The Viognier grape has been cultivated on the granite slopes of Condrieu since at least Roman times, and likely long before, which makes it all the more incredible that it almost disappeared after World War II; production for the entire appellation dropped to as low as 2,500 bottles in the late 1960s, according to John Livingstone-Learmonth in The Wines of the Northern Rhône. Its revival has been hard fought, as the steep, terraced slopes here are painstakingly difficult to work, but the payoff for diligent growers is one of the world’s most remarkable dry whites. Its ravishing perfume, luxurious body and texture, and unique abilities at table endow Condrieu with a special place in the connoisseur’s cellar. Flabby and sweet versions are easy to produce, but the dry style, which preserves perfume and freshness along with unctuous richness, is the Holy Grail. For a little more than a decade, Lionel Faury has been mastering the art, and he is now among the elite producers of this storied French white.
Along the steep, narrow valley that traces the northern Rhône, the appellations of Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu and Saint-Joseph take their place among the great wines of France, and Domaine Faury is one of the region’s most artisanal producers. When Philippe Faury took over the domaine in 1979, the family was selling wine, peaches and cherries, and the bulk of their clientele was local. Over the years, Philippe increased their holdings to over 11 hectares and began to sell internationally. He shared his savoir faire with his son, Lionel. Since 2006, Lionel has taken over the reins, though father and son still work side by side. Every method they use encourages the grape towards greatness with the ultimate respect for its fragility.
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.
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