Why Viognier, and what is it exactly? The WSET Level 2 text describes Viognier (pronounced vee oh nyay) as famously perfumed, fruity and full bodied, potentially a rival to the great Chardonnay itself. That’s enough to pique my interest: how can such a seemingly wonderful grape be so under-represented? Thus, I started digging into its history, revealing a tale of perhaps deserved decline and Viognier’s recent revival.
Viognier: history & growing conditions
In fact, whether intentionally, or through neglect, Viognier was en-route to extinction as recently as in the 1980s. Only 14 hectares of Viognier were planted, almost all in the tiny appellation of Condrieu in Northern Rhone of France (image below).
According to Jancis Robinson, Viognier is a finnicky grape – it’s early budding and therefore at risk from spring frosts. It doesn’t do well with cold weather, preferring warmer/moderate climates. You may think that won’t be an issue in the relatively southerly Rhone Valley, but the infamous Mistral winds (link to Wikipedia) blasts cold air at these delicate grapes, causing yields to be even lower than the already low yields (approximately 1.3 tonnes per acre vs the 3 ~ 5 tonnes per acre you get with Chardonnay). Oh also, did I mention that it doesn’t do well with humidity and water either? Viognier needs proper drainage, and if its too humid its susceptible to fungal infections like powdery mildew.
No wonder the grape is often described as the “vintner’s headache”. Grape farmers need to cane prune, train and trellis the Viognier vines at the start of every growing season to reduce the harm caused by the cold winds. Furthermore, the grapes produced are often low in acidity, and abundant in sugar (leading to excessive amounts of alcohol post-fermentation) – not necessarily the best combination for a dry white wine.
It’s no wonder vineyard owners would prefer to be rid of Viognier vines , especially if plantings of Chardonnay or even red grapes could be economically more viable. Things finally looked up for Viognier in the 1990s, when its distinctive character (perfumed apricots) finally caught the imagination of producers outside of France. Helped by modern technology and a better understanding of wine science, today, Viognier is blossoming. In native France, the Languedoc forms most of the area under vine out of France’s total of 4,500 hectares. Approximately 4,400 hectares of vines is planted in Australia, with California in second place at around 1,300 hectares, and New Zealand starting to experiment actively with the grape plantings.
Viognier: Wine styles and taste
Surprisingly for an aromatic grape variety, Viognier’s main use is as a co-fermentee (i.e. grapes blended to undergo fermentation together) of Syrah in the Rhone (e.g. in Cote Rotie) and inspired Australia to do the same with its Shiraz. In a surprising twist of chemistry, the presence of Viognier actually intensifies the ruby colour of the resultant wine, rather than thin it out. The Anthocyanins (responsible for red grape colour) combines with the flavonoids found in Viognier to boost its colour. The taste of Syrah is however is mellowed by the Viognier, and the wine receives an aromatic booster.
As a single varietal wine, Viognier can definitely hold its own. To “research” this article, I procured two bottles of Viognier. Old World: 2017 Condrieu “La Doraine” by E. Guigal and for the New World, a 2011 Viognier from Gimblett Gravels of Trinity Hills (New Zealand).
The style of wine it makes is intensely perfumed (caused by the high levels of Terpenes, aromatic compound), regardless of producer or region. In both of my wines, I was enveloped in notes of apricot, pear, toasted apple (like an apple tart) and floral aromas. In the new world example, the notes of oak and vanilla were significantly more intense than the old world Condrieu I had. Acidity is on the low side for both, and alcohol will be high due to the naturally high sugars in Viognier grapes. The grapes are not harvested earlier to reduce sweetness because the famed aromatics typically develop late, and would not be present in wine otherwise.
Viognier is not known to age for long in bottle – the fruity and floral aromatics quickly fade if not drunk within the first 10 years.
Viognier: PRODUCERS, PRICES AND RATINGS
The most famous producer of Old World Viognier is undoubtedly Château-Grillet, which is a monopole (i.e. belongs to one owner) vineyard, and is incidentally also an appellation unto itself (and at 1.6 hectares, one of France’s smallest). However, this wine is priced similarly to top second growths of Bordeaux (in fact, the Chateau is owned by Chateau Latour of first growth Bordeaux fame) , so I am unlikely able to try it anytime soon. Thank goodness, most Viogniers are more reasonably priced around $30 SGD to $120 SGD. Other top producers in Rhone include Guigal, Georges Vernay, Christophe Pichon and more.
Viognier: Table of Facts & Figures
|Parentage||Unclear, Suspected to be related to Mondeuse Blance and Freisa|
|Where is it grown||France (Rhone, Languedoc), Australia, USA (California), South Africa, Spain, New Zealand|
|Wine Styles||Dry Still White|
Blended with Syrah/Shiraz
|Typical Colour||Medium Gold|
|Typical Nose||Apricots, Pear, Oak, Intensely Perfumed|
|Typical Body||Medium ~ Full Bodied|
|Typical Acidity||Low Acidity|
|Typical Flavours||Apricots, Honeysuckle, May blossom, gingerbread|
Viognier: concluding remarks
The story of Viognier is testament to the ability of the modern consumer market to bring almost-extinct grapes back to prominence in the shortest period of time. As a wine, it is polarising. While easy enough to enjoy on the first few sips, the intensity of the perfume and fruit may soon wear on the palate for those of us who like subtler wines. While it certainly has come back from the dead, the future of Viognier is still uncertain. Who knows if it would ever reach the soaring heights of more popular white varieties like Semillon or Pinot Gris/Grigio.
further reading & references
- Wine Flavour Chemistry by Jokie Bakker, Ronald J Clarke
- Wine Science Principles and Applications by Ronald S Jackson
- Vines for Wines A Wine Lovers Guide to the Top Wine Grape Varieties by George Kerridge, Angela Gackle
- The New Sothebys Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson
- Wine Grapes a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours by Robinson, Jancis Harding, Julia Vouillamoz, José
- Jimmy Smith’s video on Viognier – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqo2GCdp6L4&ab_channel=WineWithJimmy
- Unknown Winecaster’s Viognier – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3Ur7yINIxg&ab_channel=TheUnknownWinecaster
- UC Davis – http://iv.ucdavis.edu/files/24365.pdf
- Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau-Grillet_AOC
- Wine Searcher – https://www.wine-searcher.com/grape-535-viognier
- Jancis Robinson – https://www.jancisrobinson.com/learn/grape-varieties/white/viognier
- Wine Folly – https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/viognier-vee-own-yay-wine-guide/