Viognier was virtually extinct in the 1960’s. Given how much trouble people have figuring out how to pronounce this variety, that’s not so surprising. Texturally rich, powerfully scented and as buxom as a chardonnay, Viognier is one of France’s finest, but scarcest, white grapes. Viognier may be tough to pronounce, but it is not tough to drink.
Having doggedly clung to the steep hills of France’s northern Rhone Valley through two-millennia of barbarian invasions, debilitating wars and capricious wine trends, a mere 12 hectares (30 acres) remained in the 1960s. Prior to the Roman Empire, no one knows for sure where this sultry, highly perfumed variety originated, though most experts attribute it to the Dalmatian Coast, which is present day Croatia. Roman Emperor Probus purportedly packed his suitcase with Viognier cuttings after a Dalamatian holiday and smuggled them into the Rhone Valley in 281 AD. Evidently he escaped questioning by border patrol — they probably didn’t know how to pronounce Viognier either. Emperor Robus was not the only man to bootleg Viognier. Centuries later Bonny Doon’s colorful winemaker Randall Grahm was hauled into court for running the vines via his suitcase from the Rhone to his California vineyards.
Two Rhone districts produce what is considered the world’s finest expression of Viognier: Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet. With Condrieu (Guigal) you can expect elegant white peach, pear and floral aromatics, somewhat like an amplified Riesling. Wine from Chateau-Grillet is a rarity because only the Chateau-Grillet winery has the right to put this district name on its label. Due to its scarcity and exclusive monopole naming rights, Chateau Grillet has been mistakenly regarded as the finest Viognier in the world. It is a top quality wine, but has not been living up to its reputation – or prices — lately.
Viognier vines are also grown in the neighboring Cote Rotie appellation, which is famed for its Syrah-based wines, not Viognier. Oddly, handfuls of these Viognier clusters are chucked into the fermentation tanks together with the inky, dark-purple Syrah variety. Cote Rotie winemakers are convinced that Viognier softens their Syrah-based wines and increases their complexity. Top Australian producers of Syrah — aka Shiraz — agree, and wines such as D’arenberg’s Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier consistently garners amongst the highest scores from reviewers.
Viognier burst onto the international scene in the 1990’s. Weary of the endless river of Chardonnay, sommeliers and connoisseurs greeted the variety with enthusiasm, especially in California, where Viognier plantings increased from 20 hectares (50 acres) in 1990 to over 800 hectares (2,000 acres) today. Californians were not the only producers to embrace Viognier, it is grown in fifteen other states, as well as Australia, Italy, New Zealand (ie Te Matta Woodthorpe), South Africa (ie Fairview), France (ie Domaine du Chateau d’Eau) and South America.
New world producers, such as California’s Eberle Winery and Cline Cellars or Australia’s Yalumba Y Series loosened the corset on this voluptuous grape, so expect musky fruit, jasmine blossoms and fat, ripe summer peach flavors. Like many of us, Viognier loses its good looks with time, so it is best to drink while youthful and fresh. Oh, and how to pronounce it? Try “vee-ohn-yay” or “vee-oh-nyay.” No one has quite worked it out.