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Wed, Jul 14, 2004
iJamming! Wino/Muso:
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The Geography
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Finally, a worthy rival to Chardonnay.

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What wine fans and music devotees have in common.
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the iJammming! featured vine:
When I first put this page up, in the autumn of 2000, I included a half-dozen Viognier reviews from across the world and through various price brackets. One would expect each wine-maker to keep producing at roughly the same level of quality (allowing, of course, for vintage differences), but because Viognier should be drunk young, those reviews are of interest now primarily for archival reasons. I've maintained them at the bottom of the page. (Click here to jump straight there.)

Of course, I've carried on drinking Viognier and feel like I've developed a pretty good understanding of the grape along the way. So what follows is an up-to-date series of reviews of Viogniers tasted through 2001 and into 2002.


CLINE Viognier 2000, Sonoma County, California. $18.
Cline continue to be California’s leaders in quality Rhône-style wines at sensible prices. Previously, Cline’s Viognier came exclusively from Los Carneros, but the 2000 vintage introduced grapes from a new vineyard in Southern Petaluma and the wine’s name has been changed to the more generic Sonoma County as a result. But worry not, the new blend is even better: because the Petaluma vineyards are cooler, the wine has considerable acidity, rare for a viognier. This is evident in the wine’s crisp attack and mouth-puckering freshness, but every thing else you would expect from a viognier is also there: that perfumed nose with lots of peaches, the concentration and full body and a long, long finish. Though Cline’s viognier is partially fermented in barrel, it is not an oaky wine by any stretch. It’s one of the few viogniers that works just fine as an aperitif. And coming in under $20, it’s probably the best California Viognier in its price bracket.

ALBAN VINEYARDS Central Coast Viognier 1999, California, $20.
John Alban is a wine-maker with an exceptional reputation, and tasting his Estate Viognier, it’s quite clear why. This wine has everything right going for it - the full-on perfume, the eruption of flavors on the mouth, some oak but nothing intensive, and a lengthy finish that will stay in your memory, if not your palate, you for days. It’s fat, it’s rich, it’s dry, and it’s a delight to the senses. As more and more Californian wine-makers get into the viognier game, you’re starting to see an increasing number of single-vineyard wines and prices that regularly top $30; though not expensive compared to Condrieu itself, it’s beyond reasonable limits. John Alban keeps it all in focus; his Central Coast Viognier is priced under $20, and his Estate wines keep it under the $30 tab. If you want to know why some people are in love with this grape, if you want proof that California can do it right, and if can afford those extra few dollars for a special occasion, Alban’s your wine.

(The 2000 vintage is now available. Some links to Alban’s Viognier - he doesn’t keep a web site of his own - do, however, explain viognier’s cult status. While the reputed wine merchants K&L say Alban “may be the top producer in California for Viognier,” and NovusVinum says similar, a reviewer for cuisine magazine, attending a Rhône-wine dinner, complained that it was “her least favorite of four wines, not that it was unpleasant, just intense.” Be fore-warned.)

Further recommendation: LION's PEAK VIOGNIER, California, 2000, $17. The quality of this new production from an unspecified (and presumably unaccredited) Californian source offers further proof that America's dominant wine-making State is well-suited for excellent Viognier.


McCREA Viognier 2000, Yakima Valley, Washington State. $15.
Doug McCrea is Washington State’s leading ‘Rhône Ranger’; one of the top wine stores in Seattle, Pike & Western, insists that his Boushey Grande Côte Syrah is the greatest wine in the State. His Viognier, primarily fermented in stainless steel, has all the grape’s hedonistic aromas, its classic piercing intensity, and a long long finish. At 14.5% alcohol, it’s no slouch either. Having said that, should you come across the Viognier-Chardonnay ‘La Mer’ (and there’s only 300 cases), it's a more unique wine: the Chardonnay softens some of the Viognier’s intensity, adding a buttery texture and increasing, if that’s possible, the wine’s ultimate richness. But the Viognier dominates in this blend, both in nose and palate. McCrea recommends his white wines with all manner of Puget Sound shellfish. Ideal if you live there. Intriguing if you don’t.


