It was time for wine and I fancied something elegant, golden and white. A classic, French-style Viogner beckoned me, Condrieu, arguably one of Northern Rhône’s most distinctive appellation and its place of origin. As luck would have it, we had one bottle left in the cellar.
The 2009 Ferraton Pere & Fils Les Mandouls Condrieu, Northern Rhône, France is 100 percent viognier, with 80 percent aged in stainless steel vats and 20 percent in 600-liter French oak barrels. This winery produces all the classic Northern Rhône wines such as Cornas, Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie. In 1998, renowned winemaker Michel Chapoutier helped transform their vineyards to embrace biodynamics to eliminate the use of chemicals and thus express the purity of the land, grapes and wine. And now for the taste…
Color: Golden straw
Aroma: Honeysuckle, lychee, pear
Taste: Above notes with honey, a nice, viscous mid-palate beeswax and white peaches. Dry mineral notes on finish (it makes sense; soil is granite-based). For those not familiar with viognier, it tastes like a rich, restrained chardonnay; and this particular one was very balanced.
Viognier was almost extinct with only 8 acres left in Northern Rhône (30 acres in all of France) in 1965. Since then, viognier has grown in popularity and vineyard plantings around the world. Now with more than 740 acres in Rhône, viognier is the only permitted grape of AOC Condrieu and AOC Chateau Grillet (single estate), and is used in small percentages to blend into red wines like syrah in Côte-Rôtie. Viognier can produce full-bodied wines with lush texture and big aromatics of peaches, pears, violets. Some, such as Condrieu, have more mineral notes, while others can be big and slightly cloying.
Viognier likes a long, warm growing season to fully ripen. If picked too early it will not display the aromas and taste profile viognier is known for. It does not like a sizzling hot climate, which will elevate the sugars and alcohol levels. Viognier also is a successful blending grape, adding beautiful aromatics and texture to a wine. It is commonly blended with other white grapes such as marsanne, rousanne, chardonnay, grenache blanc and rolle, but also is compatible with the red grape syrah (or shiraz). When the grapes are fermented together, this stabilizes the color of the red wine and allows for shorter maceration to produce less tannins for a smoother integrated wine.
Although it originated in Rhône, the majority of viognier is grown in Languedoc in southern France and the surrounding region. It also is successfully grown in Australia in the cooler pockets and regions such as Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and Yarra Valley, to name a few. Australia has much acreage to this grape; and here, the wines can have more mineral notes to that big style with cloying texture.
In California, thanks to the Rhône Rangers, viognier has found success either by itself or in a blend in the minds of the U.S. consumer. I have had a few fuller-bodied viogniers from California which can be of good quality, but the key here is balance. You will find viognier blends with many varietals chardonnay, chenin blanc, rousanne, sauvignon blanc; or used as a splash in ‘kitchen-sink’ blends like popular California white Conundrum.
Outside of California and Australia, other countries are dabbling with the grape. Italy, Chile, Argentina, South Africa all have pioneers to promote the grape. We are so glad viognier did not become extinct!
If you are a chardonnay lover and are looking to try something different, viognier is a good choice. It’s the perfect opportunity to expand your palate.
Tasting Tip: A wine that is too alcoholic (i.e. not balanced with acidity and fruit)can take on sake-like odors; but more noticeably, it will leave a slight burning sensation in the back of the throat. This will—and can be—cause for a headache and/or hangover!
Wine Recommendation: Yalumba was the trailblazer for viognier in Australia and is reasonably priced. Try a California viognier/blend. There are many good ones such as Pine Ridge (chenin blanc/viognier).
Certified Sommelier Stanley Browne is the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves, Downtown at the MX and in Edwardsville.