The SOMM Journal
planet grape by Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis
THE ANCIENT GRAPE IS AT ITS BEST IN CONDRIEU AND SOUTH WEST FRANCE
Viognier (vee oh nyay) was grown in the Northern Rhone during the Roman Empire. When the Romans were forced out of Gaul in the 5th Century, the vines remained uncultivated until the 9th Century, when they were revived by locals. The varietal spread to neighboring Château Grillet, and from there to the papal palace at Avignon in the 14th Century. It is the only grape allowed in the Condrieu and Château-Grillet appellations, and is planted in Languedoc and South West France, where the varietal is often named on the front label.
The soils of the Northern Rhône have a light sandy topsoil over granite which is ideal for the varietal. 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. The highest quality fruit is paired with French oak for added depth and richness, though the oak taste and tannins are not part of the final result. Michel Chapoutier explained to me that they use casks for fermentation and aging but if you can taste the oak they have failed.
In its best expression, the wine is as fat and silky on the mid-palate 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.
I recently poured the 2013 Yves Cuilleron La Petite Cote Condrieu AOP Rhone Valley France 13.5% $50, and found it to be classic Viognier with its silk and vibrancy, though in this vintage framed by more pith and tartness than usual along with notes of clementine, apricot, ginger and saffron. Importer: Rosenthal. At Planet Grape Wine Review we were very impressed with the 2014 Chateau Lagrezette Le Pigeonnier White Vision Cotes du Lot IGP South West France 14.5%, $90, finding it full, silky, layered and complex with notes of apple, pear, peach, dried pineapple, white rose, chalk and sea spray. It was very vibrant and like sunshine is a glass. Importer: The Other Wine & Spirits. At about 1/3 the price, try the 2014 Chateau Lagrezette Mas de Merveilles Viognier Rocamadour Cotes du Lot IGP South West France, 14%, $35, which is dry, pithy, elegant and soft with notes of peach pit, apricot, rose petal, white sand, talc and lemon zest on the finish. Importer: The Other Wine & Spirits.
Varietal Snapshot * Viognier
Medium Plus Body/Silky * Medium Minus Acidity * Dry or Sweet
Aromas/Flavors Apricot * Peach * Mango *Acacia * Honey * Minerality
Drink “on the fruit” up to 3-4 years