The idea of wine coming from Virginia shocks most people but without logic, given that the region is far enough south to get some serious heat, and has a 500 year history of wine-making. Horton, another Virginia winery whose syrah I’ve tasted and adored, makes a viognier that WineX magazine considers to-die-for; Barboursville, meanwhile, is Italian-owned, and bottles an exceedingly eclectic collection of wines (including Barbera), of which its Viognier comes surprisingly close to capturing the intensity of a Condrieu. And as with a good Condrieu (a la Perret’s Chery) this is not a beginner’s wine. It's got the peaches and perfume on the nose, some tropical fruits too; but it’s quite tight overall, needing enthusiasm and patience to unravel its complexities; the steely finish could be a little off-putting for some. That said, this is a serious food wine, capable of holding up to many a three-course meal, and it feels like it has aging potential too. Quite the unusual wine should you be looking for such.
(Click here for more info on Virginia wines.)


BEDELL Viognier 2000, North Fork Long Island, $18.
Yes, Long Island has also jumped on the Viognier bandwagon, and with mixed results, not surprisingly, given that the climate out there is quite cool, and therefore better suited for Bordeaux grapes than Rhône ones. Local giant Pindar produced the region’s first Viognier in 1998, but has since abandoned it; Martha Clara’s 1999 was all over the place when tasted in November 2001, a most unpleasant experience; and Macari, easily the Island’s most promising new winery, had to pull up their vines after just one vintage when they became diseased. That leaves Bedell, one of the oldest and most revered wineries on Long Island, and as befits their reputation, they get it right. All the aromatics are there, it’s low acid, medium body, got good length. It’s both fermented and aged in oak, but given that Viognier gets bottled young to maintain its freshness, that oak doesn’t intrude. It’s not as intense or piercing as some of the Rhône wines, it’s not as crisp as Cline’s. But it’s a fine wine and a good advert for Long Island’s continued improvement.
YALUMBA OXFORD LANDING Viognier, South Australia, 2001 $11
Could be easily confused with the Yalumba 1998 as raved about in the first set of Viognier Reviews but for its dauntingly inexpensive price. Sometimes you get what you pay for: as is often the case with Antipodean white wines, this has a tropical zestiness that borders on the fizzy, replacing some of viognier's traditional elegance and intensity with an attractive but ultimaly over-acidic fruitiness. But as suits this most particular of grapes, my wife, who has turned her nose up at the finest Condrieu, thinks it's wonderful, so each to their own as always. And you can't argue with the price.

Le DOMAINE De la SELENTE, le Vallon de la Violette, Vins de Pays d’Oc, 2000, $12.
DOMAINE de TRIENNES, Sainte Fleur, Vins de Pays de Var, 1999, $12.
These two wines have much in common: they are produced or bottled by ambitious new wave wine-makers determined to export good viognier at a low price. They also come from cooler climates and are therefore far lower in alcohol than their northern Rhône or Californian counterparts. As such, they make an excellent introduction to the viognier grape.
La Domaine de la Selente is the vins de pays owned by Marie-Therese Legue; her viognier is then bottled by the peripatetic oenologist, négociant and wine-maker Jean-Luc Colombo. (Whose own Le Figuerettes, a 70% Viognier, 30$ Roussanne blend, is a wonderful wine of itself.) As well as all those lovely peach/apricot/spring flower aroma, it’s got a significant amount of orange flavor to it, which seems to be attributable to the d’Oc region (going by the Mas Carlot Marsanne as comparison) quite a lively refreshing acidity a la Cline’s wine, and a relatively short finish. In short, lovely.

Domaine de Triennes is an entirely new operation launched by two Burgundy wine-makers and a Parisian investor in Provence, somewhere between the town of Aix-en-Provence and Bandol. Their vineyards have been in use since Roman times or earlier, but the viognier is freshly planted. Its cool climate means it turns in a lowly, easy-going 12% alcohol; the wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel: “we do not use oak,” the wine-makers state proudly and defiantly on their web site. The 1999 Sainte Fleur has many of the same attributes as the Selente, minus the orange accent; it’s a gorgeous everyday viognier. And the 2000 viognier has already won awards in native France. The production of 2500 cases means you can find it all over. I got both these wines at my favorite Park Slope store, Big Nose, Full Body.

