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Viognier and Condrieu -- Again
By Paul Lukacs
Jun 18, 2019
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On vacation in southern France a few weeks ago, I rediscovered Viognier--or more specifically, Condrieu, the grape’s ancestral home.  Our group of five was having dinner at a somewhat pretentious restaurant with a wine list filled with predictable choices.  But hidden among the white Châteauneufs, Côtes-du-Rhônes, and Provencal rosés was Yves Cuilleron’s 2016 “Les Chaillets” Condrieu.  We ordered a bottle, and with the first sip I immediately recalled why I once had been so excited by this grape and appellation.  The wine was everything I could want.  It tasted complete, complex, and wonderfully compelling.

My theme here is memory, but with apologies to Evelyn Waugh, not memory as certain possession.  As I drank that wine, I remembered other bottles at other times, but such recollection proved the product of my imagination as much as any sort of demonstrable certitude.  Part of the pleasure of savoring wine, as with any sensual experience, comes from just that--the interplay of subjective imagination and objective fact.  It explains why we can have such different tastes and reach such different judgments.  And on that balmy late spring evening, I simply could not imagine a better white wine.    
About twenty-five years ago, when I was just beginning to write and think seriously about wine, Viognier had been touted by the wine cognoscenti as “the next big thing.”  Everyone back then wanted to find a white to dent sales of Chardonnay, and Viognier, being comparably rich and full-bodied, seemed poised to do just that.  But it never came close to happening.  

Although it has been grown in France’s northern Rhône Valley for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, no one knows how Viognier got there.  One legend has it planted by Phoenician sailors, while another says that Roman soldiers brought it from Dalmatia.  Recent DNA testing indicates a relationship to Nebbiolo, so perhaps it came from Italy.  But no matter its origin, once Viognier got to the Rhône it stayed there.  And until recently, it never went anywhere else.  A generation ago, only about 30 vineyard acres were cultivated in Condrieu and the tiny Château-Grillet appellation.  No vines grew beyond their borders. 

Then, starting in the late 1980s, enterprising vintners, entranced by the promise of a new, trendy product to sell, started planting it other places.  Soon Viogniers from California began showing up in wine shops, followed by wines from southern France, Australia, South Africa, the Pacific Northwest, even Virginia.  Though some tasted delightful, many more disappointed.  This initial, international wave of enthusiasm yielded far too many wines that tasted either bland and boring or blowsy and unfocused.  Many in fact were downright awful. 

So before long, Viognier faded from view.  For millions of consumers, Pinot Grigio became the “Anything but Chardonnay” white wine of choice.  Viognier simply seemed too exotic, too unpredictable, and too difficult to make well, let alone market and sell successfully.

Why Viognier fared so poorly internationally is a matter of dispute, but a few things seem clear.  First, the grape is finicky in both the vineyard and the winery.  With low acidity, it tests the mettle of growers.  Harvest early for freshness, and you risk missing out on the variety’s distinctive aromatics, but pick later for ripeness, and the wine may end up fat and unfocused.  Second, Viognier does not much like hot weather--a problem in today’s world of climate change.  Third, it prefers rocky, meager soils, again as a means of reducing yields, concentrating flavors, and keeping the wine on point.

For the winemaker, the big question is whether or not to employ oak barrels during fermentation (and if so, whether they should be new).  Much as with Chardonnay, wood can contribute boldness, but too much can leave the wine feeling cumbersome because heavy on the palate.

These factors combine to make Viognier a difficult grape to grow and a complicated wine to make.  Though some vintners have had success with it elsewhere, it has succeeded most commonly in France.  But not everywhere in France.  Plantings in the Languedoc and southern Rhône have produced largely uninspired wines, leading to what seems an inescapable conclusion--Viognier is one thing, but Condrieu is something else entirely.  It remains the source of by far the most exciting wines this persnickety variety can produce.

Condrieu is a small appellation.  Only about 325 acres are under vine (all 100% Viognier), and only 75 producers make wine there.  Roughly 50,000 cases are produced each year, a number that helps explain why the wine never comes cheap.  The most esteemed vineyards sit on steep south-facing hills on the right side of the fast-flowing river.  They are full of granite, so constitute a rugged terrain that keeps yields low.  Condrieu ranks among the coldest appellations in the Rhône Valley, with bone-chilling winters and summers cooled by sometimes fierce northerly winds.

No one knows for sure which (if any) of these factors is most responsible for the wine’s distinctive character, and it would be an oversimplification to ascribe Condrieu’s appeal solely to terroir.  Still, the appellation does resolve at least some of the grape’s potential problems, and the wines made there can evidence a lusciousness found nowhere else. 

At their best, wines from Condrieu combine a flirtatiously sensual personality with a restrained sense of style.  The varietal is inherently rich, but good renditions also taste uplifting.  Their greatest appeal comes in their bouquet.  Redolent of honeysuckle, jasmine, orange blossom, and more, they smell like a late spring or early summer garden, making this the ideal time of year to drink them.  Cool and fresh at first, but with a core of lush warmth, Condrieu tastes of the season.  For as the poet wrote of June, “then, if ever, come perfect days.”

The wine I drank a few weeks ago tasted perfect.  It evoked a wealth of memories--of wines drunk long ago, as well as of comparable evenings enjoyed over the years.  I certainly cannot promise that other bottles of Condrieu will prove as enthralling, but I feel safe in predicting that they will be extremely enjoyable if not downright exciting.

Which Condrieu should you try?  My experience is limited as the wine costs a pretty penny ($50 a bottle on up), but in addition to Cuilleron’s “Les Chaillets,” I can confidently recommend the following:  E. Guigal’s basic offering, probably the most popular Condrieu in the US; any cuvée from Domaine George Vernay, the king or pope of the appellation; Domaine Rene Rostaing’s “La Bonnette”; Michel & Stephen Ogier’s “La Combe de Malleval”; and M.  Chapoutier’s “Invitare.”

One caveat:  Condrieu is not a wine to cellar for any extended length of time, as you do not want its perfume to fade or begin to oxidize.  Drink it within five to seven years from the vintage.  It is memorably enticing, but like memory itself, its charm also can be fleeting.