If you’ve never tasted a Viognier before and you’re a fan of unctuous white wines with hedonistic aromatics, then this is a must. With its roots firmly in the northern Rhone valley of southern France, this fascinating variety has gained a steady following over the past 40 years by sedulous winemakers and pleasure-seeking consumers alike.
How Viognier survived extinction
It’s hard to believe that a mere 60 years ago, there were just 8 hectares of Viognier in existence in the tiny northern Rhône appellation of Condrieu. One man single-handedly championed its survival and since his passing in 2017, Georges Vernay’s legacy has continued in the safe hands of his daughter Christine and son-in-law Paul. Today, Domaine Georges Vernay are credited with being the largest vineyard owners in Condrieu and the most prestigious too.
Viognier’s popularity blossoms
From the mid to late 80s, Viognier not only started to gain attention from other growers in the region but elsewhere in the world too, notably California (Joseph Phelps) and South Australia (Yalumba), prompting the ‘Rhône Ranger’ movement in both countries.
Today, you can also find Viognier scattered across the Languedoc region of southern France as well as modest-sized parcels in northern Italy, Austria and Switzerland, plus New World countries that include Argentina, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand.
A perfect intro to Viognier
The great wines of Condrieu and the neighbouring miniscule appellation of Château Grillet represent the pinnacle of Viognier but will set you back a pretty penny. These next few examples are not only affordable, but show that in the right hands it is possible to get something balanced and authentic.
The first Viognier vines were planted in Paarl, South Africa as recently as 1997 by Charles Back at Fairview estate. Since then, the variety has been gaining more and more followers thanks partly to the ideal climate and partly to the availability of slopes on which to plant it, as these more exposed, elevated areas can mitigate against the hottest temperatures.
Move further inland from Paarl to Worcester and you’ll find the source of the Cape Heights Viognier. Summer temperatures can get very high here so the fruit is machine harvested when fully ripe, in order to minimise the risk of oxidation. As a result, the wines retain a good level of freshness along with those lovely exotic fruit and floral characters for which Viognier is best known. A perfect match for Asian-inspired dishes.
Moving closer to the grape’s spiritual home, the Languedoc Roussillon region of southern France provides the ideal terroir for Viognier with its favourable climate and varied soils along with the freedom that the Vin de Pays system allows versus the stricter AOC rules.
When old vines and meticulous winemaking are brought together, you can produce richly-textured Viognier with those wonderfully evocative aromas, as in Mont Rocher’s Vieilles Vignes (‘Old Vines’) Viognier. Yet it still manages to retain this remarkably fresh, tangy quality that’s utterly delicious. Drink it with seafood pasta for the ultimate pairing.
If you want to see the effect of skilful barrel fermentation to create an even richer and more expressive style of wine, then the Domaine de Vedilhan ‘Serica’ Viognier is well worth a try. Owned by the Fayet family, the estate is managed sustainably and follows many organic principles but without certification.
Around two-thirds of the grapes are fermented in well-used French oak barrels and the remainder in stainless steel tanks. The oak is barely discernible in taste but the effect on the wine’s volume in the mouth and long balanced finish is clear to see. Versatile and food-friendly, this works wonders with seared scallops or roasted butterflied tiger prawns in garlic butter. Best served lightly chilled and allow to warm a little in the glass.
Why has Viognier not become more mainstream?
One of the main reasons is that it’s a notoriously tricky grape to commercialise. Comparatively low-yielding, Viognier needs a lot of sunshine during the growing season in order to ripen fully and develop its distinctive perfume. Excessive heat is detrimental though as it ramps up alcohol levels and further reduces the grape’s naturally lower acidity levels, making the wines overblown and flaccid.
In the winery, it also needs very careful handling as too much oxygen will eliminate the aromatics. For this reason, Viognier tends to be fermented and aged in stainless steel as opposed to oak barrels. But as we now know, that’s not to say that winemakers won’t use oak to emphasise texture and complexity, it just means they need to exercise great skill and diligence.
With International Viognier Day being celebrated around the world on the 29th April, what a perfect opportunity to try this regal varietal for the first time or under a new guise.