The Pope of Condrieu: Tasting at Georges Vernay
In 1971 Viognier was on the verge of extinction. Only 30 acres were left planted in Condrieu, the Rhone Valley appellation that is the original home of the grape. It was not until the 1980’s and 1990’s when some new world pioneers started bringing cuttings back to California that Viognier began to regain popularity. For a long time in the 90’s Condrieu growers made very poor wine that didn’t express the excitement and quality of the Viognier grape well. The resurging popularity in the new world eventually found its way back to Condrieu, which has since seen vastly increased plantings and many new wineries, most of which are now making Viognier in the big opulent style that made it popular with Americans in the 90’s.
The biggest problem with Condrieu is its value proposition. Most of these wines start at around $60 and the best clock in easily at $100. At these prices, Condrieu has to compete with Cote d’Or white Burgundy. Many don’t as they give in far too much to opulence. While opulence is Viognier’s fundamental character, truly great Condrieu manages to bring opulence together with savory and even saline undertones that purify the finish.
Of Origins and Terroir
The Vernay family is one of the original founders of Condrieu as an appellation. Georges Vernay’s father Francis sat on Condrieu’s Growers Union council as Secretary and Treasurer in the 1940’s. In those days, Condrieu was mostly sweet, because most growers could not afford to wait for extended fermentations before bottling and selling the wine.
Vernay’s terroir is unique in Condrieu: a top soil of decomposed rock, mica and schist overtop of clay. This terroir creates some of the most mineral driven wines in the entire appellation. However, the precise levels of richness vs. minerality are also massively a product of vintage and Viognier’s notorious unpredictability. Even in what seem to be ideal growing conditions, grapes can shrivel and overdevelop in a matter of days.
Vernay’s top vineyard – Vernon – is likely the very best in all of Condrieu (with perhaps the exception of Chery) and wines made from grapes grown in these famous soils are some of the only age worthy Condrieus around. The best can age up to 20 years.
Why Vinification Matters
Condrieu vinification has changed drastically since the appellation was first created in the early 20th century. Condrieu used to be made in a huge range of styles, even including sparkling wine. Then came the move to producing ‘fresher’ Condrieus, picking the grapes too early and using inoculation or even salicylic acid to arrest fermentations early to prevent the natural malo-lactic.
These days, producers are finally paying hommage to the natural qualities of Viognier: rich, sensuous and heady. Extended fermentations are common as is extended lees contact. Later picking, including some botrytized grapes on occasion, is now the norm. Viognier, unlike Chardonnay, requires a deft hand at oaking. It cannot handle the same level of new oak as Chard as doing so covers over the grapes naturally intense qualities and profound aromatics. Some producers are now pushing the new oak barriers. Vernay (with winemaking now run by Georges’ daughter Christine), on the other hand, is adamant about a light touch when it comes to oak, and Christine instead trusts the quality of the fruit over that of a barrel.
On the Greatest Viogniers in the World
I spent my time at Georges Vernay with Christine Vernay’s husband Paul, who generously made time for my visit despite being in the middle of harvest. A man that combines business sense with a clear passion for the wines, he is a strong ambassador of Vernay’s style. These are wines that combine power and elegance and challenge the stereotype of Condrieu as an overly rich hedonistic wine. Vernay proves that Viognier grown in this tiny region of France can delve well into the realm of the ethereal.
Condrieu Le Pied de Samson 2010: bright acidity, clean and long. This is made from Viognier planted on the top of the Condrieu hill in the 1970’s. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Condrieu Les Terrasses de L’Empire 2010: A mineral, saline wine with floral richness and great power. The acidity keeps this fresh and balanced and this will likely age well for up to a decade. A great example of the potential of the 2010 vintage in Condrieu. Excellent.
Condrieu Les Chailleets de L’Enfer 2009: 2009 is a massive vintage in the Rhone. Most American critics have given the vintage a great review. As such, the palate has butterscotch and rich but not over the top pineapple and other tropical fruits. Aged in 25% new oak. Excellent.
Condrieu Coteau de Vernon 2009: This wine is insane. Everything about its aromatics is exquisite, though still tight and precise. Rich but bright, intensely mineral and unlike any other Condrieu I’ve ever tasted. This is amongst the best white wines made in France and can age up to 20 years. Excellent+.
Cote Rotie Blonde du Seigneur 2009: Vernay also makes some pretty fantastic Cote-Rotie. Christine’s thoughtful and intellectual approach suits Cote Rotie well. This wine is made with grapes grown in the Cote Blonde north of Ampuis, with schist soils. A floral, pretty expression of Syrah, with 8% Viognier to add lift and texture. This is elegant, meaty and pretty all at once. Excellent.
Cote Rotie Maison Rouge 2008: 2008 is generally considered a shit year for northern Rhone reds. But Vernay shows that mindless vintage obsequients don’t know what they’re missing when a great producer makes wine in a so-called bad vintage. Additionally, this wine proves why Maison Rouge is a highly sought after wine for French oenophiles, even while generally unknown in North America. This is 100% Syrah and shows a spicy deep character with great power and elegance, just like Vernay’s best Condrieus. This can age for quite a few years and is a brilliant wine. Excellent+.
Georges Vernay is one of the great wine estates in France and is a superb example of how tradition combined with suitable modernity makes the best modern French vineyards amongst the very best in the world. I envy those with such a profound tradition but also a potent vision for the future. These are wines that are both superb examples of where they are from and also uniquely impressive wines unlike any others. Pick them up when you see them.
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