acidity and/or building up too much sugar (and thus alcohol).

In the northern neighboring appellation of Côte Rôtie, up to 20% of viognier may be co-fermented with syrah to help stabilize the color and soften the wine. (Similary, in Saint-Joseph 10% of marsanne and roussanne is allowed for the same purpose.)

There is only one problem with Condrieu and that is its price. Because of the low yields and labor intensive viticulture (remember those steep granite terraces), production cost is high. Moreover, I am not the only one to recognize that Condrieu is the best viognier around, but the production is quite small. And so it is difficult to find producers that make a good Condrieu that sells for less than 30 euros at the winery. But I did manage to find a few. Unfortunately, because we were visiting during the harvest period, we could not visit Domaine Flacher (which also makes good viognier for around 30 euros).

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The first producer we visited was Boissonnet in the town of Serrières. From the street you have no idea that after a narrow alley, there is a winery in a house from the 17th century that looks like it is outside of the town instead of in the center.

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The Condrieu and Saint-Joseph matures in oak barrels in the restored vaulted cellars, one of which was rediscovered by accident during gardening. The domaine has 1.5 hectares (4 acres) of white Saint-Joseph, 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of Condrieu and 7 hectares (17 acres) of red Saint-Joseph.

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We tasted the white Saint-Joseph, the Condrieu and the red Saint-Joseph “Cuvée de la Bélive”. The other two red Saint-Josephs were sold out.

Saint-Joseph Blanc 2015, price at the winery 19 euros

  • 80% marsanne and 20% roussanne from granite and white (chalky) soils, fermented in 1 to 3 year-old oak barrels, malolactic fermentation, and aged with regular stirring of the lees, 13% ABV
  • Color: straw yellow
  • Nose: quite powerful, oak and ripe white fruits
  • Taste: full-bodied and round with low acidity and strong bitter notes, long aftertaste
  • Conclusion: good, ***1/2

Condrieu 2015, price at the winery 29 euros

  • 100% viognier, fermented in oak barrels (10% new), malolactic fermentation, and aged with regular stirring of the lees, 12.5% ABV
  • Color: straw yellow
  • Nose: minerality, complex, powerful, flowers, honey, ripe apricots
  • Taste: full-bodied, complex, balanced, fresh, nice soft bitter note, long aftertaste
  • Aging: can be kept for up to 5 years
  • Conclusion: this is what Condrieu is all about, ****1/2

Saint-Joseph Bélive 2014, price at the winery 20 euros

  • 100% syrah, 50% from old vines and 50% hillside vineyards, partly destalked, aged in oak barrels (10% new) for 15 months
  • Color: cherry with purple hue
  • Nose: blackcurrant
  • Taste: still young, tannins are good quality but need to soften with age, elegant with quite some acidity
  • Aging: needs another 3 years in the bottle and will continue to develop up to 15 years
  • Conclusion: very good, ****

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The second winery we visited was Domaine du Chêne of the Rouvière family outside the town of Chavanay, who own 16 hectares (40 acres) in Condrieu and Saint-Joseph. Here we tasted five wines.

Condrieu 2015, price at the winery 27 euros

  • 100% viognier from granite soils, aged for 10 months, 30% in new oak barrels and 70% in stainless steel, 14.5% ABV
  • Color: golden
  • Nose: moderately powerful
  • Taste: full-bodied, buttery, rich, mineral, low acidity, complex
  • Aging: can be kept for up to five years and will turn from fruity to tones of confit and honey
  • Conclusion: a very rich style but very good, ****

Condrieu Volan 2014, price at the winery 34 euros

  • 100% viognier from chalky clay soils, aged for 10 months in 100% new oak barrels, 13.5% ABV
  • Color: bright straw yellow
  • Nose: minerality, oak
  • Taste: lots of minerals, nice acidity, balanced, elegant, complex, light bitter note, not a typical Condrieu because of the different terroir
  • Aging: can be kept for up to five years
  • Conclusion: unusual but very good, ****

Syrah 2015 (Vin de France), price at the winery 7 euros

  • 100% syrah from outside the Saint-Joseph appellation, vinified in old oak barrels
  • Color: very dark with purple hue
  • Nose: fruity
  • Taste: fresh and elegant, quite tannic
  • Aging: drink before 2018
  • Conclusion: good, ***

Saint-Joseph 2013, price at the winery 15 euros

  • 100% syrah, aged for 12 months in oak barrels of 1 or 2 years old, 12.8% ABV
  • Color: very dark
  • Nose: lots of black pepper and blackberries, hint of juniper berries
  • Taste: fresh, dry and elegant
  • Aging: will improve for 10 to 15 years
  • Conclusion: very good, ****

Saint-Joseph Anaïs 2014, price at the winery 21 euros

  • 100% syrah, aged for 18 months in new oak barrels, 12.5% ABV
  • Color: very dark with a purple rim
  • Nose: complex, oak, pencil, black pepper, spicy, juniper berries, flowers
  • Taste: young, tannins are good quality but need to soften with age, balanced and elegant
  • Conclusion: very good, ****

After our trip to wine regions of Spain it was interesting to note the contrast between what visiting a winery entails in both countries. In France (as well as Italy) you can visit many wineries without an appointment (although it often is appreciated if you call ahead), you can taste the wines and buy them, and you can be out the door in less than half an hour. Tasting is almost always free. I think many wineries, especially in touristic areas, sell a lot of their wine that way. In Spain on the other hand, wine tourism (enoturismo) seems to be more about tours. Many wineries offer tours that need to be booked and often paid for and will last 1.5 to 2 hours. They do include tasting some wines, but that doesn’t seem to be aimed as much at selling and apparently many tourists will buy nothing or a single bottle (which makes sense if visiting Spain by airplane). And so in Spain I often had to explain that I wanted to taste all of the wines, not just some, and that I was more interested in tasting and buying than in seeing yet another cellar. In the end the tour and/or tasting fees were almost always waived when I made a purchase.

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5 thoughts on “Condrieu: the Best Viognier in the World

  1. Congratulations Stefan: I think it marvellous for you to have done this ‘properly’: taken the time, passed the exams and entered a somewhat rarefied world methinks you will enjoy all the years of your life. There are mountains still to climb: with your persistence I know you will enjoy the journey . . . love Viognier: and do not know this . . . I too shall try and learn a tiny, tiny bit . . . 🙂 !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually learned something while researching for this post, which is that there is about as much viognier in Australia as there is in France. So no surprise you love viognier. No surprise either you haven’t come across viognier as I imagine it will be outrageously expensive down there.

      Like

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