Confessions of an English Condrieu drinker

A short introduction to Condrieu…

There are few wines as wantonly hedonistic as Condrieu. It’s the combination of heady, floral perfume and rich, unctuous texture that gets you hooked. The grape used is the unmistakable Viognier, and this is its greatest expression. Languid flavours of sun-warmed peaches, scented with jasmine and honeysuckle, perked up with a spark of orange zest. And to think this uniquely opulent wine was nearly lost to us forever.

It has recently spread around the globe, but Viognier’s traditional heartland is the Rhône. Condrieu is located on a bend in the river at the northernmost tip of wine production in the valley. Though cultivated since Greek times, by the 1960s plantings had dwindled to less than 30 acres. But making Condrieu isn’t easy: it takes commitment. It’s a challenging grape to grow on the flat, but even more so on these steep, scorched, granite slopes. Here the vines yield very few grapes. But from this fruit a skilled winemaker can produce a dream of a wine, an opiate to be sipped.

One such winemaker was Georges Vernay, who we must thank for Viognier’s renaissance. He replanted the vineyards, rebuilt the stone walls and with it Condrieu’s reputation. His Domaine is now run by his daughter Christine and her husband Paul, and their wines are still the benchmark. Now there are many talented growers: André Perret, Pierre Gaillard, François Villard, Yves Cuilleron and Michel & Stéphane Ogier to name but a few.

Several produce Viognier from vineyards just outside the official appellation. These are often good quality wines, and half the price of Condrieu. Look out for ‘Viognier de Rosine’ by Ogier, ‘Le Pied de Samson’ by Vernay and ‘Les Contours de Deponcins’ by Villard, particularly in good vintages such as 2010 and 2011.

Each Condrieu producer has their own style; some use oak, others stainless steel. A handful are built for the long term, but most are best drunk within the first few years of life while still bright, fresh and full of sap. It can work well with roast chicken or pork, and rich seafood such as turbot, monkfish or lobster.

It is just as easily enjoyed on its own. There can be few more luxurious ways of spending a sunny afternoon than lying in long grass surrounded by the pungent scent of Condrieu, your eyelids drooping with bliss. It’s the closest a wine can get to a narcotic.

First published in Living France magazine.