The grape pretender

31 May 2001
The grape pretender

Before Bridget Jones came along and put Chardonnay back on the agenda, wine drinkers were getting heartily bored with the stuff. In fact, since the mid-1990s, the wine consumer press had made much of the grumbles of the unofficial ABC movement (Anything But Chardonnay or Anything But Cabernet, depending on preference) which did its best to criticise Chardonnay at any opportunity. While the public went on drinking oceans of the stuff, the wine cognoscenti went off in search of the Next Big Thing.

Near the top of the list for succession to Chardonnay's crown is Viognier, a grape that, until the last decade or so, wasn't found far beyond the northern stretches of France's Rhône Valley. It is the grape behind the famed - and famously expensive - Condrieu and Château-Grillet appellations.

Before Viognier was promoted as a varietal wine, these two appellations were living in the land that time forgot, with falling production and little outside interest. With the increased interest in alternative varietals in the wake of Chardonnay ennui, plantings of Viognier here are soaring ahead.

The grape is also being planted with great enthusiasm throughout the winemaking world, from southern France's Vin de Pays d'Oc to New World countries such as Australia, Chile, California and South Africa - all of which have more than their fair share of Chardonnay, too.

Yet good Viognier is much more difficult to make than decent Chardonnay.

It's a thin-skinned variety, which means that it is prone to disease; yields can vary widely from vintage to vintage. When it's made well it has a haunting perfume that's redolent of peaches and apricots, freesias and honeysuckle, sometimes with a bit of wild fennel mixed in. It has a wonderful rich, exotic palate. But bad Viognier is a terrible disappointment, a depressing case of opportunity missed. So, how successful have the pretenders to the Chardonnay throne been? Which are the countries and regions to watch out for? That's what the tasting set out to find.

The panel

The tasting took place in the 1837 restaurant at London's Brown's hotel. 1837 is renowned for its 1,000-bin list and highly ambitious by-the-glass programme - about 200 wines are available by the glass at any time. The panel was led by Caterer wine editor Fiona Sims and included: Emmanuel Defever, sommelier at 1837 (soon to join the Fat Duck in Bray); Joëlle Marti, sommelier and wine buyer at the Great Eastern hotel, London; Helena Hell, sommelier at La Trompette in London's Chiswick; David Paskins, manager and wine buyer for Alphabet and Amber bars in London; and freelance food and drink writer Susan Low.

The tasting

The panel tasted 22 Viogniers from five countries: France, California, Australia, Chile and South Africa. Most were from the 2000 and 1999 vintages, with a few wines from 1997. The wines ranged in price from £40 to £269.82 per 12-bottle case, duty paid, excluding VAT. They were tasted blind.

The verdict

On the positive side, this was a tasting with an impressive number of high marks. With four wines receiving the three-star "best quality" designation and five earning the two-star "very good" designation, there was much to reward tasters' palates. Unfortunately, two of the wines, from Alban Vineyards and Beringer, were faulty, with no second bottles available.

The wines were made in a range of styles, some featuring oak treatment - particularly from California and Australia - and some that let the fresh, floral aromas and vibrant fruit flavours speak for themselves. Marti was a strong critic of the oaky styles. "What bothers me is that a lot of the wines were unbalanced," she said. There were other problems, too. "Some just didn't have the kick - either the alcohol was so high it jumped out of the glass, or there was nothing there." She was loath to draw conclusions about Old and New World styles, saying that it was more "a matter of balance".

Hell was also a critic of the oak. "In general, the New World styles were very oaky. The wines from California and Australia were exotic, toasty and exciting, but they were very oaky. I couldn't drink much of them." For her, the wines from the Vin de Pays d'Oc were better balanced because they let the personality of the grape speak out.

Although many of these exotic, blockbusting styles may have been awarded high marks, a question mark hangs over their suitability as food wines. The tasters wondered whether some winemakers, particularly New World ones, were vinifying Viognier like Chardonnay.

Paskins concurred, saying that he found some of the California wines "too Chardonnay-like". He also found that high levels of alcohol were a problem in many wines. He was a fan of the samples from Condrieu, which he found "more floral, spicy and with a better balance of fruit and alcohol".

Paskins found that some of the wines from the Pays d'Oc had "a lot on the nose, but not enough on the palate". Defever agreed, finding some "short and dilute wines" among the Vin de Pays d'Oc selection, although he believes they offer good varietal character and value. Overall, he gave poorer marks to the wines that had alcohol levels that were too high.

These wines went a long way in convincing the tasters that Viognier does indeed have a bright future outside the Rhône. There are still a few problems - oak and alcohol levels, in particular - that winemakers need to think about carefully. But when it's made well, Viognier can be a deliciously exotic drink - if not always a radical departure from Chardonnay.

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