Condrieu

Condrieu is arguably the northern Rhône's most distinctive wine appellation. It covers white wines made exclusively from Viognier, while its larger neighbours (Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Côte Rôtie) specialise in robust reds made from Syrah. Condrieu's whites, which strike an unusual balance between delicate perfume and substantial body, are produced only in tiny quantities, and only in seven parishes – Limony, Chavanay, Malleval, Saint-Michel-sur-Rhône, Saint-Pierre-de-Bœuf, Verin and Condrieu itself – in the nine-mile stretch of the Rhône Valley that makes up the official Condrieu viticultural area.

The vineyards are located on a winding section of the Rhône River (the name Condrieu derives from a French phrase meaning "corner of the stream") and are characterised by south and south-east-facing granite slopes rising steeply from the riverbanks. This orientation enables the vines to obtain maximum warmth and sunlight in the cooler days of spring and autumn, resulting in ripe, flavoursome wines. Many of these slopes are far too steep to be accessible to tractors, so they are harvested by hand, just as they were when grapes were first grown here about 2,000 years ago. The best of these slopes have topsoil made up of mixed chalk, flint and mica, which some people believe is responsible for the mineral aromas present in the finest Condrieu wines. The combination of these soils and the dry, warm climate of the area creates a valuable and distinctive terroir.

One drawback of these vineyard sites is that they are particularly exposed to the strong northerly winds that move up the Rhône, inflicting significant damage to crops during the flowering period. The average yield here is famously low, which makes Condrieu wines not only rare but also quite expensive to produce.

Characterful Condrieu wines have enjoyed increasing popularity since the 1970s, as the Viognier grape has been brought back from the brink of extinction. In the early 1980s, there were just a few acres of Viognier vineyard left in this area (and in fact anywhere in the world). There are now roughly 420 acres (170 ha) exclusively devoted to Condrieu production, and while this may still seem a tiny amount, it dwarfs the 10 acres used by the Château-Grillet appellation. To give this some context, compare these two small appellations with the northern Rhône's largest; for every bottle of Condrieu, there are 10 of Crozes-Hermitage.

In the decades since their renaissance, the wines of Condrieu have evolved stylistically, shifting towards dry styles and away from the intense, sweet styles in which they were once made. Conveniently, this brings them towards a style better matched to the other appellation-protected speciality product made in this area, Rigotte de Condrieu goats' cheese.

In response to increasing consumer preferences for dry wine styles, sweet Condrieu wines are often now marked out by the phrase Selection des Grains Nobles. The aim of this change is to bring greater clarity to consumers regarding wine styles and to return an element of exclusivity to the appellation's sweet wines. Wines claiming the appellation title AOC Condrieu Selection des Grains Nobles must be produced from grapes harvested in multiple passes through the vineyard (known as tries successives in French), beginning no earlier than eight days after the standard harvest. Cryoextraction and chaptalisation are prohibited, although the rules do not prohibit passerillage sur souche – the process of leaving grapes on the vines to dry them out and concentrate their natural sugars and flavours.
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