Passionate obsession is the wont of both madmen and visionaries. In the case of Viognier, the opulent and sometimes magnificent grape native to the Northern Rhone, passionate obsession may have saved it from extinction.
In 1989, as the world’s Viognier plantings had dwindled to a mere 50 acres, a farmer from California decided to establish an estate in Central California’s Edna Valley focusing on Rhone varieties. These included Grenache, Syrah, Rousanne and Viognier. Almost singlehandedly doubling the world’s Viognier plantings, John Alban was also responsible for making the grape into an international force, once again. By 1997 Condrieu had 250 acres planted and Viognier’s popularity had reached a new high.
California’s Cooler Side
California’s Central Coast is often misunderstood. Most associate California with heat – but ironically it is California’s northern wine regions that see the most heat and sun. This is due to a peculiarity with the orientation of the valleys in which grapes tend to be grown: Napa and Sonoma valley sit on a north-south axis. In central California, the various valleys tend to be oriented on an east-west axis, meaning that the cool air and damp fog from the Pacific Ocean have easy access to inland vineyards.
Alban’s vineyards sit in the Edna Valley, an AVA roughly halfway between San Francisco and L.A. The Edna Valley is also one of the dampest and coolest regions in California, with summer mean temperatures hitting a mere 17-18 degrees Celsius. The dampness also makes the Valley prone to fungus – an unfortunate reality when growing the fungus-prone Viognier grape.
All the more surprising it is, then, that Alban is able to coax his vines to ripeness levels that would simply produce flabby and jammy wines in hotter regions.
A Perfect Opulence
Alban Vineyards have now attained cult status, and the wines are produced in such small quantities that it is near impossible to get them. Luckily for us in Vancouver, Marquis has a relationship with Alban and manages to bring in some of his whites for the general public, including his legendary Estate Viognier.
Tasting both the 2006 and 2007 vintages of this wine I both understand its legendary status and marvel at how the wines best even some of the great examples from Condrieu itself. Grown in the region’s marine-influenced carbonate-infused soils, these wines are about as luscious as is biologically possible for any white grape.
The 2007 poured a golden-hued liquid almost as deep yellow as a Sauternes. The aromas lift explosively out of the glass: honey, pear, candied tangerine. The lushness of the wine floods the palate like gossamer – evocative hints of honey, pear, brioche as rich and flavourful as a dessert wine but as dry and impressively balanced as a great Chardonnay. At almost 16% ABV, you would barely realize this if it weren’t for the wine’s sheer volume and weight, which is yet also effortless to consume. Astounding.
Excellent to Excellent+
$70 at Marquis Wine Cellars
The 2006 did show some signs of age, but its slightly more boozy character corresponds with its higher 16.2% ABV. Nonetheless, the wine is soft and deft – honey, pear, apricots and, as a welcome surprise, tremendous minerality. As with the 2007, this is a wine of superbly explosive flavour married with balance and length. Wildflowers dipped in ambrosia.
$60 at Marquis Wine Cellars
Both of these wines are perfectly opulent and are simply some of the most pleasurable wines I’ve ever consumed. An utter contrast to the many insipid Viogniers being grown throughout the world and an emblem not only of what is possible in the New World, but also of how New World verve can save greatness from obscurity.