The Hostage of CondrieuFrench legend says that long ago a trade ship traveling north from the Mediterranean Sea toward the growing town of Lyon was carrying Syrah grapes destined for planting in Beaujolais. The ship would not arrive at its planned destination however, intercepted instead by a group of bandits who stole the cargo for their own use. Unknowingly, mixed within the payload of young Syrah vines were a few stems of a white variety called Viognier. Unaware of the difference, the local farm hands planted the vines in the vicinity of a place now known as Condrieu.

Stubborn, unpredictable, and unreliable are only a few of the adjectives tossed around in frustration by many winemakers having attempted to make good wine from the difficult Viognier grape.

This challenging nature is what makes Viognier fascinating for inquisitive minds and those in pursuit of something slightly off the frequently traveled path.  In terms of varietal character, the grape can be rather overpowering, showing both a strong aroma and taste.  On its own Viognier has become an alternative for the many once Chardonnay drinkers and when blended, Viognier adds a fragrant softness to the powerful Syrah/Shiraz of Northern Rhone and South Australia

Viognier has never been a popular variety.  In fact, at one point not long ago, only 35 acres remained planted in all of France.  Today, the tables have turned and in addition to massive expansion in Frances Rhône, Languadoc, and Roussillon regions, Viognier is now successfully cultivated throughout the world.  

We tasted five wine this afternoon, each profiling a variation of wine making technique, regional climate, and growing conditions in their respective countries.  The wines are listed below in order of tasting:

2008 Yalumba, ‘Y-Series’
2009 Sandhill, Small Lots
2008 François Villard, Terrasses du Palat
2009 Anakena, Single Vineyard
2009 McManis

The wines...

2008 Yalumba, Y-Series - Australia
Rich yellow colour with aromas of lemon, honey, and brown sugar.  Somewhat unbalanced in terms of acidity but it did mellow after an hour or so in the glass.  Okay on it’s own but much better with food. 

2009 Sandhill, Small Lots Viognier - Canada
Shockingly deep yellow in the glass; it looks like a thick syrupy sweet wine but the nose is lifted by soft floral notes intermixed with honeydew melon.  The oak influence is obvious but not overpowering and a pronounced white pepper finish only added to the pleasure; this one did seem to lack acidity.

2008 François Villard, Terrasses du Palat - France
Stunning old world Viognier; notes of fungus and earth mixed with white fruit and a hint of flowers; someone in the group said it smelled like François' feet!  But most of us found this example from Condrieu beautifully balanced, tasting of melon and very mild citrus followed by a lovely lingering aftertaste.  Expensive but very good.

2009 Anakena, Single Vineyard - Chile  
Aromas of white flowers and lychee; a hint of sweetness on the palate with a slight grapefruit twist; fairly light bodied but nicely balanced.  This one is good both on its own and with food.

2009 McManis - United States 
It’s the same colour as Lemon-Love Fruitopia!  There's also a very slight effervescence which settles on the surface and looks like soap scum; the wine is light, simple, and easy drinking, but I do suggest drinking this one well chilled.

The following are the top three wines as chosen by the North of 9 group in order of preference:

1.       2008 François Villard
2.       2009 Anakena
3.       2009 Sandhill

Incredibly complex in terms of both aroma and taste, the wine from Condrieu, France stole the show today.  When compared to the other selections in the tasting, this wine from François Villard appeared to be in a class of it’s own.  But then for three times the price, I suppose it should be…

The Anakena, Single Vineyard offering was drinking beautifully as well today and was voted second best by the majority of the group. 

Finishing in third place behind the Chilean, but not by much, was British Columbia’s Sandhill, Small Lot program Viognier.  In total, only 615 cases of this wine were made in 2009.  By comparison, 16000 cases of the McManis wine we tasted today were produced in the same vintage making the B.C. rarity a real treat to sample.

If you are one of the many people who bypass bottles of Viognier on the store shelf to reach for something more familiar, I strongly recommend that you give this wine a try the next time you are in need of a really good bottle of white wine.

Next month we taste and compare the different styles of fortified wine – see you then!