Legend has it that in the third century A.D. Emperor Probus issued a decree to uproot half of Gaul’s vineyards to combat overproduction within the Roman Empire. Yet he spared this special plot, his “coteau chéri” (darling hillside), based on the extraordinary nectar it produced. Today, Chéry’s legacy lives on: flaunting a sublime perfume, this voluptuous, refreshing, intricately woven masterpiece sets the bar at the summit for Northern Rhône whites. If you ever thought that Viognier could not age, hide away a few bottles of this Condrieu for ten years. The result—decadent, toasty, gloriously honeyed, yet bone-dry—is truly mind-blowing.
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.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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