Viognier

Viognier People & Places Articles
  • Monday 2 August 2010

Viognier is a grape that came perilously close to extinction. Found only in the northern Rhône, it succumbed to phylloxera and to the difficulty and cost of cultivating the very steep slopes on which it was grown. Growers slowly abandoned their vineyards, and by the late 1960s there were no more than 12 hectares left. Fortunately, a handful of producers, most notably Georges Vernay, spearheaded its revival and replanting. But what makes Viognier unusual is that its re-emergence in Condrieu inspired growers, first in southern France and gradually throughout the world, to plant the variety too. The tiny but prestigious Château Grillet appellation, with its rare and costly wines, also helped to further the grape’s reputation.

Viognier is a grape that came perilously close to extinction. Found only in the northern Rhône, it succumbed to phylloxera and to the difficulty and cost of cultivating the very steep slopes on which it was grown. Growers slowly abandoned their vineyards, and by the late 1960s there were no more than 12 hectares left. Fortunately, a handful of producers, most notably Georges Vernay, spearheaded its revival and replanting. But what makes Viognier unusual is that its re-emergence in Condrieu inspired growers, first in southern France and gradually throughout the world, to plant the variety too. The tiny but prestigious Château Grillet appellation, with its rare and costly wines, also helped to further the grape’s reputation.

It’s not hard to see why Viognier became fashionable. It makes one of the most seductive of all white wines: richly aromatic, with scents and flavours of apricots, peaches, honey, honeysuckle and tropical fruit. It’s exotic and sultry, but it is also difficult to grow and vinify. The grape often flowers when there is still a risk, at least in the northern Rhône, of frost. It is also susceptible to coulure (when grapes fail to develop after flowering), the berries are small and, consequently, yields are low. Twenty years ago yields rarely topped 15hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare) – you could expect three times as much from Chardonnay – although better plant selections now available to growers have increased productivity, when conditions are ideal, to about 35hl/ha.

Reviving the variety in its traditional habitat wasn’t easy. Condrieu lies just south of the famed Côte-Rôtie vineyards (within which Viognier is randomly planted, giving rise to a dubious trend – particularly in Australia – for co-fermented Syrah-Viognier), but the appellation stretches many miles to the south, where it is embedded within the much larger St-Joseph appellation. Within St-Joseph, it’s the best exposed sites on granitic soils that are usually classified as Condrieu.

Rhône sweet home

It’s that granitic soil that gives Condrieu its typicity, and the very best examples do usually show some minerality to varying degrees. The vineyards face south to southeast and are planted on often steep slopes. Farming is far from easy. Moreover, the topsoil is thin and easily washed away. This can be countered by planting green cover crops, but they can be excessive competition for a variety that gives low yields at the best of times. Terracing, usually with stone walls, is the best method of fighting erosion, but these walls are very costly to build and maintain. The combination of scarcity – there are only about 140ha under vine – low yields, and high farming costs means, inevitably, that Condrieu is a high-priced wine.

Forty years ago the small quantity made tended to be sweet. That’s because the tiny crop also concentrated the sugars in the berries, and it was common to have stuck fermentations that gave wines with discernible sweetness. Although such wines can be delicious – and producers like Cuilleron, Vaillard, Gangloff and Gaillard still make them in certain vintages – they’re not the norm. Indeed, for Philippe Guigal, a major producer of Condrieu, they’re an aberration.

Most wines from Condrieu are now fully dry, but because of their high natural sugar content at harvest, they can also be high in alcohol. Great care must be taken to avoid the alcohol distorting the palate. Lush floral fruit followed by a rasping alcoholic burn is not a nice experience. But it is important to pick Viognier at full ripeness, despite the risks. ‘It’s tempting to pick early to conserve acidity,’ says Guigal, ‘but that can be a mistake. If it’s not fully ripe, you can end up with unpleasantly vegetal aromas in the wine.’

