Among the dry white wines of the northern Rhône, none is so widely esteemed as that of Condrieu. Its history, however, is an unhappy one. Following a local rebellion the Emperor Vespasian, who blamed the trouble on the wine and the habit of drinking too much of it, had all the vineyards torn up. His successor Probus saw matters more clearly, and recognised that if the wine is good and freely available, rebellion will occur only in a state of incapacity. In the year 281, therefore, he replanted the vineyards, importing the white Viognier grape from Dalmatia.
It is a difficult grape, prone to disease and flowering when there is still a threat of frost. The granite soil of Condrieu, and the steep slopes on which the vines are planted, add to problems faced by the local vignerons; postwar migration to the towns meant that, by 1965, there were only eight hectares remaining under vines.
All that has now changed, as reverse migration, farm subsidies and social mobility have combined to revive the withering limbs of rural France. More than 100 of the available 200 hectares are now planted, producing half a million bottles a year.
The wine is justifiably famous for its delicate apricot aroma, for its fine combination of opulence and citrous acidity, and for its robust attitude to even the most impertinent foods. But it is appallingly expensive - usually at least £20 a bottle, and sometimes rivalling the first growths of Burgundy.
The good news, however, is that across the river in the Ardèche, the Viognier has been successfully planted on soil not dissimilar to that of Condrieu, and enjoying a comparable climate. The resulting vin de pays des Côteaux de 'Ardèche is now exported by several growers, and some versions of it can be meaningfully compared with Condrieu, even if they do not equal it. On offer recently from the excellent Yapp Brothers of Mere was a 2006 Viognier from the Vignerons Ardéchois, at roughly £5 a bottle - a ludicrous price for a distinctly luscious wine, which we have enjoyed as an aperitif, with fish, with salad, with baked beans and sausages, and even with Mahler's Tenth Symphony, with scarcely a hiccup at those painful discords.
I do not mean to imply that the quality of this wine should be attributed purely to the grape, as though the same effect could be achieved in South Africa, New Zealand or Argentina. We have a local Viognier in Virginia which rivals the aroma and finish of the French original, and which has confronted many a dish of pork and beans with credit.
Nevertheless the Ardèche version shows the virtues of climate and soil, and its trellises of perfume are raised on stone foundations that cannot be matched in Virginia, or anywhere else, save Condrieu itself.