Everything about Château-Grillet is remarkable. It is the smallest appellation of the Rhône Valley, covering just a few acres, whose grapes (all viognier) are made into just one wine by a single property. The surrounding land forms the Condrieu appellation: the same grape and more or less the same soils, and yet Grillet is markedly different. Where many Condrieu wines seem exuberant, Château-Grillet is discreet, even demure. It does not even obey the general rule which says that viognier is best drunk young. Indeed, the wine only really starts revealing its potential after a few years.
The estate has now been acquired by François Pinault of Bordeaux first growth Château Latour. Pinault is the latest in a very long line of owners of this vineyard, probably first planted during the 3rd century.
There were periods of neglect, but fortunes changed during the 17th century when, thanks to the navigable Loire, the wines could be shipped to Paris where they soon gained a huge reputation for quality. Admirers would range from Blaise Pascal, Thomas Jefferson and King George IV. Such was its standing that Château-Grillet was granted its very own appellation in 1936. It is one of the most beautiful vineyards in France and at less than 4ha, not the largest! It sits on a perfect amphitheatre-shaped slope, often very steep and laid on over 70 terraces, which are locally called ‘chaillées’, held up by meticulously laid dry stone walls.
The exposure is fully south facing which also protects the vines from the prevailing north winds. The name Grillet quite likely alludes to ‘grilled’ or ‘roasted’, as in Côte-Rôtie. The viognier planted here may have originated in Dalmatia, but has made this part of the Rhône Valley its number one home. The soils are complex, mostly of decomposed granite with mica deposits, some clay and sometimes a fine deposit of loess. Part of the magic of Grillet is that even in such a small vineyard area, there are nuances of soil, exposition and climate.
The new owners were quick to realise that a full analysis of the site was needed if Grillet was to reach its full potential which it had already began to do under the previous owner. Grapes are harvested site by site and vinified separately in brand new small stainless-steel tanks. It is only just before the fermentation finishes that the wines are transferred to oak barrels. Another departure from previous times is that there is now very little new wood used. Most barrels are brought second hand from Latour's estate in Burgundy or from Jean-Louis Chave who has been acting as consultant on matters of viticulture.