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1979 & 1976 CONDRIEU, GEORGES VERNAY

At the end of the Ledbury Restaurant lunch on 25 June, 2008, I served a wrapped up in tin foil 1979 Condrieu from Domaine Georges Vernay, a wine I had bought at issue from Yapp Brothers in England. Its only movement had been the train ride to London from Sussex on the day, and it had been cellared in London before a move to Sussex 10 years ago. Sounds like the owner of a car, trying to sell the vehicle! Only one owner, never out of third gear, local roads only.

1979 was when Condrieu was still struggling to keep afloat. The worst point had been reached, with the entire vineyard standing at around 12 hectares (30 acres) in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, there were signs of a little more planting - 1 hectare! - but also the will to plant had surfaced. Philippe Pichon, father of Christophe Pichon, whose 2006 Condrieu was served with the Ledbury lunch, had been forced to sell 10 hectares of fruit trees near the Rhône in 1975 - a compulsory purchase by the Rhône River Company for the creation of new channels. People thought he was mad to invest some of that money in half a hectare of vineyard on Roche Coulante, where the oldest vines now date from 1970. Recall that much Condrieu is made from vines dating from after 1982 or after 1990 - two planting surges. Early 1970s planting was almost unheard of.

The Papa at Condrieu then was Georges Vernay, head of the Growers' Union and the pivotal figure in this appellation's survival. I would go as far as to say that without Georges Vernay, who is now 80, Viognier would never enjoy the worldwide appreciation that it does today.

Condrieu had been a thriving vineyard until the First World War: old sepia photos show the hills above this small town clad in the green mantle of vines. But the loss of young men meant that the vineyards fell idle after the Great War, and only the most accessible sites - not necessarily the best ones - remained productive. There was no really enduring market for the wine, either. It was drunk up locally soon after the harvest, and Georges Vernay was only one of two growers who bottled their wine much after Christmas.

Georges' sales were then based around the great local restaurants, rather than selling from his cellars to private passing buyers. The latter group didn't know the wine, anyway. "In 1979, I used to sell a lot to Jacques Pic in Valence, Point in Vienne (the Restaurant Pyramide) and also the Beau Rivage (then a 2 star Restaurant beside the Rhône in Condrieu)," he remembers. "Jacques took 1,200 bottles at his highest moment, and Point took 900 bottles. Alain Chapel was another big client of mine, and overseas it was Yapp in England" (from whom I bought my case of 1979).

The pattern in those days was to fit in the grape harvest with the fruit crop. "I would do an early bottling in mid-December - about 10% of my wine, for the Christmas market. This would contain 4 to 5 grams of residual sugar. My last bottling would be in March or April, and the wine would be largely dry by then," he recalls. The malolactic was not done - it was stopped with sulphur dioxide. The simple reason for blocking the malo was that growers did not want to wait for it to occur, since it meant tying up their wine cash for a longer period of time. Apricots and cherries had to be brought in, and space was also needed for them - so out went the wine, rapido.

At the time, Château-Grillet was also pushing to allow higher yields - a debate that was public in those days. I used to be criticised by old Monsieur Canet of Grillet as "the only chronicler who had criticised Château-Grillet's quality and approach to higher yields and an expanded vineyard", which I had highlighted in my early books. At least he dignified me with the term "chronicleur"! Grillet wanted to push yields up to 37 hl/ha, while Vernay was a proponent of 30 hl/ha - "that is sufficient", he used to say. In the end, the INAO ruling body went for 35 hl/ha.

Château-Grillet's average yield per annum for two 8 year stretches illustrates the point about pushing for higher yields very lucidly:

Château-Grillet average annual production

1965-1972         40.6 hl per annum

1973-1980         75.4 hl per annum

In 1979, the entire Condrieu crop amounted to 298 hectolitres, or an average yield per hectare of about 22 hectolitres. In 2006, the Condrieu crop came to 4,756 hectolitres. Imagine the long faces in the dreadful vintage of 1972 - just 66 hectolitres for the whole appellation. No wonder people were busy growing cardoons and tending their fruit trees - or going to work in factories across the river.

Vernay owned a small bottling machine, which also made him King of the Jungle from that standpoint. Château-Grillet would ask him to bottle some of their wine (even some volatile casks, which he turned down, with the advice that Monsieur Canet should go and buy himself a filter machine), and Etienne Guigal, father of Marcel, would also show up with the odd 550-litre cask of red wine for bottling. The wine would be put under gas pressure before bottling, with 300 bottles an hour being completed. Vernay also bottled for the Château du Rozay, whose vineyard he had worked from 1969 to 1978, with Georges also vinifying the wine between those dates.

