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.
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.
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.
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.