Viognier gets better and better

The Cape wine revolution of recent decades has brought us not only better stuff to drink, but also a wider selection of flavours, as new grape varieties are explored. “Anything but chardonnay!” was once the plaintive cry, and, as summer turns us looking for more white wine again, we could substitute that with a groaned-out “Anything but sauvignon blanc!”.

Even leaving aside chenin blanc and semillon (neither getting the popular acclaim they deserve), there’s much else to try – although the likes of roussanne, verdelho, grenache blanc and clairette probably more often assume modest roles in blends than star in their own one-grape shows.

Of the more exotic varieties, viognier has been around rather longer than most – since Fairview made the first local example 15 years ago. Ten years back there were about five bottlings, and now there are many dozen, not to mention blends with other grapes.That maiden Fairview was the local contribution to a growing international interest in viognier, helping it to break out of its tiny homeland in the Condrieu area of France’s northern Rhone valley (it took a little longer for the rest of the world to learn how to pronounce it: vee-on-year seems close enough).

Fairview 1998 was a good wine, though perhaps rather over-oaked (a sin widely committed  at the time, especially against chardonnay). Some other early viogniers were less convincing, as local growers struggled with its peculiarities. The grape tends to show its abundant fragrance (peach, apricot, white flowers) only when the grapes are very ripe, so that many viogniers were over-alcoholic, sometimes sweetish and blowsily opulent, as well as often over-oaked – and all that exuberant perfume could, frankly, easily go over the top.

Some still are like that, but there are now any number of local examples offering more subtle and marvellous pleasure – such as the Foundry Viognier 2010. At a recent tasting of mostly Condrieus, this wine was used as a local ringer, and waved the multicolour flag vigorously. More floral than fruity, though with a citrus element and, I thought, peach yoghurt. But lingering, fresh and charminging (and a snip at around R100 compared with the pricey French wines).

It does seem to be the less hot regions that produce the more subtle and less showily voluptuous versions. Like the Foundry from Stellenbosch, another perennial favourite is the fine Tamboerskloof, which again stresses floral elegance rather than fruity generosity. Eagles’ Nest, in Constantia, does similarly, and perhaps even more seductively.

Viognier is a useful blending component. Again, isn’t it odd to think that the splendid range of warm-country blends, mostly involving chenin blanc in a singular South African contribution to the world’s great wine-styles, dates back little more than a decade? The dynamic Swartland region gave birth to such blends, and there’s at least a little viognier giving an edge of apricot fragrance in most of the whites from Badenhorst, Sadie, Sequillo, Orangerie, Lammershoek and others – surely amongst the Cape’s most compulsively, deliciously drinkable white wines.

Rather more than a dash of viognier – in fact it outranks chenin blanc, the other component –  goes into Nativo White, the  delicious wine off Billy and Penny Hughes’ organic Swartland vineyards. It’s easygoing but interesting, with some sweet-tinged richness but lively.

As solo or ensemble player, viognier’s role in our summer drinking pleasure is altogether more important and valuable than once seemed likely.


From the Mail & Guardian, 30 November-6 December 2012

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