FOOD: Virginia’s Signature Grape

By Christianna Sargent
May 3, 2013
Special to the Falls Church Times

Does the word Condrieu [Cohn-dree-uh] ring a bell—the original home to Viognier, which is now Virginia’s signature grape? Condrieu is a French grape growing region that rests in southeastern France along the Rhône River and exclusively produces Viognier. The name itself is derived from the French phrase coin de ruisseau, which translates to “corner of the brook.” Despite the fact that most people are unfamiliar with Condrieu, the wines are worth seeking out and are memorable in their own right. Condrieu represents a full-bodied, exotic style of wine appropriate for spring, summer, and fall seasons that weaves a fascinating story about a grape that is for all practical purposes the anti-Chardonnay.

Condrieu is one of the great white wine regions of France and it stands as the benchmark for Viognier crafted wine, analogous to what Napa Valley is to Cabernet Sauvignon. But Condrieu is little known to the wine-drinking world at large, even though Viognier itself has become popular to grow right here in Virginia and even Australia, Chile and California. What reasoning lies behind this grape obscurity, when the general public tends to demand full-bodied, full-throttle, rich wines that explode with fruit and flavor? The answer lies in simple economics and the fact that Viognier can easily be a lackluster grape if not managed properly and crafted masterfully. Condrieu is pricey, with only a small quantity produced for the entire globe.

Viognier was once almost extinct in the 1960s, but grew in popularity as people’s palates leaned more to the adventuresome side. Virginia wineries jumped on the Viognier train over two decades ago when Horton Vineyards first released their version in 1992. Today, the grape itself is the Commonwealth’s darling grape and tourists hoard from afar to drink some of the best put forth by Horton, Barboursville, Chester Gap, Michael Shaps, Jefferson, Chyrsalis, Veritas, and Pearmund Cellars to name some of the best. Almost half (approximately 40%) of Virginia vineyards grow the Viognier grape. However, this darling vine is not the greatest of love affairs. The grape itself is persnickety and difficult to master. The trick with Viognier is that optimal ripeness must be reached; thereby requiring longer hang-time on the vine. Longer hang-time in Virginia equates to hurricane season, and to worsen matters the grape naturally has low acidity levels and characteristically high alcohol potential. So, if the rains come, like they so often do in September and October, the winemaker risks producing a diluted, flat, high alcohol, vegetal wine. Ouch. Not so appealing.

Grape maturity and ripeness remains key to the balance equation, and obtaining it is like riding a tricycle on a tight-rope wire. Condrieu masters this mythical balance from its top producers like Vernay, Guigal, and Chateau Grillet. But the Gods smiled on Condrieu with hot summers, less rain, perfect geography with steep slopes situated along the river facing due east, and strong winds that keep the grapes dry and free of rot. When Viognier sings, she makes rich, powerful, floral and perfumed juice boasting exotic aromas of peach, apricot, honey, violets, and white flowers. The secret is maintaining lower alcohol levels around 12.5 -13% versus today’s fad of 14.5-15% alcohol wines that warm the belly and burn the throat on the way down.

Truly I tell you that Condrieu, and even Viognier produced elsewhere around the world, is a discovery to please your taste buds, and you can do it right here in Falls Church/Arlington. Explore the Old World versus New World factors at 2941 restaurant where Sommelier Jonathan Schuyler designates an entire section of his wine list to Condrieu and Viognier. For just the domestic juice, visit Eventide in Clarendon, or walk down the street in either direction or you can also taste Viognier at Lyon Hall and Northside Social Wine Bar. For an exquisite food pairing from appetizers to entrees, Tracy O’Grady satiates the palate with her choice selections of Viognier from California, like Darioush in Napa. Last but not least, Tallula trots the globe with their Viognier selections from France, to down under in the land of Oz, back to California, with a final pit stop in Virginia.

While hunting for your next Viognier taste, remember the wine pairs extremely well with scallops, lobster, crab, shrimp, roasted chicken, creamy sauces, Caribbean fare, Indian curries, and exotic spices like cinnamon and cardamom found in Moroccan dishes for example. For simplicity, pair Viognier with cashew nuts or triple-cream cheeses, like Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam. The richness of Viognier also bodes well with Gouda and Gruyere cheese. All in the entire Viognier grape should be more celebrated, as it is a versatile food pair and an excellent alternative to chardonnay.


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