The diminutive appellation of Condrieu, with just 192 hectares under vine, is the perfect expression of the French concept of terroir – or taste pertaining to location. Devoted exclusively to the capricious Viognier grape, which takes expertise to both grow and vinify but produces flamboyant wines of great character that are inimitable. When you taste a really good Condrieu you know immediately that it couldn't possibly emanate from anywhere else.
Christine Vernay is the doyenne of Condrieu having been schooled by the best in the business, her late father Georges. It was he who championed the appellation and the Viognier grape during its dog days when, at the nadir in 1965, there were just 8 hectares of vines in production. Happily Georges lived to see the fruit of his labours with Condrieu enjoying its rightful reputation as an internationally acclaimed wine by the 21st Century.
Christine, who has been chef du chai at Domaine Georges Vernay since 1997, may represent Rhône winemaking royalty but her numerous accolades and awards have been hard-earned against tough opposition. Her simplest (and cheapest) Viognier is not a Condrieu per se, as it hails from the plateau above the appellation boundary, but an IGP 'Collines Rhodaniennes' called 'Le Pied de Samson'. It is always an immensely gratifying wine with delightful honeysuckle and wild flower scents, a palate of ripe, white peaches and a fresh, clean, unoaked finish.
The principal bottling, in volume terms, is called 'Les Terrasses de l'Empire'. It is a classic bright and fragrant Condrieu with an inviting bouquet of exotic fruit and terrific stone fruit and almond flavours with subtle minerally undertones. It drinks beautifully from release on its exuberant fruit. Christine also makes a weighty, old-vine cuvée called 'Les Chaillées d'Enfer' that undergoes a 12 month élevage in oak barrels (25% new). It is a rich, concentrated and complex 'gastronomic' wine with dried fruit and vanilla aromas preceding a persistent palate of stewed orchard fruit. It merits decanting and will age well for a decade.
The flagship wine chez Vernay is the legendary, single-vineyard 'Coteau de Vernon', which is a strong contender for being the finest wine of the appellation. With a bouquet of ripe peaches, underlying citrus and floral notes and a multi-faceted palate of apricots, nuts and minerals preceding a long, dry elegant finish. It has enough weight and complexity to support considerable bottle age (at least 10 years) but is hard to resist in its youthful pomp.