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02.24.2010

2005 Chateau-Grillet Vin Blanc, Rhone Valley, France

05_ch_grillet.jpgWith just a quick glance at the bottle, you might think to yourself, "Oh, it's just some random little white wine from somewhere in France." After all, it's just a Vin Blanc with some unfamiliar name on it.

But look a little closer, and you might start to get the idea that this isn't just any wine. For starters, the bottle is somewhat unusual, resembling something you might see in Germany or Austria. Indeed, it would be easy to mistake this wine as coming from the Alsace region of France for that reason.

A slightly more studied glance at the label will reveal, however, that this wine hails not from Alsace, but from... Chateau-Grillet, which happens to be the name of both the winery, and the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée), or appellation, where the wine is made.

This place, the winery that provides its name, and the wine produced there are part of one of the more unique stories in French wine. Just ask Thomas Jefferson, who played hooky from his diplomatic duties while in France in order to make a detour to the winery and it's 9 acres of vineyards and the little white wine that even then was regarded as one of the best in the world.

Just a few kilometers south of the village of Condrieu in the Northern Rhone valley lies the hamlet of Verin, backed up against some granite hills that have been worried at for millennia by the nearby Rhone river. Carved out of those hills, in steeply terraced rows, sits a small amphitheater of grape vines. People have been growing grapes in this spot as far back as Roman times. Presumably someone knows exactly when, but at some point someone figured out that the friable, sandy granitic soil was perfect for growing Viognier, the primary white grape of Condrieu, the wine region within which Chateau-Grillet sits.

Surrounded by the vineyards of Condrieu, Chateau-Grillet is its own separate appellation, and at 3.5 hectares, one of France's smallest, and also one of the few that are farmed and owned by a single producer. Since the time that Jefferson visited in the late 18th Century, Chateau-Grillet has been owned by a single family whose modern day descendants, the Neyret-Gachet family, currently display their name on the label.

Chateau-Grillet is both Condrieu and it is not. Like the larger region in which it sits, the wine is made with 100% Viognier grapes, but both the qualities of the wine, as well as its making are different than its neighbors.

To start with, the estate has some pretty old vines, averaging about 40-years-old across the vineyard, some of which have been bearing fruit since before the Chateau-Grillet appellation was officially sanctioned in 1936. Like the rest of Condrieu, but perhaps even more thanks to vine age and very nutrient-poor soils, Chateau-Grillet's yields are miniscule.

Needless to say, the fruit is harvested painstakingly by hand, and carefully destemmed and crushed. From there it is fermented and then aged in old oak casks for well over a year before being bottled. This cask aging is a significant departure from the relatively insignificant aging that most Condrieu gets, and is no doubt partially responsible for the character difference between Chateau-Grillet and those wines. Chateau-Grillet does not have the explosive intense aromatics of Condrieu, nor quite the intense honeyed fruit flavors. More reserved in character, Chateau-Grillet also tends to be longer lived than its neighbors.

Only roughly 2000 cases of wine are produced each year, to a demand that far outstrips the estate's supply. It is one of those wines slavishly cherished by those who love the white wines of the Rhone, though thankfully with less fanfare and cash than the red wines of the region. Consequently it is not impossible to find, nor prohibitively expensive to buy, considering it is one of the wine world's treasures.

Tasting Notes:
Pal gold in the glass, this wine has an electrifying smell of lemon... cocaine. Something ethereal and intense and distinctly lemony, but not exactly of this world, so to speak. On the palate the wine has a gorgeous, silky, texture and the viscous weight that often accompanies Viognier. The magic of this wine comes from its fantastic balance between a creamy lemon curd and lemongrass-scented richness and a bright crystalline acidity that hang in a taut balance that resonates through a long finish. The barest hint of peachiness peeks through this citrus matrix as a reminder that this is indeed Viognier. This interplay between fruit and mineral, lushness and crispness simply just makes you want to drink more, and more, and more. Which I highly recommend you do.

Food Pairing:
This wine will match an incredible array of foods, from shellfish to starch to salads. I drank this recently with cold antipasti plates and found it a stunning match with grilled octopus salad.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $85

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

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