When I am in southeastern France, I stop as much as I can at André Perret’s cellars in Verlieu, a small commune of Chavanay, right on the route nationale along the Rhône River. Verlieu is just south of the village of Condrieu and smack dab in the heart of prime Viognier country. The neighboring hamlet is Vérin, the home of the micro-monopole Château Grillet, one of France’s tiniest appellations. André Perret is one of Condrieu’s master vignerons, and is widely respected in France as making arguably its finest Viognier. His Coteaux de Chéry bottling, from steep granite vineyards above Verlieu, is the stuff of legend. What he is slightly less known for are his delicious red wines from the Saint-Joseph appellation. Saint-Josephs from this part of the Rhône are typically more delicate and floral than their brethren further south around Mauves, the birthplace of the appellation (across the river from Tain l’Hermitage). Much like the greatest southern Saint-Josephs can recall the wines of Hermitage, the greatest northern examples can resemble the wines of Côte-Rôtie. André’s are certainly among the finest, and they always have great density despite their seeming weightlessness and elegant bouquet. Here is a great opportunity to snap up a few bottles of this rarely seen nectar, to be enjoyed now and over the next five years.
When André Perret was growing up in Chavanay, most of the land was planted to orchards, including the bulk of his family’s small estate. Their roots were in Burgundy, though, where André’s forefathers owned and worked vineyards in Chassagne-Montrachet until WWII forced them to relocate. In 1982 he returned to his hometown, starting out with a few rows of vines that belonged to his uncle. At the time there were just two other vignerons and the region was in decline, but he believed in the value of the local terroirs and worked hard to valorize them. Today he is proud to be surrounded by dynamic, passionate young vignerons. He makes fresh, structured wines, and his Condrieu bottlings are reference points for the entire appellation.
On the wines of the northern Rhône, Kermit wrote in Adventures on the Wine Route, “The best combine a reminder of the sunny Mediterranean with the more self-conscious, intellectual appeal of the great Burgundies farther north, which is not a bad combination.” Like the wines of Provence, Burgundy, and Beaujolais, Kermit was introduced to this region by Richard Olney, an American ex-pat and friend of Alice Waters.
Though technically part of the same region as the southern Rhône and connected by the Rhône River, much differentiates the north from the south. The climate is continental and in general cooler than that Mediterranean climate of the south. The appellations are significantly smaller: Cornas has less than 300 acres planted to vine and Hermitage around 345. The area planted is minute when compared to Gigondas (3,000+ acres) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (nearly 8,000 acres). Many of the great wines come from steep hillside vines—terraced during Roman times. It was clear to the Romans that great wine could be made here and DNA evidence now shows that Syrah is in fact indigenous to the Rhône.
The terroir is predominantly granite and lastly, blends of the wines are mostly single grape varieties. Only four grape varieties are permitted in AOC blends: Syrah, Viogner, Marsanne, and Roussanne (as compared to the 19 permitted varieties allowed in Châteauneuf). The red wines are nearly all Syrah and Condrieu and Château Grillet must be 100% Viogner. The whites of Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Saint Péray, and Crozes-Hermitages may only be blends of Marsanne and Roussanne.
For the wines that I buy I insist that the winemaker leave them whole, intact. I go into the cellars now and select specific barrels or cuvées, and I request that they be bottled without stripping them with filters or other devices. This means that many of our wines will arrive with a smudge of sediment and will throw a more important deposit as time goes by, It also means the wine will taste better.
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