Wine Review: Great Viognier at a Good Price

VIOGNIER was the first wine I ever wrote about at iJamming! Indeed, I launched my site with an in-depth feature on the grape, describing its distinguished perfume and luscious taste, its roots in the Rhône, its near demise until recent rediscovery, and its then cult status as an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) wine.

That was a full decade back, and Viognier is no longer such a secret. (And the ABC Club is now, of course, the ABPG Club, though that does not quite have the same ring to it.) You can find Viognier growing in most wine-producing countries, and on sale in the majority of good wine stores at a variety of price brackets. Instinctively, that’s all a positive: good wine should be popular wine. But as the movie Sideways all too sorely proved with its inadvertent mass marketing of Pinot Noir, not all wine can be made on the cheap. Viognier, like Pinot Noir, is a fickle grape: it requires a long hot summer to achieve full ripeness, needs to be picked at precisely the right moment to achieve its perfume and fruit, is highly susceptible to mildew, necessarily delivers low yields and yet, for any real promise of quality, the vines need some age – 15 years or more – on them.

The truth of the matter is that while you can find Vins De Pays Viogniers in the $10-$15 price bracket, they tend to be light and lean, maybe even green and mean, quaffable perhaps but a pale imitation of the real thing. Viognier from Australia, about the only other country to offer the wine at a similar price, tend towards what we sometimes call “blowsy.” Follow such examples with a taste from Condrieu, Viognier’s spiritual appellation in the northern Rhône, and you’ll instantly know what I’m talking about. But at $50 and upwards per bottle, Condrieu is prohibitively expensive. All things considered, finding good Viognier at a good price can sometimes seem like a fool’s errand.

So you can understand my cautious delight when, just before Christmas, I stopped in at Chambers Street Wines to find a Condrieu 2009 from Domaine Barou on the shelf for “just” $34. Co-owner Jamie Wolff explained that his store has begun buying directly from a handful of French producers, serving as its own importer and cutting out a middleman’s profit share in the process. The Domaine Barou Condrieu, from the acclaimed Limony section at the southern end of the narrow appellation, was as good as anything I would find at a more “typical” Condrieu price, Jamie assured me and, because Chambers Street is the best wine store in Manhattan, I took him at his word.

We opened the Domaine Barou Condrieu 2009 over a New Years Day brunch. It was golden and it was perfumed: the words heady and hedonistic come readily to mind, as do the equally alliterative sexy and sensual. At 14% alcohol, it was rich and luscious on the palate, with the honeysuckle flavors to the fore, peaches and apricot and pear and more exotic fruits all in the mix, with gorgeous spice in both the palate and on the finish. Whether a mid-day party after a long New Year’s Eve was the perfect environment in which to serve the wine, I’m not entirely sure (the few other bottles at this brunch were in the decidedly cheap and cheerful category), but it was a wonderfully opulent, stylish way to start a New Year.

More recently, at the Hurley Ridge store outside Woodstock, I came across a range of wines from Chateau de La Selve, a biodynamic producer from the Vins de Pays des Coteaux de l’Ardeche, on the western banks of the Rhône. The Ardeche can be a source of reasonable (and reasonably inexpensive) Viognier, so I decided to give La Selve’s $18 “Saint Regis” Viognier a try. (Subsequent web research indicates that it frequently retails for over $20.)

The wife and I opened it on February 12 at the Hunter Village Square’s Saturday-night-only BYOB Thai-Italia dinner. A nearly golden yellow-green, the Chateau de La Selve “St. Regis” Vins de Pays des Coteaux de l’Ardeche 2008 offered redolent notes of peaches and apricots, and on the palate delivered both those notes and those of wild flowers, plus the crème fraiche texture that helps render Viognier so unique; the wine’s rich fruit and natural spice enabled it to hold its own against a couple of moderately mild That curries. But the wine truly came into its own when we took the half-bottle home: a small glass poured at the end of the evening into my Riedel glass, after some red wine by the fireside, was everything I would look for in a Viognier of this price: light enough in alcohol that the fruit was not overwhelming, it was delicate and sensitive yet alluring and attentive. It brought back memories of the first time I ever tasted Viognier, at Domaine Les Gouberts in Gigondas in 1999. That time, too, it was served after the red wines; amongst its many qualities, there’s something about Viognier’s false sense of sweetness that allows it to claim dessert wine – or at least palate-cleansing – status.

Interestingly, Chambers Street Wines also stocks a Domaine Barou from Condrieu’s neighboring Vin De Pays Collines Rhodaniennes at $19, which Jamie Wolff assured me rivals many a Condrieu, while Hurley Ridge stocks a Chateau De La Selve “Madame de” Viognier, aged for a year in oak and sold in a deceptively dark bottle, for approximately $34, which the store manager promised me was literally “three times as good” as the St. Regis. In order to test these claims, and to compare with the two wines I already tasted at such similar prices, it would appear I need to go back and consume more Viognier. As hobbies go, this may not be the cheapest. But, and this conclusion is perfectly apt for the most sensual of all white wines, it’s amongst the most enjoyable that you can have with your clothes on.

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