Malcolm Jolley discovers some of the Northern Rhône whites of François Villard.
There may be a better way to shake of the dull grey gloom of a December afternoon in Toronto than a glass of the 2017 Les Terraces du Palat Condrieu, but I can assure you the technique is effective. I recently had the opportunity to practice the technique in the presence of the vigneron who makes the wine and lends his name to the Domain François Villard, situated near Vienne in the Northern Rhone Valley. We were in attendance at long Friday lunch at the venerable Le Sélect Bistro along with a handful of Toronto wine writers and our hosts from Woodman Wines & Spirits, who are M. Villard’s importers.
Back to the wine: the 2017 Les Terrace du Palat does more than lift one’s spirits, it grab’s one’s attention and reminds its drinker that Viogner is an aromatic grape. This Condrieu is mineral and lean, with grassy and lime notes. It’s $83 a bottle, which is not cheap but its Condrieu and almost half the price of M. Villard’s 2016 Villa Pontciana ($156) a much mellower Condrieu, picked late into the harvest season and full of peaches and salt.
François Villard turns out to be an interesting winemaker, in part because he started his working life as cook “with a cellar of more than 500 bottles,” he explained. By 1987 Villard had come out to the front of the house and was working as a sommelier in Vienne and learning as much as he could about the wines of the region. In 1988 he bought his first plot of land, planted it in 1989, and made his first vintage in 1991. In this way, Villard’s career synches almost perfectly with the rediscovery of Viogner and the great Syrah of the Northern Rhone Valley in the 1980’s and 90’s. Villard reminded us that by the early 80’s Viogner (though to be named for the town of Vienne) was nearly extinct, having fallen out of favour in part because of its relatively low yields. (This holds up: The Oxford Companion to Wine (4th Ed.) cites a 1968 French agriculture census that put total planted area of Viogner in entire republic at 14 hectares or 35 acres.) M. Villard sticks to an old school palate that emphasizes Viogner’s aromatic side and the expression of minerality from the Condrieu terroir, an characteristic he says is essential to his wines ageability. With 37 hectares of lieu-dits scattered around the Northern Rhône François Villard also, of course, makes Syrah. We tasted five of the thirteen currently on his list, but an account of those wines is reserved for another post.