Greetings and good wishes for a scintillating September full of vinous savoir-faire to all of you!! I am in a somewhat sleep deprived state after entering fatherhood, so please excuse any mistakes. My editor and financial manager is in worse shape than I am, so the editing will likely be minimal! A brief aside, we did welcome a beautiful new daughter into our family on 9/7/17 and we are thrilled. I have no doubt she will develop a superb palate in the future under her father’s tutelage!
Our new addition has slowed some of my normal excursions so I don’t have too much to report on that front. Suffice it to say that my legs are jello-like on the bike right now; my fly-casting is barely better than my neighbor’s, and my rifle remains in the case with hunting season rapidly approaching. Such are the changes that accompany small beings that require full attention. Despite the lack of outdoor time I am absolutely thrilled to be a dad and looking forward to watching our little one grow. I only hope that she turns out more like her mother!
Even though I have been slacking in other areas, wine drinking is not one of them! I hope that some of you have been able to try a syrah from the Walla Walla region since our last chat. I have revisited a few myself; a 2008 Reynvaan In the Rocks Syrah was quite nice, full to the brim with savory, meaty, olive, and pepper notes, but retaining enough lush fruit to still be delicious; over Labor Day my brother and sister-in-law stopped by and so I decided to try a Cayuse as it had been awhile, and the 2012 En Cerise syrah did not disappoint. Lots of dark fruit, crushed stone, bacon fat, smoke and ash, white pepper, and brine. Superb concentration and balance will lend this wine another 10-15 years in the cellar easily. Both reaffirmed for me that Walla Walla makes some of the best syrah in the US and I hope you will give them a try. Also, I did not receive much (read none) feedback on my burgeoning website! I hope that you will take a minute or two and check out the J Newman Wine Revue at www.newmanwinerevue.com. In addition to lengthy regional diatribes, I have some shorter blurbs, wine and food pairing guides, and will soon have some specific recipes with pairings. Let me know how this might be improved if you have a moment!
Another wine related venture brought about the subject for this month. I was invited to lead a blind tasting event locally where I would be responsible for walking novice tasters through a series of wines and helping them learn the steps to deductive tasting. The first wine tasted was a white and it is one of the few wines that I can almost always identify with one sniff. Such a singular and incredible smell lifted from the glass. The first sip allowed me to place it with even more specificity and confirmed my thoughts from the nose. The other tasters (except my beautiful wife who has an exceptional palate) were befuddled and despite my attempts to gently lead them along the blank looks continued. Finally they asked me to divulge my thoughts. Without pause, I said, “this is clearly a Condrieu based on the beautiful aromas of musky stone fruits, honeysuckle, and acacia; I suspect it is most likely Guigal 2013 based on the vibrancy and development”. The wine was then revealed to be none other than the 2013 Guigal Condrieu! A satisfying moment for me to be sure; but I then had the thought that many of my readers and followers probably have never had the joyful experience of sipping Condrieu and likely did not even know that it existed! Thus I resolved to end that state and make all of you aware of what I consider to be one of the great white wines of the world and one of my personal favorites. The rest of the blind tasting continued as expected with me able to correctly identify most varietals if not the exact wine as I did with the Guigal. I did falter on the last wine as I abandoned my initial thoughts at the end and went awry. The other tasters did appreciate seeing that I was human however and it gave them hope that they may be able to advance to higher levels. So with that intro, let’s move into the meat of the missive and learn about Condrieu! And I promise, this will be curtailed and to the point as much as possible!
Condrieu… such a beautiful wine. What is Condrieu you might ask? It is a small village in the northern Rhone Valley that focuses on one grape which allows it to reach unparalleled heights. The grape of course is the oft-overlooked Viognier; a difficult grape to get right as it is easy to let it become overripe and flabby and also just as easy to harvest it too soon so that it is a tart, thin, acidic mess. Condrieu is the birthplace of viognier for all intents and purposes and produces stunning wines with a beautiful aromatic complexity and lush rich fruit on the palate. Condrieu is located just south of Cote Rotie, famous for its syrah-based wines. The actual appellation was officially founded in 1940 though vines have been tended here since Roman times. It is a small appellation (which unfortunately for us means the wines are not easy to find) at around 500 total acres under the vine and is located on the west bank of the mighty Rhone River. The map below should help you picture it. As with many of the Rhone regions, Condrieu has steep hillside vineyards. The soil here is varied, but is mostly a mix of granite and limestone. The best plots are made up of granitic schist with mixed in chalk, flint, and mica. Locally this is referred to as “arzelle” soil. The topsoil here is pretty thin, around 16 inches deep so the vine roots delve deep into the rocky subsoils. This lends the wines vibrancy and just a hint of mineral/flinty notes. The rocky soil, steep hills, and the vicious
mistral generally limit yields in the area to around 30-40 hectoliters/hectare (a hectoliter is 100 liters and a hectare is about 2.5 acres; so basically about 16,000 liters of wine per acre farmed) and this helps with the concentration and lush mouthfeel of the wine. Unfortunately, given the low yields and small area, this means Condrieu is not generally cheap… and not easy to locate… but if you were into cheap, easy to locate wines, you wouldn’t be reading this!
