The appellation of Condrieu, which dates back to Roman times but officially came into being in April 1940, currently extends to 209 hectares of vines located on steep terraces of alluvial deposits, sand, clay and granite on the western bank of the Rhône. The permitted grape yield is 41 hectolitres of grapes per hectare but that is pretty academic because Viognier, the only permitted grape, is a capricious variety and the average yield is 37 hectolitres per hectare. Unfortunately, in the spring of 2021, severe frosts blighted the fruit set and the yields for that vintage averaged just 8 hectolitres per hectare. That is less than a quarter of the usual production so don't expect to find any bargains on the market any time soon.
On a more positive note, the Vernay family have decades of experience cultivating and vinifying this ethereal grape and never fail to make wines that both smell and taste sensational. Winemaker Christine Vernay has now been joined by her daughter Emma so things are set fair as far as continuity is concerned at this iconic estate. Their principal wine in terms of the volume produced is the fabulous 'Terrasses de l'Empire' Condrieu of which is raised in 20 hectolitre tronconic oak vats alongside a (circa 10% parcel) that is matured in 228-litre barrels. Certified as organic since the 2020 vintage, it is bien classique and is regarded by many as the epitome of the appellation. With a beguiling bouquet of honeysuckle and acacia and sensuous stone-fruit flavours redolent of apricots and white peaches preceding a hauntingly elegant, dry finish, it drinks wonderfully well from release on its own or with food. Classic accompaniments are pike-perch quenelles or roast lobster. A patronne's bottling 'Les Chaillées de l'Enfer' ('the Terraces of Hell') is from mature rootstock grown on the celebrated 'La Caille' escarpment and utilises ripe fruit that is raised in a mixture of new oak and barrels that are 2 to 6 years old. It is richer and more concentrated than the 'regular' cuvée with toastier top notes and more dried-fruit characteristics and terrific length. It can cellar well for a decade or longer and makes a fine partner to poultry and white meat in cream-based sauces. The jewel in the Vernay crown is their 'Coteau de Vernon' from the steepest slopes in the heart of the vineyard. With diverse scents of pears, preserved lemon and apricot and a full, fleshy palate that culminates in a poised and prolonged finale. It is an exemplary wine that gains complexity with 10-15 years bottle age and merits decanting.
A relative bon marche in this inventory is the precocious 'Pied de Samson' bottling, which is not a Condrieu per se, as it hails from the upper plateau that lies some 300 metres above sea level. As a humble IGP Collines Rhodaniennes, it has a less elevated price tag but bags of varietal character and all of the Vernay veracity. With wild flower and Mirabelle plum aromas and succulent stone-fruit flavours underscored by some nervy mineral nuances, it is a wine beloved of cost-conscious hedonists – such as Mrs Yapp.