Viognier is the most aromatic and scented grape in the world. Its home is in France, in Condrieu, which is in the Rhone Valley, just below Côte Rotie. In fact it is thought that it was the Romans who brought Viognier from Dalmatia to the Rhone. The Northern Rhone is known for its red wines yet the combination of soil, a mix of granite and sand, climate and vineyard location, on the hills high above the Rhone River, together combine to create the ideal conditions to ripen Viognier grapes.
However, only fifty years ago Viognier was practically extinct. It was unfashionable, difficult to grow on the steep, rough terrain. It is a temperamental grape that produces tiny yields and back then growers could not make any money. Within Condrieu is the smallest of all appellations, Chateau Grillet, which only has 4 ha., and is one of the most prestigious names in France.
Yet most wine drinkers have never tasted this grape, as it is not that widely available, volumes are tiny in comparison to other grapes and the really good stuff is expensive. Also, in general it is not a wine that ages well, it is naturally quite low in acidity, so it has to be drunk young to really enjoy the aromas.
Viognier is a dream grape for wine writers because it has such an intensly perfumed bouquet together with aromas of ripe apricots, peaches and pear, honey, grapefruit, citrus peel, ripe tropical fruits and cream. On the palate there it is fully bodied and very luscious, even a touch sweet with a long, dry finish. It does not have an explosion of fruit like a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, it is much more subtle and seductive. In comparison with other aromatic grapes, such as Gewurtztraminer, Torrontes, Riesling and Moscatel they don’t have the richness and complexity as Viognier.
In his book ‘A Hendonist in the Cellar’, Jay McInerney (writer of Bright Lights Big City among others), describes Viognier from Condrieu as his favourite white wine. He writes: ‘Viognier not from Condrieu is like watching The Magnificent Seven when you know Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Great film as it is, it’s not the original.’
When it comes to pairing Viognier with food it can be tricky because it is very aromatic and can overwhelm or clash with the flavours of the food. It is best served with dishes that have more exotic flavours, such as mild curries with sweet coconut, dishes with fruity sauces, slightly spicy, Mexican food, crab meat, lobster, seafood that have a hint of sweet flavours.
In Condrieu look out for the names of Guigal and Yves Cuilleron. Outside of France there are small quantities of premium quality Viognier made in Napa Valley, in California, Joseph Phelps and Randall Graham are known as ‘Rhône Rangers’ and their wines are highly regarded. In Spain there is some Viognier to be found, I have not tasted it but am told that the Vallegarcía Viognier from La Mancha is good. In Australia By Farr Viognier from Geelong, Victoria, is considered to be one of the best from this part of the world.
Also in Stellenbosch, South Africa, Tamboerskloof Viognier, available in The Wine Place, is excellent. In fact when we are free from being in quarantine, I will be tasting this wine with my friend Martin to compare it alongside his Guigal ‘La Doriane’ Condrieu. Should be a great tasting, something to look forward to.