Mon 16 Sep 2013

A Short Note on Viognier

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Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams reports from Condrieu, the home of this sun-loving grape 

Well I’m in viognier country, the original one, even if the grape itself came from elsewhere. It thrives in the northern Rhône, though it usually needs to be sheltered from the north winds. And it needs sunshine – plenty of it.

Château-Grillet

Château-Grillet

Viognier is a capricious variety to grow and suffers from poor flowering in most vintages. For the moment, not a single berry has been picked from the 2013 vintage. Nothing is quite ripe, the berries are hard still and very green but with each day as the fine weather holds, there is hope.When I say viognier country, I mean of course Condrieu, which only allows for that one grape variety. When I visited for the first time in 1987, it was nothing if not exotic, and the wine was still desperately rare. That has since changed but the expansion meant that Condrieu was often made from very young vines. But now those new plantations are 20 years old and the extra maturity is starting to make a difference. The 2012s are gorgeous, full of fragrant, savoury fruit and nicely balanced. A notch up on the fuller 2011s, I think.Condrieu has seen many fashions. In the old days, it was common for viognier to be picked seriously late. I learned today that the old timers sometimes used to plant another variety, cugnette, the local name for jaquère from Savoy. This always kept high acidity and was picked with the viognier and vinified together. Illegal now, of course, except that today I tasted cugnette for the first time, in its pure state (for family consumption only), and it was delicious.

A peculiarity about Condrieu is that its style is not so well defined so it can be dry or intensely sweet. Viognier is however a low-acid grape, and when picked very late usually loses its shape and can become flabby.

Viognier is planted all over the world nowadays but nowhere does it quite like Condrieu. The combination of the metamorphic rock, poor soils, steep slopes and uncertain yields creates a very special wine here.

Does it keep?
Perceived wisdom says that viognier is not a keeper, but actually that is only partly true. When made from young vines then yes, it needs drinking sooner rather than later, but when it is produced from old vines the wine needs a year in bottle and then can keep up to five years easily and in some cases much longer still. But most of the wine is drunk young and, as a result, Condrieu sells out well within a year. Sound business!

The importance if terroir
These ancient soils are not uniform and as a result they’re differences in taste which are fascinating. It used to be said that the best was in Condrieu itself but of course that is where the oldest vines are, on such famous slopes as the Coteau de Chéry. But further south, the vines are getting older and are full of interest.

There is no classification, though one particularly special slope has its very own appellation, Château-Grillet. It is owned by Château Latour and no expense has been spared on this quite extraordinary wine that reveals its true colours only after several years in bottle.

So when do you drink Condrieu, and what with? It is not a wine for everyday drinking. It is full, very fragrant (peach, apricot, ripe yellow plum), low in acidity and never bone dry, even if analytically it may be so.

I can still remember my first taste of this nectar. It was in Condrieu itself, over lunch with a view of the Rhône and a plate of pan-fried scallops. Heaven.

Condrieu goes well with sweet-flavoured dishes such as scallops, shellfish (but not oysters), certain fish especially in a creamy or even slightly spicy sauce. And, new to me during this visit was a happy match: fresh garden tomatoes, delicately seasoned but also perfectly ripe.

Condrieu is expensive, and expensive to make. Increasingly, growers also make a cheaper wine made partly from younger vines, partly from vines outside of the Condrieu and are well worth looking out for. Moreover as non-appellation vineyards often mean vines facing east rather than south, acidity can be a little higher and the wines, simpler but also more refreshing.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer for the Rhône

Comments

  1. Mike Phillpotts says:

    Very interesting, thanks. Currently in the Gard so must try to visit Condrieu.

  2. John Westbrooke says:

    There is a lady in Cahors, who makes Vin de Table – it cannot be anything else – from a small patch of Viognier. The rest of Ch. Grauzils is malbec, of course, and her husband’s pride and joy.

    Usually, she makes about 120 cases of Viognier. This is sought after, and rationed! She will sell you theo dd bottle, only if you are persuasive enough. It appears on the list at most of the best reataurants in Cahors. It is among the best Viognier I have ever tasted; the peach es predominate on the nose, as soon as the bottle is uncorked. I have tasted four vintages: all are excellent.

    This plot just suits the grape. It faces south-west, about 100m above the river Lot.

    • Marcel Orford-Williams says:

      Delighted to hear about viognier from Cahors. Quite a few others do the same with some good results.

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