In a time when the oak-laden, buttered popcorn-like Chardonnays became too heavy, and the zippy eye-twitching tart and herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc were too much to handle, Viognier came as a sigh of relief. This dark-coloured, redolent, white variety that reminds of musk, jasmine, elderflower blossoms, peaches, apricots, candied citrus and fresh cream, with its inviting aromas casted its spell and instantly became desirable. Today, the international and Indian winemakers fancy it in their yards and the discerning palates wait for their recent releases. Undoubtedly it is amongst the rising stars of the Indian wine brigade.
VIOGNIER’S FOOGY ORIGINS
History suggests it arrived at the France’s Rhone Valley with the Romans, However, its origins are still foggy. Some believe it has a southern inception, near Sicily. Others credit the Northeastern Piedmont region’s famed varietal, Nebbiolo, to be its close cousin. France, amidst this confusion, opened its vineyards to this rusty backpacker and provided its true home. It has been flourishing here since the 3rd century BC. Its craze and growing demand led to creation of its own classified wine-style in 1940 – Condrieu. This was a milestone for this underdog varietal that the world is lucky to have today. But it has had a turbulent voyage to reach here.
THE VIOGNIER REVIVAL
Much like a phoenix, Viognier was born to fly; burnt down but then it rose from the ashes to fly again. It is one of the hardest varietal to grow and a winemaker’s nightmare. The vines produce a very low yield of grapes thus rendering the produce expensive. It also has a ripening deficiency. With minute and bloated berries sitting in the same bunch, called ‘chicken and hens’, both being wasteful. This makes the low yield tinier further hiking the price. Furthermore, with its natural ripening imperfection, the sugar in the grapes ripens very early, with under-developed flavours. In its wait for the flavours to catch-up, the sugar soars. The zesty acidity is, however, lost. Thus, resulting in deep-coloured, oily, weighty, spicy, flabby, alcoholic, and jarring wine unworthy of its fancy price tag.
All this let Viognier to its own near-extinction downfall. In 1965, only 1900 litres of Condrieu was produced to feed the world’s Viognier demand!
The winemakers lost their belief in the varietal and its potential to yield profits. But then, there were the brave-hearted wineries like John Jensen in California and Yalumba of Australia who carried it to its new homes. They’re honoured as Viognier’s New World guardians. They’ve blessed Viognier with its revival. California, emerging from the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. They promptly moved to the Viognier, bestowing it with a cult wine stature. Thanks to this, Viognier became the most fashionable varietal in the 1990s.
By the 2000s, it also emerged as an efficient blending partner with heavy red varietals, especially Shiraz. Its inclusion in the red wine blend tames these robust, masculine, hard-hitting wines, providing them with a delicate and elegant floral lift. This phenomenon is especially found in the adored wine-style of Côte-Rôtie, just north of Condrieu. The nouveau markets not only find it fashionable, but also have a worthy appetite for this wine-style
One must be careful that oak doesn’t suppress its varietal aromas. Some experimental winemakers have managed to infuse the right amount, hence, making the wine romantically complex. Given its ability to have high sugar ripeness and succulent aromas, some believe it can make great dessert wines too. However, given the speedy fall in its acidity, the varietal loses its ability to provide balanced sweet drops.
INDIA’S TRYST WITH VIOGNIER
In the land of us sweet-toothed, sugar-loving Indians, we received our share of Viognier. Thanks to the two pioneers – Sula Vineyards and the winery formerly known as Grover Vineyards. They conquered the flair of producing off-dry avatars while respecting the finer varietal nuances. Charossa Vineyards is the latest addition to the Indian winemaking arsenal. It has made heads turn with their linear, astute, and beautifully crafted first vintage. Undoubtedly, Viognier has been an under-played for far. However, its emergence can be felt and noticed. Another genre will soon be seen from the Four Seasons winery who is experimenting with its oaky version. Phew, so much to offer!! What works in well for the Indian palates is Viognier’s affinity to pair well with delicate and subtle flavours like saffron. It also favours creamy and buttery dishes. Viognier and Chicken Korma is an international favourite amongst wine connoisseurs and aficionados.
A word of advice, it’s amongst that breed of wines that doesn’t improve with age. Buyers around the globe do principally consider that wines’ high price and its aging potential work in tandem, not here, it’s for the youth. Drink them while they’re young, straight from the tanks is the freshest you can get it, however should you still wish to rest it, one year is the best you may allow.
Condrieu boasts itself as the only recognised Viognier-based wine style in the world and commands a hefty burn-hole-in-your-pocket price for its rarity value. However, this is the best expression of the varietal. Wrapped in the French mysticism, the only style that carries the sword of ageing potential its armour. Intense floral aromas with fruits like apricot, white peach and citrus bathed in a fleshy roundness. Invigorating palate with fresh and rich flavours, complimented by round creamy mouthfeel, ending on a dry note with remarkable minerality. It’s a treat in its own. However, hard cheeses like Grana Padano, aged cheddar, lemon and thyme roast chicken, and Pork belly dishes pair elegantly with it.
