Viognier is one of my favourite summer whites and one that grows on me with every bottle. It has a complexity, a range of floral scents and flavours and even a slight muskiness that demands attention. It’s a sobering thought that we almost lost this harlequin grape completely. Viognier is a pain to grow, prone to mildew, and difficult to make wine from since it reacts badly to oxygen. The result was, 50 years ago, the world's stock of Viognier vines had dwindled to just eight acres in the Rhone.
Since then it has enjoyed a slow but steady renaissance, helped by the enthusiasm of New World winemakers. Today there are more than 700 acres of Viognier in the Rhone, and more than 2,000 in California. The grape has also taken hold in the South of France, where the warm soils suit it, in parts of Australia – particularly in the Yalumba Valley – with a smattering in South Africa and even South America.
These Viogniers can be bewilderingly different. Some winemakers use it to create relatively simple, light floral wines with just enough zest to betray their origins. Others create much deeper wines that can overwhelm you with a palette of spices and rich fruit. These are bottles that will happily accompany even the spiciest foods.
A good example of the lighter Viognier is the Marquis de Pennautier (Majestic, a snip at £7.49). For something deeper and wilder try the Yalumba Viognier (Waitrose, £12.99), which should be sipped in small quantities.
Viognier, though, is an aristocratic grape and to understand its true potential, you need to go back to its roots in the Rhone Valley, rather than stray abroad. The famed appellation of Condrieu makes wines that are 100 per cent Viognier. Here the viticulturalists draw everything out of this grape – and then sell it for a price that rewards their skill. Condrieu is a wine unlike any other, a journey right across your palate, with a length that you would normally only associate with powerful reds. With an annual production of only 30,000 cases, from seven tiny communes by the Rhone, Condrieu is rare but worth the effort and expense. For a fine example try the 2009 Le Grand Vallon (Berry Bros, £29.25) with its explosion of honey, apricots and spices. A more affordable Condrieu can be found at Asda of all places for just £14.97. It offers the Caves de la Visitation, which is an entry level Condrieu in every respect, with none of the intensity of its dearer cousins, but it’s still very good value.
As a footnote I should add that Viognier also turns up in the most unlikely place – in Cote Rotie, the great power wine of the northern Rhone. True Cote Rotie contains up to 10 per cent Viognier, one of the very few red wines to be part-made with a white grape. It is a fitting testament to the zest and magic of Viognier that it’s needed to put the spring into the step of such a big red.