Sometimes one sibling can overshadow another, leaving it underappreciated. Oftentimes fame outweighs any appreciation of subtlety and personality. In the world of wine this is all too common an occurrence, even as the lesser known can become somewhat of a cult itself. Neither fame nor underground notoriety has christened the white wines of the Rhone Valley, and so it is even more surprising that the wines have grown in popularity over the years.
Flash back to 1971 and you would find that only about 12 hectares (30 acres) of Viognier were planted in the entire Rhone Valley, including the Condrieu sub-appellation. That’s barely enough grapes to make 2500 bottles, a mere pittance even for a single producer. By 2005, however, Condrieu expanded to 135 hectares – a far cry from 30 years prior. Part of the reason for this is the extreme steepness of the slopes, which makes planting and tending the vines not particularly cost-effective, and also the difficulty the vines have penetrating the topsoil, which, if they don’t do, relegates them to producing bloated fruit. The deepness of the vines is essential for great Viognier.
Unlike all the plantings in the new world, Condrieu is now populated with mostly old-vine pre-clone material, which for the non-geeky essentially means vines that often produce grapes with more character and depth. The other side of this were the crappy replantings in the 1980s where many producers started cropping their vines at yields far too high to produce anything of interest. As with any region, Condrieu is all about the growers and producers who do it right.
Condrieu is also the perfect example of why wine growers and makers need to treat their varities right. In the 1990’s it was common for producers to make wines in a ‘lighter and fresher’ style, much like Sauvignon Blanc. This is not the nature of Viognier, the best expressions of which are rich, dense and sensuously textured. Fermenting the wine at low temperatures became the norm and this killed the character and balance in the wines. Why go for up front zing when you can get density and an endless finish? That’s what trends can do.
Francois Villard is a new wave kind of Condrieu producer. He generally lets his grapes get to the point of a certain percentage of noble rot before vinifying and always uses oak. The Terrasses du Palate Condrieu has 20% new and 80% used oak and sees about 3-5% noble rot. These are overt wines, almost in the style of new world examples like that of John Alban from Paso Robles. The fact that Villard learned wine making on his own from books and trial and error? Well, that’s just a bonus.
The wine itself pours a lovely burnt yellow, looking much like an aged Riesling. On the nose I got apricot, honeysuckle, peach and toasted coconut. The palate is glycerous, rich and honeyed. Peach notes develop quickly, but the wine is also very long and deep in flavour. It is also elegant for such a rich wine, but in the end this is not a wine about tightness, clarity or precision. Rather, this is a wine about luscious texture, expressivity and exotic richness. And, the glycerous palate does nothing to interfere with the intense, flowered, wafting scents that speak purely of sensuous pleasure. This truly is a great wine wine and is a good indication of how excited I am about this spotlight.
$60 at Marquis Wine Cellars