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Spotlight on Condrieu
Blind tasting of 1999 Condrieu, La Vigneronne, 15th February 2001

Condrieu almost became extinct. Back in 1965, there was a measly 8 ha of vines left in the appellation. Now, thanks largely to the increasing popularity of Viognier (the only grape variety permitted in this exclusively white wine appellation) -- and probably also to a resurgence of interest in wines of the Northern Rhône in general -- more than half of the 200 ha of Condrieu are under vine.

Yes, far from going the way of the dinosaurs, the dodo and the great Auk, Viognier's super trendy status has caused an explosion in plantings. Although Condrieu itself is still expensive and quite rare, varietal Viogniers from the South of France can now be had for a fiver from your local supermarket, and for a little more you'll get Viognier from California, Australia and even Argentina. Although it is supposedly a difficult grape to grow -- prone to rot and giving miserly yields -- with its trademark flavours of apricot, peach and spice, together with high alcohol and low acidity, it has proved easy to appreciate and fashionably different from the ubiquitous Chardonnay. But I have to admit that I've been rather unconvinced by most non-Condrieu Viognier. Many of the new world examples I've tried have been clumsy and too alcoholic, whereas the Southern French interpretations have been rather neutral and bland.

The Condrieu appellation sits at the top end of the northern Rhône region, some 10 km south of the town of Vienne. There are seven communes within the appellation, and maximum permitted yields are a rather low 30 hl/ha (plus an extra 10% in abundant vintages). In fact, average yields over the last two decades have been a measly 15 hl/ha. The recent Condrieu renaissance is evidenced by the observation that the area under vine here rose from 8 ha in 1965 to 20 ha in 1986 and then soared to 108 ha in 1995.

So what of the 1999 vintage? In the neighbouring red wine appellation of Côte Rôtie it is being hailed as one of the most successful ever. Not so for Condrieu, I suspect, at least on this showing. While there were some very attractive wines here, I was unconvinced by quite a few of them. There were none that I'll be rushing out to buy. Overall, I found them a little light on fruit, and the high alcohol in many stood out in a rather disjointed fashion. Could it be that I'm not actually that keen on Viognier per se? Perhaps.

Wines were served single blind (we knew which wines were in the tasting, but not the order). I immediately looked for evidence of the tall, thin bottles that Gaillard and Yves Cuilleron use, but the La Vig staff are smarter than this - they'd decanted these wines into bottles of a standard shape. Notes are presented as written, with comments added later in italics.

1999 Viognier, Domaine du Grangeon, Vin de Pays Coteaux de L'Ardeche
Tight, fresh peachy/spice nose with a touch of boiled sweets character. Good density on the palate: full flavoured, rounded and spicy, with some more of that confected boiled sweets character (for the benefit of US readers, I think this is what you call 'hard candy'). Very modern styled, and I'm not too keen on it. Very good

1999 Condrieu, Francois Merlin
Lovely smoky, burnt/rubber nose: complex and spicy. Good concentration, with a lovely smokiness to the fruit on the palate. Very interesting. Good balance and a dry finish. Very good/excellent. Probably my favourite wine of the evening. I've never heard of this producer before.

1999 Condrieu, Phillippe Faury
Pure nose: fresh and floral with spicy notes. Medium density on the palate with quite an alcoholic finish. Very good: shows nice varietal character but lacks a bit of flavour density, and finishes a little bitter.

1999 Condrieu, Robert Niero
Attractive smoky/spicy nose with ripe apricot fruit. Rounded, balanced palate of good weight, with ripe spicy fruit and high alcohol. Quite impressive. Very good+ With vines in the Côteau de Chery, this is an expanding domaine. The 1999 sees some oak.

1999 Condrieu, Pierre Gaillard
Rounded fruity/floral nose with some burnt rubber complexity. Pleasant, thick-textured palate with ripe fruit, spice and alcohol. Peachy. Very good+ Probably my third favourite of the evening. Pierre Gaillard is one of the stars of the region; he has 2.5 ha in the appellation.

1999 Condrieu, 'La Loye' Jean-Michel Gerin
Odd slightly volatile nose: appley and a bit unclean. There's an odd balance to the palate -- the fruit has a strange edge to it. I'm not keen on this. OK/good I don't like to give a wine a bad write up, but this was clearly the weakest of the line up. A bad bottle?

1999 Viognier, Faccin, VdP des Collines Rhodaniennes
Typical Viognier nose with peachy, spicy fruit. Quite delicate. Light, fresh palate with some spicy fruit. Good balance, but a bit light. Very good+ Stands out as being a VdP by virtue of its lightness. Still attractive.

1999 Condrieu, Faccin
Rounded, spicy wine with some herby, peachy fruit on the nose. Nicely balanced palate with a touch of honey. Interesting, and not too alcoholic? Very good+

1999 Condrieu, E. Guigal
Exotic, slightly stinky nose, with notes of burnt rubber and cabbage. Spicy and rich. Nice palate: real interest here with complex flavours and almost vegetal notes. Very good/excellent, but odd. Oaky? I liked this wine because it was different. Aged one third in barrel, two thirds in tank. Guigal buys in some of these grapes, but also owns some vineyards in Condrieu.

1999 Condrieu, 'Le Grand Vallon, Francois Villard
Sensational nose: full, rich and spicy, with peachy fruit. New oak here? On the palate this is dry, quite tight and spicy, with lean, savoury fruit. Needs time? Very good/excellent Villard, one of the stars of Condrieu, was a chef before starting his own domaine in 1991. Now has 7 ha of vines.

1999 Condrieu, 'La Petite Côte', Yves Cuilleron
Quite restrained nose: rounded, with honey and peaches. Good varietal character. Nicely balanced palate with good texture, fruit and some acidity. Very good+ Yves Cuilleron took over from his father in 1987, and has established quite a reputation for himself. He has built up the vineyard holdings from 4 ha to 20 ha. This is the early drinking cuvée.

1999 Condrieu, 'Les Terrasses de L'Empire, George Vernay
Exotic, fruity nose: sweet and spicy. The palate displays sweet fruit with good density and concentration, but this comes across as a bit too technological and modern for my palate. Very good. Second largest producer of Condrieu after Guigal.

(See also the 1999 Rhône tasting at Bibendum, which includes the Condrieus from Niero and Dumazet)

Contact details:
La Vigneronne, 105 Brompton Road, London SW7 3LE

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