Rolling Back the Clock in Condrieu
Four years ago, Joey and Lea Tensley loaded up on cafe au lait and brioches in Puligny-Montrachet, then headed south towards Avignon. By noon, they were weaving through bumper-to-bumper traffic in Lyon. At 1pm, they exited in Vienne, passing Ampuis on their way to Condrieu.
"We were really on a roll." Joey told us on the patio outside the couple's Los Olivos home. "Colson Canyon Syrah was taking off. Wine Spectator had just rated it 95pts. Parker (99pts) was saying things about our Syrahs that I would have been embarrassed to say. It seemed like everything we touched was turning to gold. So like every northern Rhone Syrah-maker, I couldn't wait to tackle Viognier. I stopped in Condrieu to get a sense of what I was up against."
That afternoon in Condrieu, Joey and Lea Tensley got their first look at the impossible slopes on which the world's most ethereal Viognier is grown. All hand-tended and harvested, the vines at the Vernay's "Vernon" would eke out less than two tons per acre of small berry clusters each year. Further south, one vineyard worker could ably farm three to four hectares of Grenache by himself. Here in Condrieu, it was one worker per hectare!
Joey and Lea sat down in front of a half-dozen oversized Riedel glasses, each filled with four ounces of the best from Vernay and Cuilleron. In less than a half hour, all the air had been sucked right out of Joey Tensley's Viognier balloon. "I've never smelled anything like those wines. Ripe pear, honey, passion fruit. Each wine was exotic, mineral and crisp. Whenever I thought I had a handle on the aromatic profile of one of Yves Cuilleron's wines, I'd swirl the glass and it would morph. We spent two hours at the table. We could have spent two days."
But, as everyone who's ever met Joey Tensley knows all too well, the Bakersfield farm boy turned 99pt Syrah-maker isn't quick to give up the fight. Quietly, over the last five years, Tensley has experimented with fruit from a number of Viognier plantings on the Santa Barbara coastline. Not one made it to market. "Each year, I thought back to that day in Condrieu. My wines were just too fat. They sucked up the new oak too easily. Great Viognier is never heavy or ponderous. A little oak is good, but never so much as to obscure aromas. I've never given up on a project since we opened the winery, but I had hit a wall -- until I saw that little knoll at Camp Four."
Camp Four vineyard sits at the intersection of Routes 246 and 154, about 10 miles east of Buellton. Summer days are hot, topping out at 90 degrees. But nights are unusually cold, dropping well into the 40s. "The vineyard makes for really edgy, spiky Syrah. I'd never really thought about Viognier out there, but when the grower took me on a walk up that knoll, something clicked. If he farmed to low yields and the growing season cooperated, maybe, just maybe, I had a shot at turning back the clock in Condrieu."
Joey Tensley made just 8 barrels of Viognier off that small parcel on the knoll at Camp Four Vineyard. Half was barrel-fermented, the other half was fermented in stainless steel. Brilliant pale gold, the aromas alone are worth the price of admission, a stunning blend of pear and passion fruit, lightly laced with white pepper. Rich and generous on the attack, packed with apple, pear and honey, yet still marvelously restrained and elegant, it's the crisp vibrancy of the cold night finish that really carries the day.