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Bored of Sauvignon Blanc? Tired of Pinot Grigio? Then it’s time to try a white wine that’s rather more exotic. Margaret Rand introduces Viognier, a grape that offers up a seductive array of flavours and aromas
If I could design a white wine from scratch, what would it be like? Well, first of all, it would have flavour. Something irresistible – a touch of apricot, perhaps? With a drop of lime cordial, and maybe a dollop of minerality? And subtlety. Lots of wines scream at us, but it’s rather nice to be addressed softly from time to time.
How about some acidity? Low acidity has its charms, especially when it’s balanced by that minerality I mentioned; and perhaps a bitter twist on the finish.
The wine I’ve just described is Viognier. Not just any Viognier, though, but that from Condrieu, a small appellation in France’s northern Rhône Valley. The Viognier grape – here grown on dauntingly steep terraces that are cold in winter, hot in summer and periodically blasted by the Mistral, a fresh wind that whips across the Rhône Valley – produces wine of astonishing delicacy and complexity. So much so that the rest of the winemaking world is trying to imitate it.
But that’s no easy task. Viognier is a tiresome grape to grow, with an erratic yield and a habit of reaching high sugar levels – so, in theory, ripeness – before it develops any real flavour. So growers have to wait until the magic moment when flavour suddenly appears, and then they must pick fast, or the wine will be too rich, too oily, too heavy. The only reason they persevere with such a tricky vine is the sublimity of the wine when they get it right – and the fact that wine drinkers love it and are crying out for more. Viognier, in its apricot richness, its exoticism and its moreishness, is the flavour of the moment.
So, apart from Condrieu, where is Viognier grown? You’ll find it in the south of France and also across the New World: in California, Virginia (terrific examples here), Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay. It’s loved by adventurous winemakers who want to take chances, so these New World examples are well worth exploring (see ‘Wines To Try’ opposite). Condrieu itself is expensive. There’s no escaping that simple fact, although with cheaper versions, you get more upfront apricot fruit and less minerality – which is a style that some people prefer.
Wherever it’s grown, the key to good Viognier is balance – which makes it a versatile food wine. It’s a great match for grand white fish such as halibut or turbot, and it can also handle spice well – Chinese crab with ginger can be fabulous. At times, I’ve paired Viognier successfully with pork fillet with honey and mustard – that sweet savouriness works very well. A slow-cooked casserole of pork with apples and fennel seed is another good match. It works with Cantonese food, too, and is ideal with vegetable dishes involving pumpkin or sweet potato. In fact, it would be a brilliant all-round wine if only it wasn’t so difficult to grow.
If you decide to try it and become a fan of Viognier, the good news is that some of its exotic flavours can also be found in different forms in other grapes. Fiano di Avellino of southern Italy; the Garganega grape, which is the best part of the Soave blend; Albariño of Spain, which becomes Alvarinho in Portugal; the Godello of Spain; the rare Heida of Switzerland – all have these glorious apricot and lime-cordial flavours. And all are worth exploring.
2009 Domaine Georges Vernay, Terrasses de l’Empire, Condrieu (Berry Bros)
Tip-top Condrieu – I warned you that it’s expensive. Fabulous precision, balance, purity and minerality.
2009 Laurent Miquel, Verite Viognier, Vin de Pays d’Oc (Waitrose Wine Direct)
Ripe citrus and apricot notes, and a creamy texture. Finesse and elegance.
2010 Yalumba, Y Series Viognier, South Australia (Majestic)
Peaches and apricots, and a lovely silky mouthfeel. A long-standing favourite.
2009 Trinity Hill, Botrytised Viognier, Gimblett Gravels, New Zealand (Great Western Wine)
Viognier can make some truly fantastic sweet wines, and this one has powerful dried-apricot and jasmine flavours with a clean, dry finish.
2009 Breaux Vineyards, Viognier, Virginia, USA (Oxford Wine Company)
Lovely balance, with an exotic orange blossom and apricot palate. Classic and elegant.
This feature was published in the Spring 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.