The rare joys of viognier

The virtues of open-mindedness tend to be overrated. I like the idea that the purpose of an open mind is much the same as that for having an open mouth – to close it on something nourishing.

Nonetheless, I get a strange satisfaction when my vinous prejudices get knocked down. Perhaps it’s relief at further proof of the shallowness of those who think that one cannot be honest in approaching a wine when one knows what it is – those who believe that pre-judging always trumps actual judgement. But more, it’s a matter of delight in finding something new, and finding a fine new vista open up.

Whatever. My opinion of the grape variety called viognier has been pretty low since an initial foolish flirtation. (By the way, if you don’t know how to pronounce it, and want to, you could get sufficiently close with “vee-ON-year”.) It’s a grape that was little known outside its home in France’s northern Rhône valley until a few decades ago. Since then it has travelled the world and settled down all over the place, including South Africa, making lots of friends and at least a few enemies.

I’m generally content to be numbered amongst the latter. The billowing aromas of peach and apricot generally seem crudely obvious, usually accompanied by a high alcohol and often some sugary sweetness. That’s all because the grape has little flavour until it gets very ripe (and then it has too much flavour altogether). When the enthusiastic winemaker adds oak flavour to the wine, in hopes of making us believe it grander, the result can be rather sickening.

Some are now adding dollops of viognier to give aromatic excitement, they imagine, to  blends. Some of these blends are very good, I must admit even some excellent ones. But A little viognier goes a long way, however – a horribly long way, sometimes. More often than not. Although…. Chris Mullineux has always liked tinkering with a little viognier in his chenin-based wines, and the Mullineux Family White Blend copes with it very well – but whether it wouldn’t have been better without, I’m not sure – Chris presumably didn’t think so. The original white “Cape Blend” (as some of us call it) was the Sadie Palladius, and the proportion of viognier has been coming down steadily, year by year. Eben Sadie used to say how he had to bash viognier on the head with oxidation to make it acceptable.

And, talking of oxidative winemaking in this context – the Solms Delta Amalie, which blends grenache blanc and viognier, is another really fine wine – if not to the tastes of those who like their wines squeaky clean-modern and fruity.

I’m finding a lot of evidence against myself here, and I could continue doing so – although the list of horrible viogniers would be even longer! But there always have been a few good local viogniers, even 100% varietal ones, which tested the rule (The Foundry Viognier is one such, and Tamboerskloof another). But the last weeks have prised open my mind and tastebuds a little further – even if I am not exactly a hymn-singing convert.

First, a delicious sweet version from Ridgeback, a winery in Paarl which is never to be sniffed at, especially for their reds (and the excellent value Vansha range – which includes a red and a white with bits of viognier, very acceptably I admit). I don’t really care for Ridgeback Viognier, but the Natural Sweet 2010 version (in half-bottles; R65) is delicious but not too showoff about it, packed with honey, peaches and citrus, and a dry apricot finish.

More special though, is the (just) dry Viognier from Eagles’ Nest, a newish winery in Constantia which has made a splash with its excellent Shiraz (the latest 2008 is the best so far; R190). They’ve produced a few good wines from viognier, better each year, with the 2009 a leap ahead. It’s refined and delicate, with a soft ripe tension and long-reverberating flavour.

An undeniably fine wine – unless you demand longevity for vinous distinction. Viognier is rarely long-lived, and Eagles’ Nest is unlikely to be an exception – its acidity is just too soft. In a year or two it will start moving downhill, its music growing ever fainter (an oboe, I think), leaving just reminiscences and echoes of the enormous pleasure it gave.


First published in Mail & Guardian, 30 July-5 August 2019, but this is an extended version.

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