Viognier – From France to All the World

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Viognier Vine and Grape Clusters

Viognier Vine and Grape Clusters

It hasn’t been too many years ago that Viognier seemed to be a variety in danger of extinction.  After the disastrous effects of phylloxera in the nineteenth century, and the abandonment of vineyards in the Rhone following the chaos of the First World War, plantings of the vine diminished during the next seventy years.  By the end of the 1960s there remained only 14 hectares planted in all of France, its home where it had grown in the past two thousand years.  Little importance was given to the variety until the 1990s when it exploded onto the world scene with the rise in popularity of wines from the Rhone, in particular the wines of the famous appellation of Condrieu where it is the only permitted grape variety.  Winemakers from several countries fell in love with the variety, and soon vineyards of Viognier began to appear in places like Australia, Argentina, California and Chile.  The Australians in particular love to use Viognier in their Rhone-style blends with Syrah, and by the end of 2007 there were nearly 1,400 hectares planted there.  In California there are plantings of more than 1,100 hectares; in Argentina nearly 700 hectares, and in Chile about 263 hectares.

The origin of the grape is a mystery although it is said that the vine originated in Dalmatia and was brought by the Romans to the Rhone.  What we know is that it is a very old variety.  In 2004 DNA testing by the University of Davis, California, showed that Viognier is genetically related to the Piedmontese variety Fresia, and surprisingly, a cousin of the black grape Nebbiolo.

Oidium Growing on a Cluster of Grapes

Oidium Growing on a Cluster of Grapes

In the vineyard Viognier can be problematic.  It prefers a warm climate and can tolerate drought, but it is susceptible to the mildew, oidium.  Yields are also low, and the grapes must only be harvested when ripe.  If the grapes are harvested too early the wine will lack its characteristic perfume; if harvested too late the wine can develop a disagreeable oiliness.  The grapes produce juice naturally low in acid and high in sugar, so skill and a bit of luck are required to produce a balanced wine.  When perfectly mature the grapes will be golden in color and produce a wine deep in color, high in alcohol, and with intense aromas characteristic of the variety:  apricot, peach and flowers.

The age of the vine can also affect the quality of the wine.  Vines more than twenty years old produce the best wines, and some vines in the Rhone that survived the “dark times” are more than seventy years old.  Because many of the vines planted in the New World are still young, we will have to wait to see the eventual quality of their wines.
The aroma of a good Viognier is unforgettable, and the first impression before actually tasting the wine is that it could very likely be a sweet wine.  These intense aromas are due to the content of terpenes, sweet-smelling chemical compounds also found in Muscat and Riesling.  The intensity of the aroma depends on various factors, including the soil, the climate, and the age of the vines.  Although some wines can mature such as those produced from old vines or late harvest varieties, the majority should be enjoyed in their exuberant youth.  In general, Viognier wines older than three years begin to lose their floral aromas although the best examples from France can mature seven or eight years in bottle.

Vineyard of Condrieu Overlooking the Village Below

Vineyard of Condrieu Overlooking the Village Below

While many times Viognier is bottled as a varietal, many times it is used in blends, both white and red.  Traditionally, in the northern Rhone, Viognier is blended with the red wines in the appellation of Côte Rôtie, mixed up to twenty percent with Syrah and producing a powerful, full-bodied red wine with complex aromas of violets and spices.  The northern Rhone also produces two 100% Viognier wines in the famous appellations of Château Grillet and Condrieu, the latter the most famous white wine of the Rhone and also without doubt one of the best white wines of the world.

In other parts of the Rhone Viognier can be found blended with other varieties such as Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, and some others.  Today, the greatest plantings of Viognier can be found in the Languedoc in southern France, where they produce pleasant vins de pays.  In the New World, Viognier is very popular in Australia where it is used in Rhone-style blends with Syrah (known as Shiraz in Australia).  Viognier ripens easily in sunny California producing wines high in alcohol which can be magnificent when in balance.  Also in the United States the state of Virginia has had success with this difficult variety.  In South America, wineries in Argentina and Chile produce wines of good quality as well as Brazil and Uruguay.  In South America it is typical to find Viognier blended with Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc.

E. Guigal Condrieu La Doriane

E. Guigal Condrieu La Doriane

With food Viognier pairs well with foods that one would normally pair with Gewürztraminer.  Viognier is a delight with spicy Asian dishes and Thai curry with coconut milk.   Particularly delicious is Viognier paired with grilled fish served with a mixed-fruit salsa.  Viognier also does quite well with sashimi and sushi, especially if a good chilled saké is not available.

About Gregg Smith

Gregg Smith is an American sommelier certified by The Court of Master Sommeliers living in Lima, Peru, and serving as director of the wine and bar program at Central Restaurante.
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2 Responses to Viognier – From France to All the World

  1. Pingback: Viognier – desde Francia a todo el mundo | El Blog de Vides y Vinos

  2. Pingback: La imagen del Día: Viognier | Blog del vino, cócteles, recetas y novedades para el gourmet

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