Forty years ago the Viognier grape, even in its homeland in the northern Rhône Valley, was virtually extinct. Even 20 years ago the total area of Viognier vines planted in the entire world was barely 80 acres, or 32 hectares, and almost all of them were in the little village of Condrieu. Ten years ago, only the cognoscenti had heard of it. And yet today it seems to be on the label of at least a quarter of all the wine samples I am sent to try – both red and white. Viognier truly is the flavour, and I use the word advisedly, of the year.
I am not suggesting that it is planted on anything like a quarter of the world's vineyards. According to the latest figures there are fewer than 14,000 acres worldwide, meaning that it is planted on just three per cent of the area planted with, for example, Chardonnay, but it is currently so fashionable that a little is made to go a long way.
This is particularly true of the red wines that are currently flooding on to shelves with the magic V-word on the label. In Côte Rôtie, the red wine appellation just north of Condrieu, there had long been a tradition of fermenting a small proportion of Viognier grapes with the dark-skinned Syrah (aka Shiraz) grapes that are principally responsible for Côte Rôtie. This was supposed to imbue the wines with a little of Viognier's characteristically heady perfume but also, most importantly and counter-intuitively, to make the wine's colour deeper and more stable while, some believe, smoothing out the texture.
Suddenly this technique, co-fermentation, was rediscovered in the early 2000s, particularly but by no means exclusively in Australia, and we started to see a host of wines labelled Shiraz/Viognier, deep, sweetish reds initially reeking of the honeysuckle and apricot scents associated with Viognier. But Australian winemakers are nothing if not trend-conscious and adaptable, and as soon as a few wine show judges opined that red wines should not smell of white grapes, they toned down the perfume and today's Shiraz/Viogniers are much more subtle. Viognier tends to constitute less than five per cent of these blends – as well it might for the variety is still relatively new to Australia.
These Australian examples, of which Yarra Yering Dry Red no 2 was the 1980s prototype, have been followed by a wave of wines labelled Shiraz/Viognier or Syrah/Viognier from elsewhere, notably California and the south of France. Now at least two South African producers, Charles Back of Fairview and Livingstone, are co-fermenting the native red grape Pinotage with Viognier.
But the great majority of today's flood of Viognier on to our shelves is white, either 100 per cent varietal Viognier or, very often, Viognier blended with other white grape varieties. Condrieu is still the archetypal Viognier and all the finest, most subtle Viognier I have tasted comes from this north Rhône appellation, now just about planted to its limit. Good Condrieu has the weight and perfume of all successful Viogniers but extra layers of flavour and subtlety, often finishing quite dry and savoury with more than a hint of minerality and sufficient greengage-like acidity to keep it appetising. Too many bargain Viogniers are all cheap scent and flab (I shall resist anthropomorphism) – and can smell uncomfortably reminiscent of air freshener.
The problem is that while aroma is Viognier's chief attribute, interesting perfumes do not develop until the grapes are extremely ripe, so virtually all Viogniers are pretty potent, and acidity can all too often be so low that the wines are best drunk as young as possible. Be wary of older vintages than those specified below for they may well have lost their aroma and turned oily. I am far from convinced that Viognier in general improves with age – although the curious one-property appellation just south of Condrieu, Château-Grillet, is said by its admirers and importers to blossom only after years in bottle.
For many years I thought only the finest Condrieu and the odd early California example, plus one or two one-offs in the south of France, had much to offer Viognier enthusiasts but in the last year or two winemakers all over the place seem to have got the hang of it – or perhaps it is simply that the vines have reached sufficient age to produce interesting wine, by no means all of it expensive.
Perhaps the most dramatic improvement in overall quality, and quantity, is in Chile where suddenly Viognier seems as common as a pisco sour and many examples, at different price levels, are first class. But Australia and South Africa are catching up fast, and I was rather taken by a Charles Back blend of Viognier with South Africa's most planted grape Chenin Blanc which has quite enough natural acidity to counterbalance Viognier's heft well.
Viognier has such a strong personality that even a small proportion in a blend can have a marked effect. All over the south of France, and even in north east Spain now, interesting blends of it with such varieties as Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne and/or Rolle are now being made – as they are in California and Australia – but of these only Roussanne and Rolle can inject zest and acidity into the blend. Viognier-Chardonnay blends are also made, notably in Italy, and they can work so long as the Chardonnay is not so ripe that the whole effect is overweight.
Warning – these wines are too big to drink as aperitifs but so richly flavoured they need careful food matching. Flavourful Mediterranean dishes with several ingredients generally work better than a lightly poached fillet of sole.
Cono Sur Viognier 2005 Colchagua
£4.99 Majestic, Somerfield, Waitrose
Drink this relatively simple example this minute but it's very competent, and only £3.99 if two bottles are bought at Majestic November-January.
Clos Petit Bellane Blanc 2004 Côtes du Rhône Blanc
Fifty per cent Roussanne with Viognier – a really lively, green-fruit mouthful of southern France which should be drunk immediately.
Kumkani Viognier 2004 Stellenbosch
Widely available in the US from $11
This delicious, mineral-scented example has no known UK retail stockist yet. More information from Omnia Wines on 01628 763 769
Charles Back Chenin Blanc/Viognier 2005 Coastal Region
£7.99 Somerfield, larger Tesco stores
The acidity of the two-thirds Chenin Blanc counterbalances the weight of the Viognier. Made at Fairview in South Africa by the Goats do Roam creator, it's very young and tangy and might just age pretty well, the way Chenin does.
Brampton Viognier 2004 Stellenbosch
Lightly oaked, substantial yet delicate – part of the renowned Rustenberg's diffusion line.
d'Arenberg, The Hermit Crab Marsanne/Viognier 2004 McLaren Vale
£7.99 Oddbins, Jolly Vintner, Luvians, Magnum, ND John, Peckhams, Yarrowines, Phillips Newman
Full, rich and opulent, this Australian blend of two fat ladies has, just, enough tang.
Casa Silva, Lolol Viognier 2003 Colchagua
£8.99 Barrels & Bottles, Frank Stainton of Kendal, Great Northern Wine, Thameside Wines of Putney
Serious Chilean which has aged well.
Yalumba Viognier 2003 Eden Valley
£9.95 Premier Vintners of London SW18
Good savoury undertow on honeysuckle aromas. This South Australian, unusually, can safely be aged. Yalumba have pioneered Viognier in Australia and have the vine and wine quality to show it.
Laurent Miquel, Verité Viognier 2004 Coteaux du Languedoc
A southern French, barrel fermented attempt at the depth of a Condrieu – fair value.
François Villard, Le Grand Vallon 2003 Condrieu
Many of the 2003 Condrieus current on offer are too fat but this has exceptional nerve.
Yering Station Shiraz/Viognier 2003 Yarra Valley
£9.99 larger Sainsbury's
This producer in one of the cooler wine regions in the Australian state of Victoria is on a roll, making very fine wines including this model of restraint which is much less obviously Viognier than the 2002. Best drunk in a year or two.
Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2003 Canberra District
£30 Martinez of Yorkshire, Noel Young, Australian Wine Club
Another cool climate Australian with real subtlety, seven per cent co-fermented Viognier – and quite a reputation by now.
Guigal, La Mouline 1999 Côte Rôtie
£250 Food and Fine Wine, Bordeaux Index
The de luxe version. Eleven per cent Viognier in this, the most 'feminine' of the most famous Côte Roties in a great vintage. Bottle, not case, price though. Bermuda's the place to buy it according to www.winesearcher.com