Were it not for a consumer backlash against over oaked Chardonnay and excessively crisp, acidic Sauvignons and the need to find some middle ground between the two, we may well have lost Viognier forever. A few decades ago, hidden away in the Rhone Valley appellation of Condrieu, there were merely a few hectares of this notoriously difficult grape left.
Depressingly low yielding, Viognier requires harvesting at an optimum moment of ripeness, for which the window is pretty short. Picking too early results in a loss of the distinctive perfumes that characterise the wines when well made. Picking too late, or even slightly late, produces an abundance of flabby apricot flavours and an oily texture conducive to drinking no more than a single glass. It should come as no surprise then that all but a brave few saw their economic safety in other varieties.
Various takes on history attribute the arrival of Viognier in the Rhone Valley to the Romans, whose foray into Gaul saw the wider plantation of the vine after travelling from Dalmatia (Croatia) with Emperor Probus in 281AD.
Condrieu is still the reference point for premium Viognier wines, while elsewhere in the Rhone Valley, in Cote Rotie AOC, up to 20% can be blended to add a little perfume to the red fruit and spice of Syrah. Chateau Grillet, a tiny appellation of just three hectares also produces wines exclusively from Viognier, although they don’t quite reach the quality heights of Condrieu.
In Australia there are significant plantings now, with both good and bad examples found across Murray River, McLaren Vale, Geelong, Central Victoria, Mornington Peninsula, Barossa, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills, Heathcote and Canbera. Making sure that Viognier is picked phenolic ripeness can often lead the wines up to a hefty 14% alcohol. The best wines are a wonderful, golden yellow colour.
Viognier planted in California has naturally gone down a storm, some versions taking on cult status as producers and consumers alike search for something that isn’t Chardonnay. Calera is one such producer, their Viognier taking on medium weight with exotic aromas of fruit, perfume and spice. Many producers look to emphasise freshness, rather than richness and as the grape ripens with high sugars and low acidity, fermentation and maturation will usually take place in stainless steal tanks.
In Italy, Tuscany and Piemonte are finding small pockets of success; similarly plantings are increasing throughout Sicily where its full body, low acidity and fruity character are a perfect match for local seafood. Here the grape is known as Ansonica.
The future looks bright for Viognier, despite the difficulty in cultivating it to adequate quality. The demand is there although prices are unlikely to reach bargain levels due to the effort and risks associated with vinificaton. Wine lovers though will more often that not find the wines to be bursting with apricot and peach flavours, exotic nuances of spice and perfume, with a medium to full and textured body with low acidity. More basic examples may lack the complexity, perhaps exuding simple apricot aromas, but may well be worthwhile introduction to the grape.