The status of the Condrieu AOC denomination – controlled by origin – was granted in 1940. At that time, the vineyard area of this appellation was about 170 hectares. And it is the Condrieu, with its majestic stone terraces on the steep mountain slopes, that is the birthplace of Viogner, Rhone’s unique “fragrant wealth”.
But the victorious procession of Viognier could have ended without beginning, if not for Georges Vernay (Georges Vernay, 1926), through whose efforts this popular and beloved grape variety found its second birth. Today the domain is run by his daughter Christine Vernet, together with her husband Paul Amsellem. When in 1986, being a simple musician, Paul married Christine, he could not imagine how his life would change.
It was with Paul that we talked about Condrieu, about the Georges Vernay house and, of course, about wine.
– The Georges Vernay farm boasts a very interesting and rich history. You are famous as a family that literally saved the appellation. Is it really so? Tell us what exactly happened?
– Yes it’s true. My wife’s father Georges Vernet really saved Condrieu. The fact is that during the period of active industrialization of the region, local residents were offered a higher-paying job, which did not require such a huge physical activity as caring for vineyards. Many winemakers abandoned their farms, leaving only 6 hectares of Viognier in the world in the 1950s. Georges Vernet was one of the few who remained faithful to this variety. That is why Robert Parker called him “Mr. Viognier”. Georges Vernet cleared the slopes of the mountain from oaks and acacias, erected stone terraces there with his own hands and planted his first vineyards on them, urging his fellow countrymen to follow his example.
Over the thirty years of Georges Vernay tenure as chairman of the Condrieu winemaking association, the popularity and recognition of Viognier in the world have grown significantly. He was able to convince his colleagues in the shop that the region is worth fighting for!
For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that the founder of the Vernay estate was the father of Georges Franz, who in the 30s of the last century, living in the foothills of Condrieu’s Coteau du Vernon, planted his first hectare of vineyards on the southern slope of the mountain. He liked the quality of the resulting wine, and he began to bottle it and supply it to local restaurants. It must be said that Condrieu wines were mostly sweet back then, as many producers could not afford the luxury of a long fermentation process before bottling and selling.
– What makes the Condrieu appellation so special?
– As you know, Condrieu is a very small appellation: only some 200 hectares. What makes it unique is the soil, thanks to which we produce wines of this high quality. Of course, Viognier is now very popular in other wine-producing countries as well. Thanks to his flamboyant personality, he has won many fans around the world. But I am sure that the taste of Сondrieu cannot be repeated! Very often in other countries Viognier becomes heavy, rude, lacking freshness, elegance and nobility.
– I know that Condrieu is not the only place where you grow grapes and make wines. Could you tell us about your other vineyards as well?
– Yes, we produce Viognier IGP at one of the sites, which is located at an altitude of about 300 meters. But these wines cannot bear the name Condrieu, since the vineyards are not on the slopes, but on a flat surface.
We also have vineyards in Côte-Rôtie and St. Joseph, where we make wines from Syrah. For Christine, this variety is a kind of mystery that she seeks to solve. Today the volume of red and white wines that we produce is about the same, but, you see, Syrah and Viognier are two completely different worlds, each with its own secrets, rules and surprises. When Christine took over the domain, she completely changed the style of the estate’s red wines.
– In many of her interviews, Christine talks about the importance of family, family origins, traditions …
– It was a very difficult task for Christine to take the helm of the family company. It is a complex business that requires total dedication and tremendous effort. Of course, some of Christine’s things were already familiar from childhood, when she helped her father and watched many processes in the household. But she never planned to do wine. She received her master’s degree in art history and lived for ten years in Paris, where we met her.
When, in 1996, her father Georges Vernet, yielding to his wife’s persuasion, decided to retire, he offered to head the family business to his two sons. The sons refused, and the question of a successor became quite acute. Christine did not hesitate for a second – the decision to return came instantly and for her was the only possible one in this situation. I supported my wife, I understood very well how important this return to family roots was for her. We left Paris, where I was born and raised, and with two young children we moved here to Condrieu. For our family, this move meant a huge change, but I want to tell you that we did not regret it for a second! We were young and took it as an exciting adventure. Although Christine herself sometimes jokes that the second time she will never decide on such adventures.
