Emerging from the tiny appellation of Condrieu in the northern Rhone, Viognier has become a rising star in California vineyards, as our American palates have evolved to appreciate more aromatic white wines. Still, the most desired bottlings of Viognier continue to come from Condrieu, a region just south of the city of Lyon.
Centuries of cultivation here have taught producers how to deal with some of the temperamental characteristics of the grape. Viognier is highly sensitive to mildew and generates low and unpredictable yields. Proper harvesting is also a challenge: if picked too early, the grape fails to display its full profile of flavors and aromas; picked too late, the grape makes wines that are oily and lacking perfume.
In Condrieu, local conditions are also unique: the Mistral winds off the Mediterranean play a moderating role in viticulture, cooling the wines after the heat of the summer. Vines grow on steep, granite-rich slopes, allowing grapes to reach great concentration. The age of the vines also makes a difference, for Viognier vines don't hit their peak until at least 15-20 years of age-- some of Condrieu's vines are at least 70 years of age. The result is a delicate white with the aroma of a powerful sweet wine.
Viognier from Condrieu is also an exception to the rule under which expensive wines are also age-worthy wines. Condrieu is generally best in its first year or two after release, because its distinctive aroma often mellow after this period. Yet this wine is not cheap; the small size of the appellation limits the amount of wine produced. Look for wines from E. Guigal and Yves Cuilleron.
The improving quality of California Viognier has provided an lower-priced alternative to the wines of Condrieu. Viognier is a bit of trail-blazer-- its success in California helped pave the way for other Rhone varietals, like Roussane and Marsanne. Here, Viognier has recovered from an early impulse among producers to apply vinification techniques better suited to Chardonnay. Now, the best examples retain the aromatic complexity of the grape-- ill-fated experiments using lots of oak barrels are largely resigned to the past. Look for wines from Cold Heaven and Alban Vineyards.
Thanks to its aromatic intensity, Viognier can stand up to spicy foods like Thai or Indian cuisine better than most wines. Another reliable bet is chilled seafood, especially shellfish.