A few years ago, I noticed that wines labeled viognier started appearing on wine lists and in retail stores. I hadn’t heard of it, but tried it. Over time, I have drunk and liked much of it, but until today, when I was again enlightened by the New York Times, I really knew nothing about it. In an article called “The Comeback of Condrieus is the Story of a Singular Grape,” wine writer Eric Asimov reports, “Today, Condrieu is a fashionable wine, valued around the world for its lush, voluptuous flavors and rich, seductive texture. Yet only 35 years ago the Condrieu appellation in the northern Rhône Valley was barely alive, with only about 30 acres of grapes to its name.”
The viognier grape and the wine made from it in Condrieu were kept on life support largely by Domaine Georges Vernay, whose thin soil and steep, terraced slopes (right) are ideal for this grape. The once out-of-favor white wine was really resuscitated by New World wineries’ discovery of the viognier, the local grape. Grapes sourced from that terroir were sought by California and other winemakers, which in turned spurred the popularity of the original. Now the 30 acres planted with viognier vines in the early 1970s in Condrieu have increased tenfold to some 300 acres.
Asimov reported that “Condrieu producers, like their New World counterparts, are experimenting with several different styles. As with California chardonnay, you are as likely to find a rich, viscous wine framed with new oak as you are a bone dry, crisp, minerally wineI am not a fan of obvious new oak flavors in any wine, but in Condrieu new oak integrates beautifully with the viognier’s tropical flavors.”
In this country, California and Washington State vineyards are growing viognier grapes. Asimov further wrote that “The grape itself is said to be difficult and capricious, and yields must be kept low, particularly because so many vines are young, planted in the last 10 years and prone to overcropping. Growers do not consider viognier vines to be in their prime until they are 25 years old. The combination of young vines and high yields can result in thin and shallow wines.”
Asimov, Times food writer Florence Fabricant, Bernard Sun, beverage director for Jean-Georges Management, and Jean-Luc Le Dû, owner of Le Dû’s Wines in New York, tasted French and US viogniers. I believe that I have had only domestic viogniers, and Asimov’s explanation of the patience required to produce a top wine from that grape might explain why I liked some a lot better than others.