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Though unforgiving (it flourishes only in strong sunshine, on south and south-west facing hillsides and terraces), and difficult to cultivate and vinify, the Viognier grape, when well looked after, produces an irresistible, exotic wine. The bouquet is impressive and its spicy flavours linger admirably on the palate. This grape variety yields stylish white wines, smooth, mellow and full-bodied. It has a subtle fragrance, with delicious notes of yellow fruits (mango, pear, peach, apricot, quince), spring flowers (violet, iris, acacia), musk and spices, as well as grilled hazelnuts and almonds. Reconciling opposites, these dry white wines also have an amazing mellow feel to them. Wines made from the Viognier grape are an epicure’s delight, giving immediate pleasure: Condrieu appellations are at their best after two or three years, by when they are opulent and exotic, while Château-Grillet, though cask-aged for 12 to 18 months, is ready for drinking very soon after bottling. Viognier is also a component of Côte-Rôtie blends, contributing a hint of violets. It goes particularly well with green asparagus, sushi, oysters, quenelles in a Nantua sauce, pike, crayfish tails, Rigotte de Condrieu and Picodon de la Drôme cheeses, or almond galette...
The cradle of the Viognier grape is the village of Condrieu and the surrounding hillsides, and until recently, it was planted only in this area. Legend has it that Viognier is of Dalmatian origin, and was brought to France by the Emperor Probus. Although the name derives from the Celtic word vidu (meaning wood), also the root of the place name of Vions in Savoy, an analysis of its DNA performed in 2004 by researchers at the University of California (Davis), showed the grape to be of Alpine origin, closely related to the Freisa variety from Piedmont. It was virtually unknown until the early 1960s, when it occupied a mere 28 hectares of ground around Condrieu, and was almost wiped out by phylloxera. In 1986, the area under Viognier vines was down to a mere 20 hectares. Then, thanks to the fame of Condrieu wines, it was exported to the French Midi region and abroad. The Viognier grape flourishes on poor soils, pulverulent granites, micas and thin limestone. It is not particularly fertile, yielding between 20 and 30 hl/ha of grapes in good years. To develop its fabulous flavours, it demands perfect growing conditions in terms of exposure.
There are now 2,620 hectares under Viognier vines, though it qualifies for AOC status only in restricted part of the northern Côtes du Rhône wine-growing area. Abroad, it is used in wine-making in Italy, Spain, Greece, Switzerland and Austria, but is best known as one of the great American white grape varieties, grown mainly in California. It is also very popular in Australia, where it accounts for 70% of the area under white-grape vines. In our latitudes, you will find it in flower in the early part of June, and the grapes are fully ripe in early September.
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