Viognier is also very low in acidity. Consequently it can be opulent and sensuous, but it can also be blowsy and heavy if not vinified with great care. ‘Viognier needs oxidation to bring out its minerality,’ says Pierre Gaillard. ‘I find that if you age the wine in tanks, then it reduces and you need to rack it, which in turn exposes it to a lot of oxygen, so that the wine ends up being heavy.’ So, like many other growers, Gaillard prefers to ferment his wines in barrel to bring out the minerality that makes Condrieu quite different from most other expressions of Viognier. Christine Vernay, in contrast, who has taken over from her father Georges, opts to ferment in conical wooden vats, and then ages the wines in varying proportions of new barriques.

Few producers age Condrieu in 100% new oak. The proportion varies from zero for regular bottlings to 25% for top cuvées. The big exception is Guigal, whose top cuvée, Doriane (see box, p60), is fermented and aged entirely in new oak. Guigal vinifies a third of all Condrieu fruit, so it selects the best, most structured wines for Doriane, which absorbs new oak with surprising ease. Doriane also ages well, which is atypical of Condrieu. Most growers maintain the wine is at its best at up to four years old. Julien Barge of Gilles Barge thinks it can age up to 10 years, and the 2001 I tried was still very fresh. Vernay also finds her top single-vineyard Coteau de Vernon (see box, left) keeps surprisingly well, developing honey and gingerbread flavours as it ages. But these ageworthy Condrieus are the exception, usually coming from the best sites planted with the oldest vines.

Condrieu growers, who take immense pride in their vineyards, are not resting on their laurels, but continuing to replant the historic sites. Vernay is doing so, and Guigal, when showing me the four sites from which Doriane is composed, took me to a vineyard beneath the Château de Volan within St-Joseph. ‘In the 19th century,’ says Guigal, ‘this was the most famous vineyard in Condrieu, but like so many others it was abandoned after phylloxera. Alain Paret and I are working together to replant and re-terrace the site.’

No producer makes just Condrieu. Even Vernay does a Côte-Rôtie and St Joseph. Most Côte-Rôtie growers make a little Condrieu, while other producers are dotted across the St-Joseph appellation. This is true of three of the best, Yves Cuilleron, François Villard and André Perret. Even though holdings are small – from 1ha to 4ha at most – such producers often make as many as three cuvées, depending on vine age, the exposition of the vineyards, and the ageing methods. Thus Cuilleron’s La Petite Côte is intended to be drunk young; his more expensive Vertige is capable of ageing and developing for a decade or so. The major négociant houses also produce Condrieu. Guigal’s wines are of the highest quality, but Jaboulet, Vidal-Fleury, Chapoutier and Delas are also excellent sources.

The homesick grape

Since Viognier is so fickle in its French homeland, you can imagine how ill at ease it becomes in such remote areas as Stellenbosch, Eden Valley or Casablanca. Winemakers the world over were seduced by its exoticism – in such stark contrast to the easygoing adaptability of Chardonnay or stridency of Sauvignon Blanc. Few knew how to pronounce Viognier (Wine Spectator provided a pronunciation guide each time the grape was mentioned), but that was nothing compared to the difficulty of making it. Even in Condrieu it lurches, depending on the grower, vineyard and vintage, from the sublime to the pedestrian. In Napa or Mendoza, nobody had a clue. Ten years ago I tasted Viogniers from Mendocino. The producer was renowned, the winemaker highly competent, and the wine was a disaster: well over 16% alcohol even after the oenological liposuction.

There were, and are, good Viogniers being made all over the world, but most miss the mark. They can either lack varietal character or have too much of it. They can be frumpish at one extreme or pinched at the other. If many US wine lovers have turned their backs on Viognier, I can understand why.

And yet when it’s good, Viognier is irresistible. Having tasted versions from all over the world, I find it impossible to say which are the best regions to grow it. There are too many variables. It’s a triumph of terroir and of the Darwinian varietal natural selection that gallops alongside the concept, that Viognier performs best in Condrieu on granitic soils. Those conditions are impossible to replicate elsewhere, so growers must plant on instinct, avoiding evidently unsuitable conditions, and hope for the best.

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