The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
Like free-range chickens and Tony Bennett, viognier 50 years ago seemed fated to a future of quaint obscurity. Total worldwide acreage of the aromatic white variety in the 1960s was a scant 35 acres, barely three times the backyard spread of Tiger Woods's Florida mansion and just one-third the size of a typical 18-hole golf course.
Now cultivated around the globe, viognier has become as chic as Bennett trading harmonies with Lady Gaga on Cheek to Cheek. It has spread to more than 10,000 acres, according to Jancis Robinson's authoritative book Wine Grapes, taking a seat at the table of trendy foodies everywhere. No important wine grape has come so far so fast.
Poor plant material had helped precipitate viognier's decline all those years ago, with frustratingly low fruit yields prompting farmers to bail to more profitable varieties. But it was the persistence of growers in the northern Rhône Valley, south of Lyons, that ultimately paid off for the vine. In the tiny appellations of Condrieu and Château-Grillet, where the paltry 35 acres were situated, a small band of believers continued to turn out compelling juice that caught the curiosity of producers looking for offbeat alternatives to such ubiquitous fare as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
New, more reliably healthy vine cuttings were introduced in the 1980s, not only in viognier's native southern France but also in Australia, Chi,le, South Africa, British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, Ontario's Niagara region and – most notably – California, where many $20 examples can approach, if not necessarily equal, the luscious profile of $40-plus Condrieus. And sommeliers played no small role in the vine's growing acceptance, touting viognier (the "g" is silent) as a versatile companion to food.
Oily-textured and intriguingly floral, the grape produces a medium- to full-bodied wine, usually with overtones of orange peel, apricot, ginger, jasmine and honey and in some cases a hint of sweetness. A perfectly rounded accompaniment to richly spiced Indian curries in particular, I think, it's also marvellously satisfying on its own.
Like Bennett, the grape harmonizes brilliantly with others. Marsanne, roussanne and grenache blanc, fellow southern-French varieties that can temper viognier's suggestive sweetness without inhibiting its blossom-like fragrance, are its most frequent companions, as in white Côtes du Rhône. But avid collectors of fine red wine may be most familiar with viognier through the majestic and cellar-worthy wines of Côte-Rôtie near Condrieu in the northern Rhône, where it's often added in small quantities to the fermenting vat to help lift red syrah's aroma and stabilize its colour. Many New World producers now treat their syrahs (or shirazes) the same way.
The all-viogner whites of Condrieu and the single-estate appellation of Château-Grillet remain the benchmark, including the Condrieus of E. Guigal, a foremost exponent of the wine, as well as André Perret, Georges Vernay, Pichon and Chapoutier. California stars include Alban Vineyards, Arrowood, Pride Mountain, Qupé and Stags' Leap, though those wines often match Condrieu in the high-price department.
More affordable and fine examples can be had for less than $25, including those of Eberle, McManis and Gnarly Head in California, Yalumba in Australia, Pentage, Stag's Hollow and Van Westen in British Columbia, and Laurent Miquel in southern France.
Flexible though it may be at the table, viognier may not be the best match for scrambled eggs, free-range or otherwise. Better to enjoy brunch with a crisp glass of dry bubbly.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.