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Waking the Ghost of Condrieu

Frédéric Engerer and his team are fulfilling Château-Grillet's incredible potential
Photo by: James Molesworth
The terraced vineyards of Château-Grillet flutter like ribbons above the town of Vérin.

Posted: Nov 21, 2014 3:00pm ET

I was admittedly more than curious to see the effects of regime change at Château-Grillet. The sleeping ghost wine of the Rhône had been purchased by the Artemis group (which owns Bordeaux first-growth Château Latour) in 2011 and the new team, led by the intense Frédéric Engerer and property manager Alessandro Noli, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

I last visited here in July 2012, the new team's first full vintage, as they had taken over half-way through 2011. They had already made drastic changes in the pruning, cutting the cane back from six eyes to three to get more concentration. Since then they've extended back out to four eyes for better balance. They've also changed the plowing at the suggestion of Jean-Louis Chave, using a winch to plow vertically up and down the slope in addition to the previous method of working horizontally along the narrow terraces.

"The winch goes deeper than you can go by hand," said Engerer. "And that really cut a lot of the surface roots. It was a bit of a shock to the vines, and the yields really crashed in '12 and '13. But in '14 we see the vineyard is coming back to life."

I'm not surprised at the progress I'm seeing, in both in the vineyard and the wines. I am surprised at how fast it's coming along. The 2012 is easily the best Château-Grillet I've ever tasted. There have been some good vintages in the past, but none captured the magic of the vineyard, a stunning parcel of 8.6 acres of south/southeast-facing terraces that ribbon dramatically above the hamlet of Vérin, sitting amidst the Condrieu appellation.

It will take some time for the changes to be seen by consumers, however—that drop in yields is precipitous, with just 300 cases made of the 2012, then 100 cases of the '13 before bouncing back with 200 cases in 2014.

"The new ploughing, the short pruning and the coulure in '13 had quite an impact," said Engerer, though he seems relatively non-plussed about it. "But some of these changes just had to be made to get the quality we wanted."

In addition, with the vineyard now being broken down into small parcels, several have been left out of the grand vin, going into a new Côtes du Rhône bottling, part of the dramatically increased emphasis on detail at the estate. There are multiple pressings instead of just one, based on the new, smaller parcels, with vinification now done under temperature control. There's only one new barrel purchased every year, so the wine sees almost no new oak, while also spending less time in oak—just one year—before moving back to tank to settle slowly and naturally before the bottling. And the majority of the barrels are 300 liters, rather than the typical 228-liter Burgundy barrique (for even less oak influence).

"With Viognier you have higher alcohol and higher pH naturally, so we don't want to leave the wine in oak too long," said Engerer. "One year is enough to bring the complexity, but then in tank it stabilizes as long as possible to give it that bit of tension and purity that it needs."

Both 2013s still sit in tank, awaiting bottling. The 2013 Côtes du Rhône White Poncin has expressive honeysuckle and white peach aromas and flavors, a rounded core, but with a good twinge of fresh apple peel that gives the finish nice cut. The 2013 Château-Grillet is extremely expressive, with lovely verbena, tarragon and chamomile notes leading the way for a core of white peach and white ginger. A racy apple peel note runs along the edges, while a streak of quinine adds an extra dimension to the very focused finish. It's more precise and a touch longer than the 2012.

The 2014 Côtes du Rhône White Poncin (sitting in barrel) is already quite flattering, with pear and green fig flavors lined with verbena and kafir lime notes. For the 2014 Château-Grillet we tasted through the various parcels, still in barrel. From the top of the terrace, the last to ripen, flavors of green fig and green plum are still crunchy and energetic (the '14 has not yet started its malo). From the middle terrace but at the southern end of the property, there's more orchard fruit—apple and peach—lined with a hint of orange zest. From the middle of the property, what Engerer and Noli call the heart of the vineyard for its quality as well as location, the wine pulls everything together, with lithe, elegant orchard fruit flavors and an exhilarating ginger, quinine and chamomile finish.

It would seem the sleeping ghost wine of the Rhône has been woken up.

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