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Get To Know Your Grapes: Viognier

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Viognier (vee-ohn-YAY) is one of the better-kept secrets in winemaking, and producers who successfully harvest the grape often reap the benefits of this fickle variety.  Legend has it that the grape was packaged along with Syrah en route to the region of Beaujolais, slightly north Condriue.  The ship was captured during its voyage around the commune of Condriue and all the cargo was stolen, and thus Viognier was planted in its current location and has prospered ever since.

The northern half of the Rhone Valley

The northern half of the Rhone Valley

The grape is most famous for the wines from the Rhône Valley, specifically in the appellations of Condrieu AOC and Château Grillet AOC, located in the northern half of the valley.  Château Grillet AOC is one of two monopoles in all of France, referring to the exclusivity of one estate controlling the entire production limits of a growing area; the other monopole is Romanée-Conti from Burgundy.  Not surpisingly, wines from both estates often fetch premium prices.

Wines bearing the labels, Condrieu AOC or Château Grillet AOC, must be produced entirely from Viognier.  The wines are typically straw colored and dry with uncanny and unique floral components usually consisting of elderflower, honeysuckle, violets, and herbs.  The exuberant bouquet sometimes indicates the wine will taste sweet, even when the wine is essentialy bone dry.  The growing area in this part of the country is predominantly continental with cold winters and hot summers and is prone to one major climatic factor:  The Mistral.  The Mistral wind is a bitterly cold drift that blows down from the nearby mountains and shoots down the Rhône River reaching speeds of upto 90 miles per hour.  At these speeds the wind is capable of destroying vineyards beyond repair.  It’s a common sight to see cyprus and poplar trees engulfing vineyards in efforts to protect against this force of nature.  Not all business with the Mistral is bad, however.  In extremely hot and muggy summers, the cooler wind has a drying effect that growers sometimes depend upon for a successful harvest.

Maurigi "Le Chiare" Viognier from Sicily

Maurigi "Le Chiare" Viognier from Sicily

The floral strength of Viognier is what makes it a useful grape when grown outside of France, as many international versions still showcase rich and honeyed aromatics.  Viognier is planted in many parts of California, South America, and Australia.  The honeyed nature of the grape makes it an ideal pairing with spicy food, such as Thai preparations, and spicy soups and sauces.  For an introductory version of Viognier, I would recommend Italian producer, Maurigi.  Located amidst the inner mountain range of Sicily, Viognier grapes ripen at some of the highest elevation vineyards on the island.  The wine is dark and robust with strong flavors of apples and pears with honeyed-apricot and fennel aromas.

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