Viognier is a capricious grape that requires skill both to cultivate and vinify. Its acidity is naturally low so glycerin needs to be present to give a satisfactorily smooth and dry finish. It is also extremely sensitive to meteorological conditions which raises the stakes in terms of the annual yields. After a welcome 2018 vintage which was generous in both quantity and quality, hot summers ensued in 2019 and 2020 which yielded ripe fruit and some great wines although much less of them. As growing seasons go, 2021 will be long remembered as one of the trickiest. Severe spring frosts truncated budding and were followed by heavy rains and erratic weather patterns. It certainly was a short and challenging year.
Happily, the Vernay family have a long track record of producing world-class wines so are well placed to make the best wine they can under any circumstances. Their 'Pied de Samson' bottling is not a Condrieu per se but an IGP Collines Rhodaniennes that hails from the upper Condrieu plateau so does not fall within the Appellation d'Origine Protégée. As such, it represents good value for money and it has bags of varietal character. The hand-harvested grapes are pressed and vinified in vat and barrel for 7 months before a spring bottling. The finished wine has lovely honeysuckle and apricot aromas with a sensuous stone-fruit palate characterised by the signature Vernay finesse. It drinks well from release and can be cellared for 2-3 years.
The 'Terrasses de l'Empire' Condrieu is the principal wine in terms of production and comes from mature rootstock on the 'Saint-Agathe' and 'La Caille' lieu-dits. The wine is raised in a mixture of 20-hectolitre tronconic oak vats and 228-litre barrels and normally undergoes malolactic fermentation prior to release. With a magnificent bouquet of white peaches and acacia followed by a complex palate of yellow plum and stewed pears with subtle white pepper and mineral notes, it is a marvelous embodiment of Viognier and can age gracefully for well over a decade. Classic food matches include lobster and poulet de Bresse and it can be found on many of France's best wine lists. Their cuvée 'Chaillées d'Enfer' comes from old vines on the 'La Caille' escarpment in the center of the historic vine area and the resultant wine is matured in a mixture of 25% new and 75% used barrels for at least a year before blending and bottling. It has a golden robe, exotic and dried-fruit scents and a diverse palate of fig and mango with delicate vanilla notes and terrific length. It too favours Gallic gastronomy and drinks well after 5 to 10 years. The jewel in the crown chez Vernay is the celebrated Coteau du Vernon from the celebrated single-vineyard overlooking the town, which many observers cite as the epitome of Condrieu. Notes of pineapple, aniseed and apricot precede a profound palate of peach, Mirabelle, preserved-lemon and aniseed underscored by nervy mineral nuances. It is a famously long-lived wine. Classic accompaniments include coquilles Saint-Jacques and pike-perch dumplings.