Back in March we finally fulfilled a long-held ambition, to order a portion of Quenelle de Brochet au Salpicon de Homard, at Condrieu’s legendary Beau Rivage restaurant, right beside the Rhône in the middle of the town. This is not a venture for the faint-hearted (at 38 euros as a starter) especially if it is accompanied by a decent bottle of Condrieu, which it was - François Merlin’s fragrant, complex and lightly-oaked ‘Les Terroirs’ 2007 (60 euros). Contrary to common conjecture not all of our buying trips involve such profligacy but we had a rendez vous scheduled chez Merlin the following morning and pike quenelles are deemed to be the perfect food accompaniment to Condrieu, so it seemed churlish to deny our destiny. Happily, this did prove to be a divine food and wine combination and we were very kindly disposed towards François before we had even met him.
Our tasting the following morning at François’ modest cellar in the hills above Condrieu was something of a formality in qualitative terms but we were also impressed by his infectious enthusiasm and obvious passion for his métier. François is a first generation wine-maker who paid his dues with stages at Rostaing and Vernay while scraping together the funds to buy several tiny parcels of vines (now totalling 2.2 hectares) which explains the name of his principal bottling – ‘Les Terroirs’. We placed our inaugural order on the spot and judging by initial feedback you have been as enthusiastic about François’ wine as we have.
In April we found ourselves back at Le Beau Rivage (it’s a hard life) in the company of Christine Vernay, her husband Paul Amsellem and the Weekend Telegraph’s tireless wine-hound Jonathan Ray. Christine is Condrieu royalty being head wine-maker and patrone of the appellation’s most celebrated estate but we were unable to sample her wine over lunch as the Beau Rivage had already sold out of its generous allocation.
Fortunately we had been treated to a comprehensive tasting of the entire Vernay canon before lunch including the great value, dry and delicate ‘Pied de Samson’ Vin de Pays Viognier, the mid-weight, and fruit accentuated ‘Terrasses de l’Empire’, the rich, unctuous ‘Chaillées d’Enfer’ and the sublime, mutli-faceted, flagship ‘Coteau de Vernon’, from Condrieu’s prime vineyard in the centre of the appellation. Today Christine has become increasingly recognised as a red wine producer and now bottles a fine, brambly un-oaked Syrah Vin de Pays, as well as full and fruity Saint Joseph and two cuvées of elegant and age-worthy Côte Rôtie. Thankfully on that occasion Christine and Paul picked up the bill but we did repay the gesture later in May when they joined us for lunch in London at Le Gavroche, where we enjoyed the Coteau de Vernon 2007 with a Petit Gratin de Crevettes et Pleurottes. Perhaps we could defray some of our expenses by moonlighting as inspectors for the Guide Michelin!