Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and most of France's classic wines have pretty convincing impersonators elsewhere. One only has to go back to the infamous 'Judgement of Paris' tasting in 1976 to see that Californian Cabernets can give prestigious classed-growth Bordeaux a good run for their money. Cool-climate New Zealand Pinot Noirs and Sauvignons compete directly with Burgundy and the Loire valley respectively and even our English wine-growers are putting the wind up the Champenois with some terrific sparkling wines. Condrieu, however, is a law unto itself. Its Viognier grape is both difficult to grow and vinify and, with its appellation boundaries set at a finite 168 hectares, it is necessarily in short supply. Plenty of people in diverse locations have tried to capture the elusive esprit of a true Condrieu but they always lack a certain je ne sais quoi.
Christine Vernay is the doyenne of Condrieu producers having been schooled by the best in the business – her father Georges. Those wanting an introduction to the Vernay oeuvre should look no further than the 'Pied de Samson' bottling. It is not a Condrieu per se as it hails from the unclassified upper slopes that lie over 300 metres above sea level, so it is bottled as a humble Vin de Pays and as such constitutes a relative bargain. It has the estate's signature white stone fruit aromas and flavours, taffeta texture and ethereal, dry finish. It is best drunk in its youthful exuberance within 2-3 years of bottling.
The Vernays' principal cuvée of Condrieu in volume terms is called 'Les Terrasses de l'Empire', but one must add the caveat that yields have been up to 50% down in recent vintages. It is everything one could wish a Condrieu to be - aromatic, dry, layered, elegant, persistent, subtle and strangely haunting. It drinks well from the off, is equally happy with or without food and will age gracefully for a least five years (if you're patient). Christine's flagship wine is called 'Coteau de Vernon' and comes from a single vineyard representing the sweet spot at the epicentre of the appellation, in the middle of the town itself. It befits poetry more than a tasting note. Keat's 'Saint Agnes Eve' springs to mind: "While he forth from the closet bought a heap of candied apple, quince, and plum and gourd; With jellies soother than the creamy curd and lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon." It can age well for at least a decade, although Christine avers that one should drink it when young within 2-3 years of bottling, or keep it until properly mature with seven or more years of bottle-age. It is a great gastronomic wine and makes a terrific partner to fish and poultry.
Christine also produces a patronne's cuvée called 'Les Chaillées d'Enfer', from the evocative 'Terraces of Hell', which is made from ultra-ripe grapes whose juice is fermented and then raised for a year in small oak barrels. The finished wine which is released in old-fashioned fluted brown bottles and has more concentration, caramel, vanilla and honey on the palate than the Coteau de Vernon. It too will stand up well to quite complex dishes and will cellar well for a decade or more.
Located up in the hills outside Saint-Michel-sur-Rhône, François Merlin is a gifted wine-maker who fashions his excellent 'Les Terroirs' Condrieu from numerous small parcels of vines he has assiduously accumulated over the last 4 decades. It is vinified for a year in vat and barrel before a pain-staking assemblage. It has an attractive strawcoloured robe, a bouquet of wild flowers and dried fruit and a lovely, mid-weight orchard fruit palate with subtle mineral undertones.