Viognier: From Condrieu to California

Jun 8, 2010

The humid weather has passed by in Niagara. There were a few days last week where it felt like I was stepping outside into a pre-heated oven. 

Thankfully, today the air is cool, the skies are mainly blue with patches of clouds but chances are, the humidity has just gone to sleep for awhile. Like the creature in the horror film and Arnold in his Terminator role, it  will most likely 'be back'.

Strangely, I found myself drinking a lot of full-bodied red wines on those hot, sickly sticky days (I know, I know...). Now it's a bit cooler and I'm in the mood for a chilled white. (Go figure...)

Having worked in wine retail over the past few years, there are two main white grapes with names that are continuously mispronounced. Gewürztraminer being the first and Viognier the second (Riesling, a sometimes minor third). 

I've often heard 'gewoorz-trainer' or 'gewuzz-tra-miner' and 'vagner' or 'veeyog-near'. It's understandable. For those first stepping into the vast universe that is wine, the European varieties can make you scratch your head and pray your pronunciation is the closest. 

First things first, vee-YON-yay. Viognier. Pretty easy. (And of course - ge-VERZ-tra-meaner.)

The Viognier variety is grown in the Rhône Valley, with its famous home in Condrieu, a white-only AOC amongst a river landscape of Syrah soaked slopes.

According to Roger Scruton in his fresh, philosophical wine treatise, I Drink Therefore I Am (tipping his hat  towards Monty Pythone), Viognier was imported to the site from Dalmatia (modern day Croatia) in 281.  Emperor Vespasian had first torn out the Rhône vineyards after a local rebellion. Emperor Probus subsequently saw things differently and believed that if good wine could be produced, there would be no need for the people to rebel. The Viognier grape would keep everyone cool, calm and happy (and hopefully intoxicated).

Unfortunately, over the years, vinegrowers have learned it is a difficult variety to manage and keep happy. Viognier is prone to disease, especially powdery mildew and apparently buds before early spring frosts. In 1965, there were only 8 hectares of Viognier grown in Condrieu.

Things have picked up. In the 1980s nurserymen saw an increase in demand for cuttings.  In the south of the France, especially the Languedoc region, Viognier takes up about 1,540 hectares. Today, Condrieu has about 98 hectares (242 acres) with plantings showing up just outside the designated  Rhône AOC  at 2,360 ha.

Typically, whites that garner a high price tag can be aged. Think of Riesling from the Mosel-Saar-Ruher and the Chardonnay-based Burgundies of the Côte de Beaune. 

Not so with Condrieu. The Viognier-based wines are expensive and high in-demand but are meant to be consumed as soon as the new vintage is available. Viognier doesn't go the distance the way Chardonnay or Riesling can.

Within the AOC is France's smallest wine appellations, Château Grillet. The vines here are grown on dangerous steep slopes; the best grapes sourced from low-yielding old vines. The wines are aged in oak barrel for 24 months. Despite all the effort, the region produces little over 10,000 bottles a year.

North of Condrieu lies the Côte-Rôtie ('Roasted Slope'), the most northern AOC of the Rhône Valley. Only red wines are produced. The Syrahs, however, can be blended with up to 20% Viognier, the white variety adding body, elegance and delicate spice to the burly reds. 

Beyond the northern Rhône, Viognier blends well with Roussane, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Rolle in the southern stretch of the Valley.

In the New World, the Aussies have looked to the French for inspiration blending their Shiraz with Viognier in such regions as McLaren Vale and the Barossa.

In California, Viognier's volume is turned up and the stone fruit and flower we find so soft and delicate in France becomes plumper on the palate - the wines are also juicier with ripe apricots, sun-soaked peaches and fat melons. Cline puts out a big pineapple-punchy Viognier while Calera's offering has honeyed notes of honesuckle and white flower - a little more Old World in style. (Also check out Treana's Central Coast White, a blend of Viognier and Marsanne from their Mer Soleil Vineyard.)

Of all the states, Virginia is fast becoming synonymous with world class Viognier. Horton Vineyards of Orange County is leading the pack of up-and-coming wineries. The state first saw vineyards planted in the early 1600s but many succumbed to the numerous pests and diseases of the United States. Today Viognier, amongst Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng and Touriga Nacional are giving the Eastern state a chance to shine.

Both Condrieu and California Viognier can be quite pricey. If you're looking for some cheap and fun cool alternatives to the modern classics, check out Cono Sur's Viognier at $9.95. Baron-Rothschild's Introductory line Viognier is also easy on the wallet at $10.95.

Today at the LCBO I picked up the Domaine de Vedilhan 2008 Viognier from the Vin de Pays D'Oc (on sale at $10.40). The estate is close to Narbonne in the Languedoc where the grape has risen in popularity.

This is signature Viognier with apricot, peach and white flowers with a hint of pear and cucumber. Ideal as an apéritif, something to sip while you're making dinner. Some critics say the variety is hard to pair with food but I think Viognier is perfect with an Hawaiian pizza generously topped with golden pineapples.  

For additional fun, pair the wine with fish and chips and a long summer sunset.  

Lukacs, Paul, The Great Wines of America. W&W Norton Company, New York, 2005.
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001
 Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2003.
Scruton, Roger, I Drink Therefore I Am. Continuum International, New York, 2009.



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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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