Viognier is a French grape variety from the northern Rhône wine region which was almost lost to the world.
Following the phylloxera scourge in the 19th century, other disruptions in the last century, and issues with yields and disease, plantings had declined to less than a dozen acres. (This is not as extreme as some varietals, such as pecorino, which have been rescued from a single vine!)
Production has since rebounded both in France and around the world, and the variety is somewhat trendy these days. You can find examples from Canada, Australia and California. It is also grown in South America, South Africa, other parts of Europe — and, in an interesting development, seems to have emerged as the top white varietal in the state of Virginia.
Viognier’s most notable feature is its vibrant aroma which is usually associated with descriptors including apricot, honeysuckle and gingerbread. It can easily aspire to be a full-bodied wine, but care has to be taken to ensure sufficient acidity.
As a full-body wine, it matches well with various dishes — the ginger feature suggesting spicy Asian cuisine with similar flavourings. The grape is often used in white blends to add substance and complexity to the aroma.
The northern Rhône is mainly red-wine territory, but there are two appellations that are designated as white wine only, and that white wine is 100 per cent viognier. Château Grillet is one of the smallest appellations in France, with only a few grand cru Burgundy vineyards ranking smaller. The entire appellation is owned by a single winery of the same title. Condrieu, the other viognier appellation, surrounds Château Grillet. It was in Condrieu and Château Grillet that viognier made its last stand.
Still in the north, the famous red-wine appellation Côte-Rôtie provides for a small percentage of viognier to be blended with syrah. The result is a meaty red with floral notes which, perhaps strangely, really works.
Viognier is just another part of the blend in the rest of the Rhône region and southern France, one of a long list of allowed white-wine varietals which includes roussanne, marsanne, grenache blanc, clairette and bourboulenc.
This week’s wine is one such blend, and it comes from the well-respected French producer E. Guigal. In most such blends, viognier plays a small role, but in Guigal’s wine, viognier dominates at 55 per cent in 2011, growing to 70 per cent in 2012.
The Chateau d’Ampuis Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2011 (NLC $20.94) had an abundant aroma combining floral elements with stone fruit such as peach and apricot. It was quite weighty in the mouth, with good acidity and overall balance. It was a good match with fish cakes. Score: 15.5. Rating: Very Good.
To underscore the food pairing quality of viognier, I recently was able to sip on a 15-year-old appellation, Condrieu, 100 per cent viognier wine. It had great body and presence, and sufficient power to make it an acceptable match with tenderloin (for those unable to drink red) — a great surprise to me.
Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at email@example.com