I took over the entire commercial side of the enterprise and absolutely do not interfere with the technical nuances of winemaking. I fully trust Christine’s skill and talent without interfering with her creative and professional realization. Even her father tries not to influence Christine in the process of making any decisions, realizing that there can be only one owner at the winery. My wife has great respect for her father’s heritage, admires the wines he created, and she tried to carry out all the changes that took place at the winery since her arrival in a very tactful and competent manner, improving the process of work in the vineyard and in the cellars, creating ideal conditions for creativity. … For example, we are now gradually switching to biological cultivation of grapes, which requires a lot of attention and efforts of our entire team, attention to the vine and to all biological processes.
We also increased our vineyard area from 16 to 20 hectares and reoriented to AOC wines.
Christine’s credo, which we always try to follow: “Respect the terroir! Give him the opportunity to fully express himself. Terroir is the most important thing! ”
– What do you think is more important: the vineyard or the skill of winemakers?
– For a long time, especially until I faced this myself, Christine was sure that the final result entirely depends on the work of specialists. And only now she realized how important the vineyard itself is, because the better and higher quality the berries themselves, the more chances we have to create amazing wine.
About 10 years ago, Christine began replanting the Coteau de Vernon with its stunning terraces surrounded by picturesque oak and acacia trees. It is an extraordinary and amazing feeling to see the Condrieu reborn. In 1930, her grandfather planted his first hectare there, her father continued planting in 1960, and now Christine herself is contributing to the legacy for future generations.
– Christine is the third generation of the Vernet family. What do you think, will there be a fourth, a fifth?
– We hope so. While our eldest son Hugo is following in my footsteps, he is interested in music and absolutely not interested in the wine business. And our daughter Emma is too young to run the family business. She is only 26 years old, now she is actively helping us with the solution of various marketing issues. If she makes such a decision in the future, we will, of course, support her.
– How many employees do you have?
“As I said before, we are on our way to becoming a biological farm. This means that we do not use any chemicals in weed or pest control. A lot of things have to be done manually, which, of course, requires more employees in the company. But we are absolutely sure that our respect for the land is more important than additional material costs. It is thanks to the respect for the wealth that is in our hands that we create our famous wines with the character of Verne!
– What is the most difficult part of your job?
– Since our vineyards are located on slopes, on terraces specially built for this purpose, we cannot use any technique. Everything has to be done almost by hand, which is very difficult.
– What is your favorite wine from your own farm? And who would you like to mention from other manufacturers?
– Of the whites, this is, of course, Coteau du Vernon. As you probably know, this is the flagship of our appellation. The red ones are Maison Rouge, which is made from grapes from our oldest vines.
We also adore Burgundy. Especially Côte de Nuits.
– What is your most important requirement for wine?
– We believe that the most important thing for wine is the freshness of its taste. I’m not talking about whether it was served chilled enough to you, the level of acidity or the velvety texture. Fresh means perfect balance! In such a wine you will absolutely not feel alcohol and after the first glass you will definitely want to drink it again and again. This is what Christine and I are looking for in wines, in our Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu. After all, the place of wine on the table is along with food. That is why the freshness of wine is the characteristic that we always put first.
– You are big fans of jazz and classical music and even organize various musical events. How does it work?
– Yes this is true. Every two years, right here in the foothills of the Coteau du Vernon, we organize various music festivals with the participation of many popular performers in France. Classical music and wine tastings! For me, as a musician, these events are of particular importance.
– What would you like to say to wine lovers in Latvia?
– I haven’t been there yet, but I’ve heard that Latvia is a very beautiful country. Someday we will definitely come to visit you. And I really hope that people in Latvia will fall in love with our wonderful wines!