Let’s discuss viognier a bit more. Fifty years ago, viognier was nearly non-existent. There were only about 40 acres planted in Condrieu and essentially none anywhere else. Luckily, a few international winemakers, some of whom are US based, discovered the grape and planted some in California. Once international drinkers began to discover how delicious these wines can be, the market picked up and Condrieu underwent a revival to its current state. Viognier is now planted all over the world from California to Virginia to Australia and beyond. I must caution you however, that not all viognier is Condrieu (or even close). Even many French viognier wines are rubbish. There are lots of plantings in the Languedoc and further south from which yields are double or more what they are in Condrieu and the wines are vapid, thin, and not that palatable. Many California viogniers are overripe, flabby, and too high in alcohol. Virginia (my home state, so I may be biased) actually does a pretty good job at producing balanced and pleasurable viognier, but they don’t get to the level of Condrieu. Walla Walla (yes the same place from last month) also produces some solid examples. So be careful with your selections and don’t write off the grape entirely if you have a bad one. Viognier is in general a lower acid grape that produces a full bodied, unctuous, and rich wine. This is why it is so easy to make a flat, flabby wine with no energy. But, when it is on and there is a nice vein of freshness underlying the beautiful flavors and bouquet… wow what a great wine. The bouquet of viognier is what draws most people in. It is simply captivating. Pungent,
musky aromas of honeysuckle, acacia, lily, lilac, and peony make you feel as if you are in a florist’s shop. Ripe pear, peach, apricot, and melons float out of the glass and you are transported to a hillside orchard. Rich ginger, anise, and cardamom spices are accompanied by honey and beeswax. It is simply a carnival of smells that is pure pleasure to sniff again and again. The palate (when well done) is rich and full bodied, with glycerin coating the tongue. In Condrieu, this is balanced by lovely acidity that then lifts in the flavors of ripe stonefruits, floral notes, and spice to allow them to dance across your palate as if the Moscow ballet has arrived. The finish leaves a lingering sensation of this kaleidoscope of flavors and leaves you longing for another sip… truly a wine that needs to be drunk to be appreciated.
Condrieu can come in several different guises, so to make sure you are fully informed I will briefly go through these. Most often these days Condrieu is made dry; however, there are still occasional sweet or off dry versions. Many tasters may feel like the wines are off dry, given the richness of the wine and the sweet honey and ginger notes, but most likely that is simply the sweet flavors of the wine. If you do see one labeled “late harvest”, “vendage tardive”, or moelleux, these will be sweet. The next branch point depends on the use of oak. Some growers use new oak barrels to provide even more round and rich flavors, while others use mostly steel or neutral oak. This can make a difference in the flavor profile, as the oak will add more rich spice and caramel notes. I personally prefer the wines without much oak, but if used judiciously it can improve the wine. I find the unoaked versions often pair a little easier with food. If you can, try a couple different ones and see which style you prefer.
One additional thing to mention is that Condrieu is not generally considered to be a good wine for long cellaring. Many wine experts feel that the fruit and floral notes fade after 5-6 years and the wines are not as enjoyable. There are a few people who think that 10-20 year old Condrieu is still excellent, but they are the minority. I personally have not tried an aged example to be able to weigh in. I have tried an aged California viognier and at 13 years old it was not good. So with that in mind I tend to drink my Condrieu within 3-5 years of bottling. So this is a perfect wine for those of you without large cellar spaces!
Now a brief word on pairing, then we will move on to the producers to keep an eye out for. Condrieu can be a tough wine to pair given the aromatic complexity and lower acidity, but it can be done well. I find examples made with a lack of oak influence and fresher acidity to be delicious simply to drink on their own. They can go reasonably well with fruit/cheese plates, though the cheeses that work well tend to be on the tangy side, think of Roquefort or tangy goat cheese with apricot accents. The pairing that we had at our blind tasting actually worked beautifully with the Condrieu. This was a Dijon tarragon roasted chicken. The weight of the meat and wine was perfect and the Dijon was a lovely foil to the richness of the wine. In that vein, many roasted fowl dishes will work. Richer fish dishes, such as a pike quenelle or fatty fish such as monkfish can pair well. For older, richer Condrieu with some oak influence, foie gras or other pate can be good. Rich lobster or crab can also be done although I sometimes find that the seafood throws off the flavors a bit. One of my favorite pairings is actually with Thai food. The aromatics of the food meld well with the wine and as long as the food isn’t too spicy the match works very nicely. Pad see ew or lard na are two of my go to options. I’ve also had good experience with massaman curry. Again, the key here is to make sure the wine has nice freshness and the food isn’t too spicy. Other aromatic dishes such as Moroccan tagines are excellent as well. If you are doing a pairing dinner, Condrieu works beautifully with a vegetable course such as asparagus or artichoke. These foods, which sometimes make higher acid whites taste metallic and tart, blend nicely with the richness of the wine.
I have once again gone past my intended stopping point, but can’t stop now! Let us just briefly visit a few names to watch for. Again, as I noted above, Condrieu is rare so you probably won’t find a lot of options in your local stores. My advice would be, if you see one, just buy it and try it out. The most common Condrieu to see is that from the Guigal family. A major player all throughout the valley, the Guigal’s played a vital role in helping
to restore Condrieu by buying vineyards and grapes from local growers when the wine was not in fashion. They produce 2 wines, the straight Condrieu, which is delicious and consistent year in and year out and the La Dorianne, which is a single vineyard wine I have never had the good fortune to taste. These wines are available in most markets in the US and well worth the purchase. I also thoroughly enjoy the Condrieu from Rene Rostaing. His Condrieu La Bonnette is primarily aged in steel and shows a lovely hint of minerality on the finish. Domaine Georges Vernay is probably the most highly regarded producer along with Guigal. These are excellent wines, though generally towards the top end price range. Other very good producers include Michel and Stephane Ogier, Andre Perret, Domaine Clusel-Roch, Yves Cuilleron, Christophe Pichon, and Gilles Barge. I am certain there are other excellent producers out there, but I have yet to taste them, so don’t be too restrictive in your search.
With that, I will leave you in peace for another month (or more). I hope that you can find and experience a Condrieu as it is truly one of the great white wines of the world in my opinion. As always, feel free to send donations, advice, feedback, questions, etc my way.
J. “Arzelle” Newman, CSW