This week, Biography looks at one of wine’s rising stars – a sensuous white grape, as renowned for her troubled background as for her seductive charm, who triumphed over misfortune and won our hearts. A meteoric rise, struggles with leaf rot, a near-miss with extinction. Exotic, enigmatic, temperamental, long shunned by the mainstream, veiled in mystery and tragedy, who is the real Viognier?
Famously coy about her origins, Viognier will only allude vaguely to a childhood in ancient Greece, or was that Rome? over 2000 years ago. What’s clear is that she arrived in the Rhone Valley around 600 B.C. and that her early years were unscathed by the scars of grafting and clonal selection that traumatized so many of her peers.
A gawky adolescent, her star did not rise immediately. She paid her dues, laboring as a bit player in such productions as Côte Rôtie, a red wine that profits from the intense character of this demure white, though she never appears in the credits.
The hard work paid off. In the pop of a cork, she found herself the toast of France, starring in the critically acclaimed Condrieu, as well as the smaller but equally piquant Château Grillet. Both appellations still inspire a kind of frenzied passion in devotees.
Beneath the glamorous façade, however, trouble was brewing. She was earning the reputation of a prima donna, fastidious and difficult to grow. Everything upset her – the soil, the weather; in fact, only the most patient producers could coax a performance out of her at all. The theatrics were just cover for a much darker weakness. An inherited predilection for powdery mildew held her powerless in its grip. Interventions failed. Sometimes she could hardly produce, and growers watched a season of labor go to waste.
Cherry trees were a safer bet. Besides, there were plenty of grapes willing to work, like the increasingly popular, easygoing Chardonnay. As consumers lost interest, and growers abandoned her, Viognier, unable to master her moods, watched her fame slip away. She grew despondent. By the 1960s she had shrunk to 30 hectares, derided, then forgotten. Would Viognier survive?
We may never know exactly what happened, but somehow Viognier pulled herself together. She was spotted in remote parts of Italy and Spain. Rumors spread of a comeback. Then, in 1981, a couple of California grape-wranglers, scouting foreign talent, decided to take a gamble on her. The battles with mood and mold still plagued her, but New World producers weren’t daunted. On the contrary, her high-maintenance personality intrigued them. She doesn’t like this soil, this climate - they said; no biggie, we’ll move her.
Gradually, she thrived. Loyal fans of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc heard the buzz and came to check her out. They were astonished by her intoxicating perfume of apricot, pear, honeysuckle, and violet, promising a mouthful of honey, but paying off dry, arch and complex. They marveled at her creamy, unctuous texture, ketchup-slow and smooth as the song of an auctioneer.
No designer oak for her, in fact her only beauty secret was generous alcohol, responsible both for the illusion of sweetness and her va-va-voom body, well developed even when she’s fresh and young.
The very best is still devilishly expensive. There have been a few low-budget jobs she’d just as soon forget. But a growing selection of mid-priced Viognier offers a mouthful of luxury for only a handful of bills.
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