Further recommendation: CUILLERON Vins de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 2001 - a top-notch Northern Rhone producer sources inexpensive but extremely intensive Viognier from a nearby Vins de Pays. (Added July 9 2002)


ANDRE PERRET, Condrieu Coteau Chery, 1999, $52.
Viognier does not get much more authentic than this, does not come much highly regarded, and, fortunately, does not come much higher-priced. I actually refuse to pay more than $50 for a wine, and only bought this because a 25% sale price brought it back into my bracket - that and my longing for a true top-of-the-line Condrieu, of course.. It’s a remarkable wine from the moment you pour the glass and notice a golden honeyed color simply unmatched in most young wines. The aroma is very restrained - all those gorgeous perfumed flavors are there, along with some lychee and honey, but it’s delicate, as if the flowers are still opening up. Similarly on the palate, the flavors are all there but they don’t assault you, and yet because of its high alcohol (14.5%) and severe dryness, it has an extraordinary intensity to it - some might use the word lean-ness - that can be a shock to the system. The mineral finish lasts 20 seconds or more. Unique in every regard.
That said, if this was my introduction to Condrieu, I’m not sure what I would make of it: the wine is so restrained in one sense, so intense in another, so damn unusual all round, that I can imagine neophytes spitting it out in surprised horror. I make this comment because, only after I bought the wine did I notice that review guru Robert Parker had rated it 95pts. That’s about as close to a supposedly ‘perfect’ wine (of his recommendation) as I’m liable to drink, let alone afford, but it also makes it clear the futility of a points system. So-called ‘great’ wines like this are an acquired taste, something you progress towards by drinking more approachable and easier-assessed wines along the way. Don’t get me wrong, this is an absolutely gorgeous wine, produced in limited quantities from one of the most desired hill top sites in one of the most exclusive wine regions in the world, by one of its top producers. But the beauty of viognier - as with all great grapes - is that you have your choice of flavors, intensity and price, and each has its own merits. Any number of Côtes du Rhônes, vins de pays, or indeed, a Cline or a Bedell should you live in the States, will serve as a more immediately appetizing introduction; the likes of McCrea, Alban, Barboursville and Perret are superbly refined and hedonistic archetypes once you feel ready to approach them.

$14 by the glass at the New York restaurant-wine bar Rhône. Notes copied and pasted from iJamming! diary entry of June 28 2002:
"the absolute epitomy of elegant Viognier: delightful perumed aromas of peaches and petals, a disarming softness on the palate and a finish that seemed to linger all night. But I reiterate: good Condrieu is an acquired taste, and it's one that Posie doesn't seem to share."


, Vin De Pays Des Coteaux De L'Ardeche, 1998. $11.
The Ardeche lies just to the west of the northern Rhône, which makes it prime territory for quality Viognier at vins de pays prices. This wonderful example totally belies its co-op status. Tell-tale perfumed nose, low acidity, lovely balance and lengthy finish. A perfect introduction to Viognier on a budget. Look for the '99 any day.

