Jason Yapp on Viognier


If you love Condrieu, buy it now, because prices are only heading in one direction


Viognier is an interesting but capricious grape as it is both difficult to grow and to vinify.

This prompts the question: why bother with it? To which the answer is: because it yields wines that are inimitable.

Its spiritual homeland is in Condrieu, in the northern Rhône valley, where it is thought to have been introduced by ancient Greek traffickers in the third century AD. Today there are 209 hectares under vine spread across seven communes planted in steep south and south east- facing terraces on soils rich in alluvial deposits, granite, mica, sand, clay and limestone.

At the nadir of Condrieu, in the mid-1950s, after the ravages of phylloxera, two world wars and the Wall Street crash, there were fewer than 12 hectares under vine in the entire world (including the monopole, satellite appéllation of Château-Grillet) and Viognier almost became extinct. Fortunately, a handful of dedicated vignerons, led by the grape’s staunchest advocate, Georges Vernay, kept the flame alive and gradually terraces were replanted. More young winemakers were encouraged into the fold, and an international following started to develop.

This coincided with official (and illicit) exports of vine cuttings that helped establish vineyard holdings in the south of France and the new world. Today, Viognier is a widely planted, and rightly revered, grape variety.

It does not yield inexpensive wines, so has few admirers in the bargain-hunting community. It can take seven years to establish viable rootstock, roughly twice as long as either Chardonnay or Sauvignon, but wines made with it enjoy an incredibly loyal following among enlightened aficionados.

The permitted yield in Condrieu is currently 41 hectolitres per hectare. The average yield is reputedly 37 hectolitres, but the yield in the frost-ravaged 2021 vintage came in at just eight. We can therefore predict, with some certainty, price increases and a shortfall in availability.

Prices will inevitably increase. That is partially due to inflation but also because costs of everything are rising – glass, cardboard, fuel, labour, printing – never mind the grapes. Interestingly, these price increases have not fully impacted at the time of writing. So the message is, buy Viognier now if it is a grape to which you have any partiality. We know there is going to be scarcity but, strangely, retail markets tend not to react until a shortage is manifest. So we are currently in the weird pendulum swing of benefiting from the historic prices before the new reality bites.

Coteau de Vernon: Condrieu’s superstar

Viognier makes wines with beautiful, ethereal scents that don’t resemble the bouquet of any other grape variety. Putting that into adjectives is not easy, but I have often tried to do so over a 30-year career, so will do so once again. Honeysuckle and acacia flowers both frequently appear in tasting notes, as do peaches, apricots and white stone fruit. Viognier has quite a rich, mouth-filling texture, but strangely often has a much drier finish that its aromas encourage one to anticipate.

Good Viognier has finesse and elegance in equal measure, and it can drink very well with or without food. Opinions vary as to what the best food accompaniment to Condrieu is, but many purists argue that quenelles de brochet au salpicon de homard (pike perch dumpling in a lobster sauce) is the crème de la crème. They also maintain that Domaine Georges Vernay’s Coteau de Vernon is the top wine in the appéllation. Both are normally available at the Beau Rivage hotel and restaurant which overlooks the Rhône in the middle of the town of Condrieu. I have had the privilege of enjoying that combination in situ, and if it isn’t the pinnacle of perfection it can’t be far off it.

Opinions differ as to how much bottle age Viognier benefits from. Many oenophiles enjoy Condrieu with five or more years’ maturity, when it develops nuttier nuances and a deeper colour. Personally, I find it hard to resist its youthful fruit, so favour drinking it within two or three years of bottling.

So my parting advice is, treat yourself: you know you’re worth it. Yes, it will be expensive, but think of the bragging rights – and the memories that can’t be taken away from you.

Jason Yapp is director of Yapp Bros in Mere, Wiltshire

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