"I was a bit too brave in selling my wine in those days, and not keeping any back," Vernay says. "But I remember 1979 as a year that was easy to vinify, unlike the 1980." The wine held some remarkable features, starting with its robe - a pretty, bright yellow with no hints of gold in it. As with all noble old wines, the bouquet delivered a wide variety of aromas - mentioned in dispatches were camomile, caramel, toffee. On the palate, aniseed and quince came to the fore, with a mixture of honey and herbs. These were not consecutive or immediate impressions - more ones that showed themselves as the wine aired and changed: the delight of old, noble wine in one glass! The one moment of pronounced Viognier was some pear on the discreet finish. The wine showed no signs of tiring or slipping once opened.

Reaction about what the wine was seemed to cluster around the Northern Rhône, with the Marsanne-Roussanne mix put forward more than any convinced Viognier association. Vintage guesses circled around 1990. Not all people liked it, and indeed were probably so taken aback by the wine`s freshness that they came over to inspect the bottle. One Careful Owner, never done more than 30 mph, sir, I assure you. I have always insisted that the Viognier can live very well, with its first perfumes giving way to more measured, collected palate and bouquet impressions. The palate grace is especially noticeable, and I maintain that a Rhône lover should tuck a bottle or two away, from a balanced year, to see how they get on: the Georges Vernay Coteau de Vernon is the most regularly long-lived Condrieu that I know, so that would be a good start point for instance.

1976 COTEAU DE VERNON

I have always cellared the best Condrieu I bought in the 1970s and 1980s, and am doing the same for vintages such as 2004. The best wines for keeping are the Georges Vernay Coteau de Vernon and Château-Grillet. The Vernon was always much, much cheaper than Grillet, so that was where my pocket led me, plus the fact that it was a more human, approachable wine than the lofty, often overrated Grillet. At Grillet I was received by a stiff gentleman who called me the "only chronicler to have criticized Grillet", while Georges Vernay was avuncular, welcoming, patient and a mentor.

For years, literally, I have been meaning to do what I did in November, 2009: take back to the Coteau de Vernon a bottle of the 1976, one of about four remaining from a case I bought from Yapp Brothers in 1977. My first stop was the Vernays, and it all fitted in well, apart from missing the flight out through leaving the driving licence at home.

Christine had prepared a thick, velvety soup called a velouté of topinambour, or Jerusalem artichoke, grown by her father Georges, now in his eighties. The bottle was uncorked after I had tasted through about 10 of their wines, reds and whites, and I - we - were ready to DRINK, and hope, and dream. The cork came out whole - que maravilla! And there we were, within 20 yards of the hill that gave us this treasure, eating Georges` vegetable, drinking the wine he had made, that neither Christine nor Paul had ever drunk before. A sacred moment, indeed.

Here is my impression of the wine, mixed with those of Christine and Paul. Tears were close to hand when the words were being written down:

1976 Coteau de Vernon: ****** gold, apricot, bright robe. The nose at first verges on the amontillado and nuts - but it becomes softer, brings in brioche toast, sultana, and what I always find with mature Viognier, damp wool, as expected. The palate has a rich, sustained run of mature flavour, is a great texture wine, while the finish is as clear as day - aniseed, white fruit. There is a swirl of different prompts and flavours - beeswax, dried fruits, deep-seated richness, oily appeal, and the wine has returned to next to the hill whence it came, 33 years later. It is a big, robust wine, but one delivered with not one false note. "It is young and in full life. At first we set off on a reserved nose, nut and hazelnut, now the nose is firming up. The palate is quite velvety, but there is punch in it - it isn`t at all on the decline. You sense it has had a life, a belle vie . .  a plenitude of sagesse and la race (a full cup of sageness and breeding), and is serious at the same time. Very little goes a very long way," Christine Vernay.

I bought a case of this from Yapp in England when it came out in 1977; it has a wax seal, and the level was only down a little. It has moved house maybe twice, but has always been well cellared. And it GOES TO SHOW THAT THE VIOGNIER CAN AGE, even à la Catherine Deneuve. So there. It is a bigger, richer, more impressive and striking wine than the 1983 Vernon, another of my little favourite chou-chous. It is a wine of great historical significance for me and for the Vernay family, and for the Condrieu appellation, with under 20 hectares of vineyards all told at the time it was made. It is wonderful with Christine Vernay`s Jerusalem artichoke velouté soup, the artichokes grown by her father Georges and cut today, along with the wine he made 33 years ago. How round the world can be at times. "The vivacity is impressive - it is an emotional wine for me . . I link it with my past, " Christine Vernay. "A mythical bottle," Paul Amsellem.  Nov 2009