Tue 21 Jan 2014

Viognier: A Grape Back From The Brink

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The 2012 vintage has been fantastic for white Rhône wines and though quantities are small, we are delighted to be offering a selection in our opening offer from the region.

It is incredible to think that viognier, today a rather trendy white grape variety found in vineyards across the winemaking world, was on the verge of extinction less than 50 years ago.

Viognier

Viognier

In the 1960s total plantings barely covered ten hectares and all of these were on the steep-sided terraced vineyards of Condrieu and Château-Grillet in the northern Rhône. The vertiginous slopes are difficult to farm and the viognier vines were old and diseased. Prone to coulure, they were producing pitifully low yields making the wines expensive to produce and had no real market to support them.

That this remarkable grape has survived and gone on to be a variety of global significance is down to the persistence of two northern Rhône growers, E. Guigal and Georges Vernay. Widely regarded as pioneers in the resurrection of the Condrieu appellation, they both saw the beauty and potential of this grape and made it their business to improve the health of the vines, by selecting and propagating those in best shape.

It wasn’t just for its ability to produce exotically perfumed peachy whites that they persevered with the grape. Guigal in particular was passionate about adding in the permitted small amounts of viognier to his syrah to add bloom and fragrance to his Côte-Rôtie wines.

Viognier growing in Guigal's Condrieu vineyards

Viognier growing in Guigal’s Condrieu vineyards

Meanwhile the improvements that Guigal and Vernay brought about in their Condrieu helped bring the grape to a wider audience. Condrieu became highly sought after and the grape the trendy new white grape of the early eighties.

Becoming fashionable isn’t always a great thing, but for viognier it has helped to preserve the grape for future generations as growers throughout the world sought to introduce it to their regions improving the quality of the vine stock as they did so. And while nowhere quite matches the complexity of viognier from Condrieu, there are some great-pretenders from the Cape to California and all (warm) growing regions in between.

If you’d like to find out more about the different styles of Condrieu, read buyer Marcel Orford-William’s post from his visit to the region last year.

You can also read our profile of viognier in our Guide to Grapes in Wine World & News.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Categories : France, Rhône

Comments

  1. Derek Fancett says:

    I think a third name should be added to the two growers mentioned above, and that is Hugh Johnson. In his book ‘The Wine Companion’ (1983) he had an extensive footnote on Condrieu:
    ” . . . To me Condrieu is unquestionably worth it. Its scent and flavour have no parallel. Some critics evoke May blossom. I am left groping, . . . .It begins with flowers, hints of spices and lingers for minutes as perfume in your throat. It is breathtaking en primeur – before it has even finished fermenting . . . .A 100-franc bottle of vin de table in a restaurant in Condrieu in November was still half sweet, faintly petillant and one of the loveliest things that I have ever swallowed.”
    If that doesn’t make you want to try it, despite the price, nothing ever will.
    It certainly persuaded me all those years ago and probably did the same for many others, thus giving impetus to Viognier and Condrieu’s resurgence.

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