Campaigners of the "Anything But Chardonnay" school of thought are still searching for new varietals to challenge Chardonnay's near hegemony in the world's Premiership White Wine league. Sauvignon Blanc has its many adherents, particularly in New Zealand, but your correspondent Lovat Stephen here declares his fondness for Viognier - so often regarded in the past as a variable and unfashionable grape.
Admittedly Viognier is hard to pronounce for those not wholly at home in speaking French, and it is only in the last decade or so that it has been readily available outside a small area of France, but recently it has been appearing in Britain from the New World in goodly quantities.
In many Wine Guide books there is generally a reference to the fact that Viognier can be a poor yielder and is sometimes subject to disease, but most of them recognise its very distinctive fruit-laden taste. Leading English wine-writer Oz Clarke describes it as delicious, with a peach and apricot flavour, and a taste almost like crème fraîche.
A few years ago Viognier was only planted in small quantities in the northern Rhône, at Condrieu and Château-Grillet; but since then it has been grown extensively in Australia and Argentina, and California.
Lovat Stephen, often overawed by the huge quantities of different wines on offer at London's international wine-tastings, now uses Viognier as a measuring stick in his approach to the white wines.
If Viognier is on offer, and treated seriously by an exhibiting country, it can be approached by a wine-lover without all the overtones and knowledge that accompany better-known and more famous grape varieties. Although it is generally best drunk while young, as more growers give it the attention your correspondent believes it deserves, it is making its mark in terms of both blending and storage longevity.
Viognier seems to gain quality as a blend, with both other white wines, and also even red wines. Thus, Australia's Yalumba company not only recently put forward a "Y" Viognier 2003 from the Barossa and another Viognier 2002 from Eden Valley, but also included small quantities of Viognier within its Barossa Shiraz 2001 and in a hand-picked bottling of a Shiraz of the same year. This latter bottling appeared in the higher price range of between £12 and £15.
A profitable flavouring addition ?
Lovat Stephen's view is that Viognier is worth seeking-out, and can luckily also be found in the lower price ranges in some supermarkets.
Only a few years ago he remembers encountering a perfectly quaffable Uruguayan 2001 white wine from Las Llanuras in Carmelo which was a blend of Pinot Blanc 60% and Viognier 40% selling at £2.99 (Aldi).
His first encounters with Argentine Viognier date back to 1999, where Lagarde Viognier claimed pioneer status with its 100% Viognier bottling described as being full of the flavour of peach and apricot to balance any acidity. It was presented as a worthy aperitif for a wine-bar, or accompanying a ratatouille or chicken dish in a restaurant.
Escorihuela Gascon Viognier 1999 had notable flavours of apple and tropical fruits as well as the aforementioned peach and apricot, said to be enhanced by its short period in oak barrels.
Prices since then have gone up as Viognier has fought its way into higher price brackets, but most is still good value when marketed for early-drinking now at several pounds more. Whether a South African bottle quite deserved its place recently as Waitrose's "Wine of the Month" is possibly an arguable commendation.
This wine, an Excelsior 2005 from Robertson in South Africa, of what was described as Paddock Viognier at 14.5%, was on offer at £5.99. Perfectly respectable at that price but nowhere near as good value as the Argentine Trivento Viognier on the shelf below at Waitrose - which was a good £2 cheaper. In fact, your Correspondent has found this particular Viognier wine consistently good and his records show he has enjoyed samples of the Trivento from the years 2002, 2003 and 2004.
His tasting-notes record a Concha y Toro Viognier 2003, where the back-label claimed that the warm days and cool nights of Mendoza were responsible for a marvellous white wine.
Jancis Robinson in her Concise Wine Companion writing in 2001 (Oxford University Press) agrees that Viognier really only became fashionable in the 1990's. As then it was basically only grown in those French areas of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet she says Viognier also attracted attention and prices there because of its relative scarcity.
In the last few years Lovat Stephen has begun to enjoy Viognier by itself, while welcoming it as an interesting variety when met in blends. He still prefers it "unadulterated" for early drinking, but accepts that it fully deserves being taken more seriously each year as the present Century moves on. Its aromatic and fruity flavour stands up well even in some cases when kept a bit longer.
Anyway, Viognier is worth trying and keeping an eye on in the future.