Condrieu is arguably the northern Rhône's most distinctive wine appellation. Created in 1940, it covers white wines made exclusively from Viognier. In contrast, its larger neighbours (Saint-Joseph, Crôzes-Hermitage and Côte Rôtie) specialize in robust reds made from Syrah.
Condrieu's whites strike an unusual balance between delicate perfume and substantial body. They are produced only in tiny quantities, and only in seven parishes. These are Limony, Chavanay, Malleval, Saint-Michel-sur-Rhône, Saint-Pierre-de-Bœuf, Verin and Condrieu itself.
Condrieu vineyards lie within in a nine-mile stretch of the Rhône Valley on a winding section of the Rhône River. The appellation name derives from a French phrase meaning 'corner of the stream'. They are typically placed on 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. This in turn results in ripe, flavourful wines.
Many of these slopes are far too steep to be accessible to tractors. Therefore they are harvested by hand, just as they were when grapes were first grown here about 2000 years ago. The best of them have topsoil made up of mixed chalk, flint and mica. Some believe this 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. These can inflict 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. In this time the Viognier grape has been brought back from the brink of extinction. In the early 1980s, there were just a few hectares of Viognier vineyard left in this area (and in fact anywhere on Earth).
There are now roughly 170 hectares (420 acres) exclusively devoted to Condrieu production. While this may still seem a tiny amount, it dwarfs the four hectares used by the Château-Grillet appellation. But to give this some further context, for every bottle of Condrieu produced, there are 10 of Crôzes-Hermitage.
In the decades since their renaissance, the wines of Condrieu have evolved stylistically. There has been a shift 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 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 firstly to bring greater clarity to consumers regarding wine styles. It also returns 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. Picking can begin no earlier than eight days after the standard harvest. Cryoextraction and chaptalisation are prohibited, although the rules do not prohibit passerillage sur souche. The latter is the process of leaving grapes on the vines to dry them out and concentrate their natural sugars and flavours.
Several Condrieu producers also make Viognier wines under the IGP Collines Rhodaniennes designation. These may be from vines outside the Condrieu zone, or possibly from younger vines within it. The wines tend to be fresher in style.