• Chris

Viognier

Updated: Apr 27

Back in the Northern Rhône, rumor had it that Viognier was brought in from the Dalmatian coast by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus sometimes during the 3rd century. As it turns out, DNA testing suggests otherwise...

Viognier Grape
Picture of Viognier by Brice Braastad - Vinexia via chateau-grillet.com

Research has shown that Viognier's mother is Mondeuse Blanche (from Savoie). As you might know, Mondeuse Blanche is also the mother of Syrah which makes Viognier & Syrah half-siblings. These two grew-up close: Viognier in Condrieu and Syrah near Ampuis where a tiny percentage of Viognier is sometimes co-fermented with Syrah to make the famous Côte Rôtie. This proves that Viognier is a child of the Rhône, just like Paul Bocuse, Jean-Michel Jarre or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry!

For 17 centuries, Viognier's plantings never reached outside the villages of Condrieu (Rhône), Verin, Saint-Michel-sur-Rhône, Chavannay, Malleval, Saint-Pierre-de-Boeuf (Loire) and Limony (Ardèche). Nevertheless the reputation of the wines far exceeded its production area: It was appreciated by the Popes of Avignon in the 1300's, sipped by the high society of Lyon throughout the Renaissance and praised by gastronomy writers such as Curnonsky in the 1800's and beyond.

Condrieu
Picture of Condrieu by Photothèque Inter Rhône via vin-condrieu.fr

Viognier survived the phyloxera crisis and the first world war, but growing on the steep granitic south-east-facing slopes overlooking the Rhône river, the vineyards are extremely difficult to cultivate: Each vine must be laced up to a stake; the sandy "arzelle" top soil erodes easily and retaining walls require high maintenance. Besides, viognier is susceptible to poor fruit set and millerandage.


Following the post second world war rural exodus, labor became almost impossible to find in the region and Viognier nearly went extinct: During this rock bottom period of the 1960's, reports show as little as 8 hectares left under vines in the region and no more than 2,533 bottles of viognier produced.

Château-Grillet
Picture of Château-Grillet by Brice Braastad -Vinexia via chateau-grillet.com

As the saying goes: you can't bounce back until you hit the bottom. And that's when the revival of Viognier happened: Thanks to Georges Duboeuf who initiated extensive plantings in the Ardèche and south of France, Viognier started to make its way into inexpensive Vins de Pays (IGPs) both as varietal or in blends. As people started to pay attention to this "new grape", Viognier went viral: In just 50 years plantings went from 8 ha to 16,063 ha worldwide. Today, France grows about 8,823 ha of Viognier, and is followed by Italy (1,827 ha), USA (1,481 ha), Chile (839 ha), South Africa (822 ha), Argentina (773 ha) and Australia (725 ha), other producing countries include Spain, New Zealand, Portugal, Canada... and Thailand! Gosh, Viognier even has its own "International Viognier Day" on the last Friday of April (an initiative by Yalumba, one of the most influential Viognier producer in the new world)


So, how does Viognier taste like? It is typically light to medium gold in color and shows viscosity in the glass. On the nose, the grape can exhibit medium to pronounced flowery scents (honeysuckle and jasmine) and stone fruit aromas (nectarine, peach apricot). Musk and spices are sometimes mentioned. On the palate, the wine can be dry to off-dry with medium to high levels of alcohol and low acidity making the wine medium to full body with a creamy texture. Surprisingly for an aromatic grape variety, some producers may mature viognier in new oak barrels, perhaps to increase its ageing potential? Nevertheless, most Viognier-based wines often lack the required acidity to make them suitable for ageing: Viogniers are best enjoyed in their youth (unless you're a necrovinophile)


Obviously, just like a cheap Merlot will never taste like a Petrus, a simple Viognier made from vines abused to produce high yields of grapes beyond varietal recognition will never taste like a top Condrieu or a Château-Grillet!


If you are in Thailand, and you'd like to taste a local Viognier, check out Granmonte. If you are ready to spend over 10,000 THB, you can find Château-Grillet at Wine Gallery. For moderately priced examples with finesse, check out a Condrieu by Pierre Gaillard (Enoteca) or by Stéphane Ogier (Wine Garage) or by Clos de la Bonnette (The Wine Merchant). From Southern Rhône, LePlan-Vermeersch's Viognier (Fin Wines) is a powerful exuberant example of what Viognier can be. New World examples by Yalumba (Australia) or Santa Ana (Argentina) can be found at Vanichwathana . J.L. Colombo produces both Condrieu and inexpensive Languedoc Viognier available at Comte de Sibour . Other simple expressions of Viognier are available at Vinum Lector. For a "natural" example from Ardèche (blended with Chardonnay) try Andréa Calek's Blanc from Soul Wines.


To learn more about grape varieties, enroll our next WSET Level 2 Award in wines and to learn more about French Wines, book your seat to our upcoming French Wine Scholar .


Sources:

Anderson K. & Nelgen S. (2020) Which Winegrape Varieties Grow Where? A Global Empirical Picture Revised Edition Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure

Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine. New York: Oxford University Press Inc

Syndicat des Vignerons de l’AOC Condrieu (2021) Condrieu, l'Or à l'Etat Pur Retrieved from: https://www.vin-condrieu.fr/

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