DOMAINE ST-ANNE, Côtes du Rhône, 1998, $13-$19.
This would certainly have got the QPR nomination for the initial price I bought it at - just $13. But when I went back for more it was stickered at $19. (Turns out the store made a mistake calculating the mark-up.) Domaine St-Anne has a reputation as the only winery worth knowing about from the Côtes du Rhône Village of St-Gervais, and this pure Viognier comes in an artistic green bottle with gold lettering (entirely in French) printed straight on the glass, rightly citing the wine's characteristics as "peach, apricot and honey" and recommending the wine either as an aperitif, with foie gras or as dessert, which gives you an idea of the serious manner in which they themselves respect it. The wine carries a whopping 14% alcohol, but you wouldn't know it. In fact, this is an exercise in delicacy, from the light refreshing white fruit aromas through the soft mouthfeel and the silky finish. At $13, a steal; at $19, still well-priced. Simply beautiful.
VIOGNIER DU CAMPUGET, Cuvee Prestige, 1998, Vins de Pays Du Gard. $11.
The Gard is part of the Languedoc region, to the west of the southern
Rhône, which is exploding in Viognier plantings; Campuget is reputed to provide one of the better examples. Personally, I found this wine emphasising the grape's reputation for 'musk', 'wax' and 'oil' (I made the note 'metallic') rather than for 'honeysuckle' or 'fragrance'. A mediocre example.
DOMAINE LES GOUBERT, Côtes du Rhône, Cuvee Du V, 1998. $25.
Textbook delivery of Viognier's grace and finesse. Gorgeous aromas of spring flowers, apricots and peaches, delicious mouthfeel, rich and pure, slightly sharp finish. A Viognier to serve with light pasta and fruit tarts rather than submitting to the spice test. Expensive, but given that many Californian bottlings hit the $30 mark, well worth it for a special occcasion.
EXP VIOGNIER, Estate Bottled, RH Phillips, Dunnigan Hills, California. 1999. $14.
A lively, crisply appetizing and alcoholic (14%) wine, but not exactly what I've come to expect from Viognier. High in acidity, with 50% of it seeing oak maturation, it had just enough traditional white-fruit flavor to come through. Classic Californian neutralization of a distinctive varietal.
YALUMBA, Limited Release Viognier, Barossa Growers, 1998. $17.
One of the few Australian bottlings to make it to American shores. "More than a decade of winemaking with Viognier....has greatly increased our understanding of this rare and exotic Rhone varietal," the Yalumba Growers state warily on the label, but they have little to apologize for. More tropical in flavor than the other examples, this has an alluring undercurrent of lychees, guava and, especially, orange that, along with the musk and some mineral, makes for a most unusual and rewarding experience.
DOMAINE CHEZE, Condrieu, Cuvee De Breze, 1998. $35.
The real thing? Probably not. These are apparently young vines, Cheze is better known for his Saint-Joseph, and this comes in a tall, Gewurtztraminer-like bottle, offering that grape's somewhat sweet impression while being, factually, a dry wine. (There is some late-harvest - i.e. Sweet - Condrieu around, but best not confuse things further right now!) Extraordinarily bubbly and vivacious, belying the rule about low acidity, it has a note of orange, a touch of new oak, and is euphorically rich. A totally new taste to these buds, but an agreeable one too, as proven by the speed at which this bottle emptied. It stood up well to a Thai curry - but then again, so would a Gewurtztraminer at half the price. A delight - but an indulgence.


GUIGAL, Condrieu, 1998. $34.
If you do decide to hunt down a bottle of Condrieu, chances are that this is the one you'll find, for Marcel Guigal's negociant bottling accounts for a phenomenal near 50% of the entire appelation's production. Guigal has his detractors in the Rhône, especially for his habit of drowing wines in oak, but it's hard to fault this Condrieu. Possessing the most redolent aroma of all the bottles tasted here, it's wonderfully fresh yet noticeably short on acidity; rich, powerful, and luxurious, with a lovely orange tang and unobtrusive oak, the worst that can be said for this wine is that its finish is just a touch short-lived. Whether you have to go this far up the price scale to taste great Viognier remains debateable, but you won't be able to go any lower in budget for great Condrieu. I can only imagine what the very best from the region must taste like.
Interested in more Viognier?
You'll notice that most of my reviews comes from the USA and France - though I've made mention of good experiences with Australian and Italian bottlings. The 'Enjoying Viognier' web site has a lot of the same info as I do here; probably just coincidence. It appears to be a UK-based retail outlet, offering viognier for sale not just from the aforementioned countries but also from Chile, Mexico, South Africa and Greece! In the States, I hang out on the WLDG, where one Jim Harris makes an entirely non-commercial hobby/habbit of reviewing every California viognier he can get his hands on. Go to the search engine at the front page and type in 'Jim Harris Viognier' and see what happens. (Or go to the forum, use the 'search and filter' tool and type in Jim Harris in 'thread authors.') Other good viognier links? Let us know.
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