The Resurrection of Viognier
In the first of a new series on wine, John Walsh reflects on the grape that has been around since the Romans, nearly died out in the 1960s and is now making a miraculous 21st century comeback
It’s all the fault of Sauvignon Blanc. In the 1990s, I drank the stuff by the gallon, evenings, weekends, Sunday lunch. Whichever genius had the job of popularising New Zealand sauve blanc to the British, I was his or her best customer for years. I pressed it on friends, colleagues, strangers at parties. ‘It’s from New Zealand,’ I’d say. ‘Freshly-cut grass on the nose, gooseberries on the palate. Try it. Soooo redolent of gooseberries.’
Then one morning, I woke up grimacing at the familiar acidic after-taste in my throat, and thought: ‘Hang on a minute. I hate bloody gooseberries.’ And I never drank the stuff, or had to endure that thin, lemon-Fairy-Liquid aroma in my nostrils, ever again.
I searched everywhere for a substitute dry white wine to love, one that wasn’t too flintily severe (chablis) or flabbily buttery (oaked chardonnay) or lettuce-leafily thin (pinot grigio); something refreshing but sexy, with a soupcon of subtlety, a kiss of character.
One day a friend offered me a glass of Australian viognier. It had a faint bouquet of honey but no sweetness on the tongue. Instead, fugitive essences of fruit – peaches, apricots, and no gooseberries) played around the edges of the mouth-filling liquid. This was new: a dry white wine with medium-dry grace notes, creating a kind of aromatic halo around your senses.
I was hooked. Through the 2000s and into this decade, I’ve tried Viognier in half a dozen countries (California, Argentina, Cape Town, even Italy) and a hundred bars and restaurants. It hasn’t always been a success. I ordered the Indian version in a restaurant on the roof of a Rajahstan palace, to accompany an elaborate sea bass dish. ‘This will be good,’ I promised the chap beside me, a racing driver called Alain with a superior air. ‘Complex, and can handle spiced food. I think you’ll enjoy it.’ Then I took a sip. It was ghastly – offensively, screechingly sweet, as if someone had melted a bag of wine gums and poured a slug of molasses into the saucepan.
‘Very interesting,’ said Alain, with a shudder. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a pudding wine with fish before.’ It was mortifying.
Research revealed why local variations can go wrong. The viognier grape is a delicate snowflake, susceptible to coulure: this means that fruit berries planted among the vines may fail to grow properly and fall off. Like a rest-home patient, it needs a warm climate to flourish, but a sudden heatwave will make the wines heavy and requiring acidic counterbalances; and it needs time to develop its all-important fruit aromas. Some impatient winegrowers try to speed things up by adding Muscat grapes, with results that I found in India.
The grape been around since the Romans had an outpost in the French city of Vienne, but it almost disappeared half a century ago. By the 1960s, it was found only in the Rhone valley, in the tiny appellation of Condrieu. In 1967, only eight acres of viognier vineyards were operational, making fewer than 2,000 litres a year. When Jancis Robinson wrote Vines, Grapes and Wines in 1985, she found only 80 acres planted in the whole world. But, even then, she knew its combination of full body and heady scent would go far, and named it a major wine variety. She was right: by 2011, Condrieu was operating on 400 acres and the grape had swept around the world.
I realised that, for all my devotion to viognier, I’d never actually sampled the original Condrieu version. So I tracked down the only bottle available in west London, and brought some friends together to taste it and four other varieties, to see how they differed.
We tried three bottles from the Pays d’Oc, the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France where they make oceans of viognier, sometimes blending the grape with other Rhone varieties such as Roussane and Marsanne. We started with a 2016 Saint Ferreol (majestic.co.uk, £14.99 or £12.99 as part of six) whose makers emphasise the wine’s ‘fermentation and ageing in oak barrels [that] enhance the natural fragrance by encouraging apricot, butterscotch and vanilla notes.’ There was honey on the nose and a full-bodied assault on the palate, but the flavours were synthetic, even a little chemical, and left a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Next came a 2016 viognier from Abbotts Delaunay, the joint house of Nerida Abbott from Australia and Laurent Delaunay from Bordeaux. It’s called Les Fleurs Sauvages (also available at Majestic, £9.99/ £7.99). The nose was delicate to the point of non-existence, but the wine carried authentic stone-fruit notes lightly on the tongue and faded gracefully. It was the cheapest version we tried and we all found it ‘inoffensive’.
After that, a Viognier Cotes de Thongue, Domaine de la Condomine L’Eveque 2016 (oddbins.com £12), a grand name for a bottle which, otherwise, offers no information. The Oddbins notes promise you’ll be ‘buried in an avalanche of apricots, peaches, honey and flowers’ which is an extravagant claim; but it was a real find. The nose was light and floral, but had a whiff – a perfume – of lychee so vivid it could be decanted into a flask with a tassel. The wine is supple and rich on the palate with plum and greengage among the detectable aromas. This was our favourite among the Pays d’Ocs.
I looked for contrast to Australia and the Yalumba region which had been my introduction to viognier. We tried the Y Series Viognier 2016 (Majestic £10.99/ £8.99) and found it appealing but odd. The nose isn’t fruity but has an earthy, mineral quality – ‘almost mushroomy’ said one guest. On the palate, the wine is silkenly balanced and heftily fruity: the main taste is pineapple, with its hint of tartness, and, among lesser notes, a hint of ginger.
The authentic Condrieu viognier came last: a 2015 bottle from the legendary Etienne Guigal house (Majestic, a thumping £45 / £40). I opened it apprehensively. Could it possibly live up to my expectations? I’m delighted to say: God, yeah. Apply a glass of the pale-gold liquid to your nose and revel in the nectarous combination of white peach and vanilla. On the palate can be found a cornucopia of apricots, overripe peach and pear-juice flavours, even a hint of violet cream. Amazingly, the combination isn’t syrupy or tongue-coating. It’s wonderfully dry and light, disappearing down the throat like a raft of vestal virgins waving goodbye as they sail over a weir. The long finish brings you to the verge of tears.
Only the story of Malbec – the least stable Bordeaux varietal grape which flourished when transplanted to the high altitudes of the Andes and became a world-conquering success – comes close to matching the crazy apotheosis of Viognier, from its neglected solitude in the Rhone valley to its ubiquity on wine lists from Hove to Hyderabad. It’s a miracle of 21st-century resurrection. Try it this Easter. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it featured on the table at the Last Supper.
photo credit: alfredsommelier.com