In 1979, Aussies saw their first home-grown Viognier, and it was Yalumba that introduced them to this sensuous wine, thus making it the oldest plantations Down Under. Undoubtedly the finest house to nurture this style from the island, they produce an organic and a regional version too, however, the Y Series is the most approachable. It flaunts sensual floral fragrance of a classic Viognier, followed closely by aromas of elderflower, honeysuckle, and apricot jelly, balanced by the zesty freshness of lime candy, and an aftertaste of stoned fruits. Serve it with grilled chicken dishes, tuna bruschetta, spinach quiche, and titbits alike. A perfect companion for your next summer picnic.
‘Sometimes, it is best to be married’, my Korean friend once told me. Blends are just that when it comes to wines. This marriage of Viognier (about half), Chenin Blanc, and Grenache Blanc from the legendary house of Boekenhoutskloof in South Africa is a delicate relationship between three completely individualistic varietals. Viognier’s perfumed elegance is complimented by the fruity and acidic Chenin Blanc and rounded by the fatty and playful Grenache Blanc, all this bound together with a kiss of oak. The wide spectrum of flavours like cinnamon, candied lemondrop, almonds, apple blossom, and stoned fruits is well balanced by the natural acidity of blended varietals finishing on a lingering sweet passionfruit and green apple tone. Its amicability and simplicity is majestic, while the hidden playfulness allures to draw another sip. Asparagus risotto, seafood paella, aged Gouda or fresh chèvre, and also Navrattan Korma
Viognier’s perfumed elegance is complimented by the fruity and acidic Chenin Blanc and rounded by the fatty and playful Grenache Blanc, all this bound together with a kiss of oak. The wide spectrum of flavours like cinnamon, candied lemondrop, almonds, apple blossom, and stoned fruits is well balanced by the natural acidity of blended varietals finishing on a lingering sweet passionfruit and green apple tone. Its amicability and simplicity is majestic, while the hidden playfulness allures to draw another sip. Asparagus risotto, seafood paella, aged Gouda or fresh chèvre, and also Navrattan Korma
Jacques Grange at Delas is an all-know winemaker of the Rhone Valley. He selected not the northerly vineyards but the southern influenced and warmer sites for this wine. Burst of Viognier’s distinctive character this wine is a classy example of the varietal’s calibre. Ripened apricots and peaches, ripe pineapple crunch, lemon citrus and a layer of under-ripe herbaceous notes complete the flavour spectrum. The palate is coated with a smooth texture, concluding with hints of spice and rejuvenating acidity. Meaty white fish in lemon butter sauces, pepper garlic crab, Pad Thai noodles, and coconut infused curries will accompany the wine well.
Waterkloof Circumstance Viognier, Stellenbosch, South Africa – INR3350 – Godrej Nature’s Basket, Mumbai
This clean varietal Viognier from the warm sites of the rather cooler coastal region showcases the pleasing aromas of eucalyptus oil, lime candy, candied ginger, stoned fruits, white peach marmalade, lychee juice, and kiwi skins lifted with bright blossoms and white florals. It’s this array of flavours and nuances power-packed in a glass that makes it irresistible. An unconventional pairing of Morroccon-style lamb tagine, pok choy in soy sauce, lemon drizzled fried calamari, zucchini tartlets with tomato salsa, can be tried with this African drop.
Sula Vineyards Dindori Reserve Viognier – Nasik, India – INR640, Delhi – INR760, Mumbai – Leading Wine Stores
A well-respected attempt of bringing Viognier to the Indian tables, broadening the horizons of our palates, and providing us something to enjoy without dwelling in its complex flavours. Filled with generous notes of custard apple, crushed peaches and pears, perfumed white florals, sugar candy, hint of green fruit zests and guava skin. The aftertaste is tad bitter and oily, thus demanding a sweet partner to pair with. A good medium-sweet wine to finish your dinner with, even better if served with a fruit platter of tropical and citrus fruits, lemon tart, hazelnut tart, apricot pie, and other such delicious endings.
Grovers brought India its much-deserved fame through their La Reserve red wine. It’s only a matter of time that their Viognier will be applauded too. This is probably the most varietal and stylish an Indian Viognier could get. Vibrant nose and palate with fresh notes of mint candy, passion fruit, elderflower, peach marmalade, and fresh cream, finishing with a dry powerful stoned fruit note, rendering the palate clean. The dryness of the wine makes it drinkable and more enjoyable than its sugary counterparts. It that can be a good accompaniment for dishes with a tang, bitterness, and spicy touches. Ham wrapped baked chicken, Fish curry with appam, roasted turkey with dried fruit sauce, spicy vegetable cakes with mango chutney, are only a few to explore the pairing with
For an emerging Indian producer to toy with such a difficult varietal is already a herculean task, and to throw it in oak thereafter is quite a risk to take. A bone-dry wine that showcases the varietal character by also capturing the under-ripe green notes, pulpy white fruit sweetness, floral aromatics, and binding them together with a flex of spicy oak. The crispy mouthfeel provides a clean aftertaste rendering the wine an approachable entity. If you can spot it on the shelves, do try it. A good accompaniment with grilled vegetable and cous cous, chicken satay with peanut sauce, mushroom risotto, and crunchy shrimp cakes.