Route through the Northern Rhône Valley

It would not be a European getaway without an airport under construction, a hot walk across the tarmac and a surprise extra baggage charge from a “low-cost” airliner. And yet our trip down the northern Rhône Valley had to have some beginning, so hot and now over budget it would be.

As most young couples depart for sandy beaches or to sweat the night away dancing in clubs, Miguel dutifully loaded our camera while I printed off PDFs of Rhône crus and we headed to the stifling heat of a landlocked valley. Even the vignerons were mostly out of town as I discovered when trying to book cave visits. We checked into our first Airbnb rental in Condrieu and greeted our hosts, a lovely middle-aged French couple  that seemed more accustomed to having a slightly older, French crowd stay in their flat. “So, how many other Americans and Spanish have you hosted?” I asked inquisitively. She gave a polite pause and eyed her husband to see if he might jog her memory. “One American, maybe, and no, no Spanish.” “That’s right! Normally we go to the beach!” my Spaniard quipped.

With Condrieu at our backs

We spent our first day on a wild goose chase looking for viognier. We found it first in its raw, unfermented form hanging on the vines above Condrieu where the vines enjoy granitic (high acidity) and arzelle (stone fruit-forwardness) soils. The gradient is extremely steep, reaching 60° in some places. We were just 10 km south of the medieval town of Vienne and a 40-minute drive from downtown Lyon. From here we could see the river Rhone winding down toward Valence and on to Arles where it would empty into the Med.

By 8 p.m. the sun was nearly down and we were scrambling to find a place to eat.  We found the only still-open possibility in a bar of questionable business practices. Several men came to greet others sitting on the terrace before passing around the back, returning minutes later and departing. Eyes burned into me as I went inside asking which viognier they had by the glass. She offered something out of box. Miguel, seeking a beer with lemon (beer on tap with a splash of lemon Kas or Fanta or Spanish caña con limón), was handed a bottle of beer, a bottle of Orangina and a glass. Bottoms up!

Miguel's comment: "Why don't they make some new signs?!"

Our first stop the next day was to Domaine Yves Cuilleron in Chavanay, recommended and organized by our Airbnb friends in Condrieu. We were invited to taste by Axel, a fresh-faced graduate who had recently been to Hong Kong and knew the proprietors of Bodegas Resalte in Peñafiel. Though I struggled to make the connection between the two facts because he kept pouring these outstanding incarnations of the viognier and marsanne grapes that were causing me to lose my mind. The 2014 “La Petite Cote” was pale yellow viognier with some yellowing from nine months in oak. Showed notes of light oak, glycerol, very expressive, honeydew melon, and peach.

AOC Saint-Joseph 2014 “Le Lombard” 13% abv was nine months in oak, marsanne 100%, dried white flowers, and waxy with tangy stone fruit (white peach) and bitter almond on the palate. The AOC Saint-Joseph 2014 rousanne “Saint Pierre”  glycerol, thick tears, dried potpourri, not fruit forward, very dry. Crozes-Hermitage is a new cuvee for them this year. It is their first white Crozes. “Les Rousses” is more perfumed than above with more yellow hints and medium acidity.The 2013 “Les Chaillets”  13.5% was a rich yellow with gold glints, an aroma of fresh pineapple with macerated apples, and candied lemon peel palate. The 2011 “Vertige”, from a single plot in Vernon, spent 18 months in oak, and had vegetal aromas layered with fresh stone fruit, paint, turpentine, day lilies, and a complex, rich, and powerful texture with a long finish that included damp straw/hay.

Next we tried the 2014 “Ayguets” Doux 13% abv made from botrytized grapes and smelled of orange peel and honey. Three passes through the vineyard take place. It was same style as a Sauternes but more floral and lots of wet straw. 2012 ripa sinistra from the IGP Collines Rhodaniennes is a local wine that the Romans pulled out ages ago. They are hoping that in 10 years or so they can develop their own AOC. 18 months in oak with notes of blueberry, boysenberry, toast, and kernel with silky tannins though very dry.

Menu. We thought we ordered beef and got fish! Beautiful lunch nonetheless.

For lunch we drove back up the D386 to Bistrot de Serine in Ampuis, the heart of Côte-Rôtie and wilted under the shaded terraces next to Chapoutier and Guigal plots. Here you eat local with the locals but with some worldly combinations like a citrus ceviche of local whitefish. Highly recommended. A fine wine list and by-the-glass selection.

For Condrieu, the 2015 vintage will be hot like 2003, but quantity is low and there is more concentration. In 1970 the Condrieu AOC was close to dying out and had to be built up again. AOC currently has 178 hectares of vineyard planted.

Tomorrow more and better, as they say in Spain. And, we are going to Hermitage to Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné and on to Airbnb adventures in Cornas and Saint-Peray.

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