On the Trail

Condrieu's Labor of Love

Keith Mabry

When I got out of my car and walked towards this vineyard, I looked out over this breathtaking landscape and said to myself, “I know we are going to buy this wine.” I hadn’t even tasted any of the wines yet, but I knew something special was going on here and I had a strong feeling what was inside the bottle would match the beauty I saw in front of me.

Alright, let’s back up a minute. In the spring of this year, I visited many of our existing direct import producers in the Rhone Valley, while meeting a few new ones along the way. One such new producer is Domaine Clos de la Bonnette in the appellation of Condrieu. Condrieu is located just to the south of Cote-Rotie in the northern part of the Rhone Valley. It is a particularly small region that solely produces Viognier; but not just any viognier. Simply put, these are the best viogniers in the world and Condrieu is the benchmark by which all other viognier is measured.  Located on the west side of the Rhone River, most of the appellation’s 160+ hectares are grown on the steep granite hillsides for which much of the northern Rhone has become famous. The hillsides are terraced meaning the earth is held back by stacked stone walls, many of which were built when the Romans then occupied the region. Many of these original walls still exist today.  

The Domaine of Clos de la Bonnette was purchased in 1992 by wife and husband team, Isabelle Guiller and Henri Montabonnet. Isabelle had her eye on this abandoned vineyard site for many years before they moved forward; the main reason being the site had remained unoccupied because the hillsides were in complete disarray, as many of the stone retaining walls had collapsed over the decades due to neglect. Restoring this property could only be done as a labor of love, not a commercial venture. Henri did most of the restoration himself, rebuilding the walls by hand.  This work is usually handled by specialists but Henri is quite the tinkerer and taught himself how to do it.  While he worked on rebuilding the walls, Isabelle took on the task of cultivating the indigenous flora around the property making it more biodiverse. After years of restoration, they were finally replanted in 1999. Because of the location of the vineyard, Henri and Isabelle have no direct contact with their neighbors. They are surrounded by a forest, a creek, and another hillside of ruins. This natural barrier allows them to more easily produce organically, a process by which they have farmed since they began replanting.  It took another decade but they finally now have 1.5 hectares under vine—just over three acres and definitely not a commercial venture. In Condrieu, there are only a few organically certified vineyards in the whole of the appellation and Clos de la Bonnette is the only estate to produce all of their vineyards organically. The quality of the fruit is so high that Marcel Guigal wanted to purchase their fruit and put them under contract.  Thankfully, they politely declined. 

Isabelle toured with me through the vineyards where she showed me the restored walls, as well as an ancient ruin of what used to be a stone house. To do any kind of restoration of this structure would require some visits from a whole different department of the local conservancy.  She decided to quit while she was ahead in this case. It was early spring so wild flowers were plentiful, the leaves on the vines were just beginning to show, the insects were buzzing about, and the light bubbling of the creek down in the canyon whispered through the air.  Henri showed me one of his favorite inventions—a modified tiller which allows them to turn the earth more easily in the confining spaces of the terraces.  Another note on organics in the northern Rhone:  I was speaking to another producer who works organically and one of the biggest challenges he cited is plowing the vineyards.  This alone leads many producers to use chemicals to deal with what is known as the “grass problem.” Grass competes for water during certain key parts of the year and to hand plow these stony vineyards is too impractical for many producers so they rely on scientific solutions.  

After our tour we sat down to taste and started with the two Condrieus they produce. Both were 2014s put in bottle in the fall of 2015.  The 2014 “Les Roches d’Arbuel” is the core wine for the estate.  Its elevage is mostly stainless with about a third of production aged in barrel.  he wine showed gorgeous white flower, honeysuckle, peach and nectarine notes.  A light dusting of minerality and a fine thread of acidity and just a touch of the barrel for spice.  The 2014 “Legende Bonnetta” is the more limited production which had a richer texture, a fuller body as well as long finish.  When Condrieu often gets this full, it sometimes picks up too much alcohol and astringency along the way. Not here.  This wine was supple all the way through. We did a little tank sample of the 2015 base cuvee and it showed everything I had hoped for, the fresh stone fruit and glycerine. When I saw that they made a red as well, I asked if we could taste.  Isabelle explained that they were sold out of the 2014 because they have even smaller yields from this vineyard.  We tasted anyways and I was floored. The syrah comes from a plot of 40 year old vines that has Cote-Rotie soil but not the right exposition, so it sits just outside the appellation.  Needless to say, I asked if we could be first in line for the 2015.  

We bought the 2014s, which are now on the shelves, and I committed to the 2015s, which will arrive early next year.  Keep your eyes open, get on the waiting list, or send me a reminder email, but don’t miss these wines. My visit in the vineyards was all too short but I left knowing that I had met wonderful people who have the drive and desire to produce something truly special and to leave a legacy that will be remembered until the next Henri has to rebuild those stone walls.  

-Keith Mabry