Tuesday, December 16, 2014


The precise historical origin of this varietal is unknown, but many believe it dates back to the Roman Empire. According to one story, Emperor Probus imported Viognier into Condrieu from Dalmatia (in present-day Croatia) in 281 AD as a means of replacing the vineyards destroyed by Emperor Vespasian. Legend has it that Vespasian tore up the Condrieu vineyards after the locals revolted, a revolt which he attributed to drinking too much of the native wine. Historical records confirm that Viognier was grown here during the Roman Empire. When the Romans were forced out of Gaul in the 5th Century, the vines remained uncultivated for centuries but were revived by locals in the 9th Century. The varietal spread to neighboring Château Grillet, and from there to the papal palace at Avignon in the 14th Century.

Viognier is the only grape used for the Northern Rhône appellations Condrieu and Château-Grillet, one of France's smallest appellation contrôlée, with less than ten acres and only one owner. Cote Rotie producers have the option of adding a bit of Viognier to their Syrah, though most don’t. The soils of the Northern Rhône have a light sandy topsoil over granite which is ideal for the varietal. The vines producing the best wines are over 20 years old (the Northern Rhône has vines of 70 years or older).

Like Roussanne, Viognier produces a small crop and provides many challenges along the way. It is prone to powdery mildew in damp conditions or humid climates. It produces notoriously low and unpredictable yields, and needs to be picked when fully ripe. The grape develops high sugar quickly, which translates to wines with high alcohol, but if they are not physiologically ripe the wine will not show its characteristic floral, apricot and acacia aromas and honeyed characteristics.

In its best expression, the wine is as fat and silky on the midpalate as Grand Cru Burgundy, and shares the same minerality. The difference is the delicate floral aromas and ripe apricot flavors rather than classic white Burgundy's creme brulee and butterscotch. There is nothing quite like the decadent enjoyment of a floral, exotic, honeyed Condrieu with a handful of ripe apricots.

Viognier is planted in Australia, Brazil, and in the USA - Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and California. California Viogniers, such as those made by Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Josh Jensen's Calera Wine Co. in San Benito County near Monterey, are much richer, concentrated, intense and fruitier than French versions, with more emphasis on mango and peach and less on minerality.

Viognier: floral, apricot, acacia, honey, tropical, mango, peach, low acid, dry to sweet.

Viognier: Rhone Valley, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa Valley, Sierra Foothills, Central Valley, Central Coast, Santa Barbara.

Chateau Grillet, Rhône Valley (France)
Yves Cuilleron Condrieu Les Chaillets Vieilles Vignes, Rhône Valley (France)
Francois Villard Condrieu, 'Le Grand Vallon, Rhône Valley (France)
Guigal Condrieu, Rhône Valley (France)
Yves Gangloff Condrieu Late Harvest, Rhône Valley (France)
Calera Mt. Harlan Viognier, Central Coast, California (USA)
Joseph Phelps Viognier, Napa Valley, California (USA)

Best Value
Domaine de Coudoulet Viognier, Vin de Pays d’Oc (France)
Renaissance Winery Viognier, North Yuba, California (USA)
Capay Valley Vineyards, Yolo County, California (USA)
Martine's Viognier, Madera, California (USA)

© Copyright 2014 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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