Viognier | Back From Near Extinction

Viognier | Back From Near Extinction

History 

In 1781, the Viognier grape varietal was first mentioned by name, coinciding with the Condrieu sub-region also becoming known to the world. Since its fruition it stayed focused within the Condrieu/Cote Rotie area until it nearly went extinct in the 1960s, producing only about 8 hectares of grapes across the whole world. The steep terraces of the Rhone Valley made it difficult to tend to and keep the vines healthy and fruitful. Fortunately with the turn of the century it regained momentum and strength, spreading across not only Condrieu but around the world. With more than 160ha plantings in the Rhone Valley alone. With almost every Northern Rhone winemaker producing a Viognier wine. 

As a slow to rise grape it took researchers a while to determine the heritage of the Viognier grape. Eventually finding it has a parent-sibling relationship with the ancient varietal Mondeuse, and a half-sibling of Syrah.

Location

As mentioned, Viognier is the champion grape of the Condrieu appellation. This appellation is within Northern Rhone, and is the only grape approved for the white wines of Condrieu. This is about the limit of how north the varietal will be planted, as any further away from the equator it may not fully ripen. Yet a few daring winemakers, such as Jean-Marc Lafont, have begun planting the varietal in regions such as Beaujolais. This is in response to global warming and the slowly rising temperatures of each harvest season, by being ahead of the curve Lafont, and other winemakers, are able to hone their Viognier skills and distil it into wines that you would not often find in Beaujolais.

Further afield, the Viognier grape has grown in popularity and become highly sought after in the growing regions of California and Eden Valley in Australia. Creating powerful and high alcohol versions of the full-bodied, perfumed wines of Condrieu. The grape is also found in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, USA, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, and Japan.

Map of Cote Rotie

Growing

With a tendency to produce high sugar levels, Viognier prospers in the warmer climates and has to be monitored closely to ensure the resulting wines aren’t lacking freshness and overpowered by alcohol. The warmer climates also help unlock the aromatic potential within these thick skinned grapes. Often in the warm climate the vines bud and ripen mid-season, with the cooler climates causing a later ripening cycle. As quite a fussy and difficult grape the viticulture has to be perfect and monitored constantly to ensure a healthy yield, if done right it can be very reliable. Not being naturally predisposed to creating perfect wine grapes, they need a lot of sunshine to fully ripen through the thick skins. Yet if too warm, the resulting sugary grapes can lack the zing and power when distilled in a bottle.

Once the harvest is done, it is the hard work of the producers that bring the flavours to the table, with hours of macerating the crushed bunches with stems and all being a popular choice. The rich styles generally ferment within oak barrels yet majority stick to stainless steel to allow the Viognier to express itself fully and present those zingy apricot flavours.

Drinking

Dry whites and sweet wines, the primary results of a Viognier vine, presenting delicious aromas of apricots, peaches, and herbal elements of chamomile and lavender. With its great combination of perfume and body, even the dry whites produced have an element of sweetness to them thanks to the naturally high sugar levels. The sweet wines tend to be formed in the warmer vintages when there are extremely high sugar levels, and naturally forming a high viscous nectar with hints of honey to balance the herbal flavours.

Supplementary to the single varietal wines the Viognier grape is also used in numerous blends. One more subtle blend is the use of the white grape in the famed Syrahs of Cote-Rotie, used as an accessory blend of 2-5% (up to 20%) of the white wine being blended in to boost the mouthfeel and aroma, necessary to stand out among other red wines. The Australian and Californian winemakers tend to enjoy replicating this blend with around 5% of Viognier in their Syrahs to stabilise and deepen the texture of the resulting wines as they are generally grown in cooler climates than that of the Rhone Valley.

Alternatively, producing white wine blends, Viognier is often paired off with Marsanne and Roussanne further South in the Rhone Valley, balancing off their acidity and leaner profiles. Also blended with a few grapes such as Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Maccabeo and Rolle.

With its unique texture, viscosity, and high alcohol content, the wines made from Viognier can be aged for numerous years without worry of acidity altering and loss of aromatic elements.

“Viognier could truly be said to be the hedonist's white grape variety, even if it is often the vintner's headache – and the drinker's headache too, come to that – for it has to be left on the vine for a very long time before its characteristic heady aroma fully develops.” - Jancis Robinson

Pairing

Considered a fabulous food wine, the dry whites of Viognier can pair off with the majority of cuisines. Served slightly chilled alongside rich seafood and white (or even red) meats, especially within spicy dishes of asian cuisines, bring out the fruity flavours. Treating yourself to dessert is also an option with a powerful apricot tart to pack a punch full of apricot throughout the palate. As a pleasing wine for most, red wine drinkers could happily drink Viognier with a meal and get the same satisfaction and boldness of a red.

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