“Viognier was close to extinction in 1980 when Yalumba pioneered a renaissance of this rare, exotic and alluring variety” – so reads the back label of a delightful example of the grape from Australia’s Eden Valley (currently on offer at Waitrose for £9.74, usually £12.99).
It’s not in doubt that there were only a few acres of Viognier remaining at one time. However, Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand in their book “Grapes & Wines” (Webster’s, 2001) suggest that the low point was rather earlier (1965) and attribute the revival elsewhere – crediting either Josh Jensen of Calera in California or the ‘king of Beaujolais’, Georges Duboeuf. Personally, I don’t mind who ensured the grape’s survival – it’s a fascinating and distinctive variety and deserves to be around.
But, how did it get into such a perilous state? It’s a grape that is native to the tiny northern Rhône Appellation of Condrieu and, for many years, it was grown there and virtually nowhere else. The vineyards of Condrieu are perched on impossibly steep granite slopes overlooking the Rhône making any work in the vineyard both difficult and dangerous. Not surprisingly, as transport in the region improved, many growers abandoned their vines and sought work in nearby Lyon instead. Indeed, in one year, just 2500 bottles were made from the variety.
Without getting into the debate about who engineered its revival, the prospects for Viognier have been transformed and the grape is now thriving with major plantings in the south of France, California and Australia as well as in the vineyards of its native Rhône.
So, what’s so special about it? At its best, it has a wonderful aromatic perfume – think apricots, peaches and exotic spices – and a full, rich and mouth-filling taste not quite like anything else. It goes perfectly with gently spicy or creamy dishes. For a real treat, ask your local independent wine merchant if they have any Condrieu (expect to pay £30 plus a bottle); otherwise, the example from Yalumba that prompted this blog should convince any doubters.