Ups and Downs of Viognier - An Old Grape Makes a Comeback
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed August 2003. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
For an intriguing example of the influence of trend and fashion on the world of wine, let's direct our attention today to Viognier. This golden and aromatic grape is enjoying a spate of popularity these days, perhaps boosted by the same quest for alternatives to the ubiquitous Chardonnay that has brought renewed attention to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio.
For generations, Viognier was a fairly common white variety in the Rhone Valley. But from the standpoint of vine grower as farmer, it's not a particularly attractive crop: It doesn't produce heavily, and in damp weather the grapes are subject to mildew. So over the years, many growers ripped out Viognier vines in favor of easier-to-grow varieties, until by the 1960s it had become virtually an endangered grape, with fewer than 50 acres grown in France and almost none anywhere else.
Within recent memory, the standard wine references called Viognier an oddity, grown only in tiny quantities in the Rhone's Condrieu region and Chateau-Grillet, and as a homeopathic component that added fragrance to the robust red Cote-Rotie. "A rare but celebrated grape," reported "The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine" in its 1988 revision. In 1986, Jancis Robinson wrote in her excellent (and now sadly out-of-print) "Vines, Grapes and Wines" that Viognier "Quantitatively ... hardly deserves a mention. ... little more than 32 hectares (80 acres) of it are planted anywhere in the world."
But what a difference a decade makes. By the early '90s, Viognier was coming back in France as a source of everyday white wines, particularly in the Languedoc region.
And for the first time it began to pop up in other parts of the wine-growing world, in Australia and especially in California, where pioneering growers had planted just 79 acres of it by 1991, a number that grew to 1,488 acres in 1999 (according to California's Wine Institute trade group) and increased to almost 2,000 acres last year, edging out Riesling as it rose to eighth place among white grapes in California plantings.
Popularity has also influenced the price: with few exceptions, most of which aren't awe-inspiring, quality U.S. Viognier seems to start around $15 and go up from there, placing it in fairly close price competition with Condrieu, which is often seen in the $40 range but can be found for less. (Expect to pay $75 or more, though, for Chateau-Grillet, which is produced in limited quantities and can be hard to find.)
Many people who don't speak French find it hard to get their tongues wrapped around "Viognier," but it's not hard if you break it down into its three syllables: Order "Vee-ohn-yay," and you'll be fine.
From its bright color, which often ranges toward the gold, to its intense aromas, which are often floral and may incorporate perfumed peaches and tropical fruit, this is a white wine with a flavor and aroma profile all its own, even if some New World examples add a notably oaky character that can move it back toward the style of Chardonnay.
Don't buy it to put away in the cellar, by the way. Even the best Viogniers are best drunk up young, while all that exuberant fruit is fresh. And be prepared for it to make an iffy match with food. While I've enjoyed California Viognier with smoked salmon (and Condrieu with foie gras), I find that its over-the-top aromatics and intense flavors may make it better suited for sipping as a before-dinner aperitif than as a companion with any but the most bold and spicy fare.
But, especially if you tire of the sameness of so many modern Chardonnays, it's worth trying a Viognier now and then as a change of pace.