Tim James: The virtues of Viognier

By , 8 February 2021

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It’s not a grape I pursue – but viognier has rather been pursuing me in recent weeks. And getting caught has given me more pleasure than expected, from both older and newer bottlings, varietal wines, and blends. My wariness about the grape is that so often it comes in the most strident and obvious of guises, unsubtly billowing its apricot and floral perfumes, ripe and heavy, and as often as not overoaked to signal its status as a noble variety. And though I know that that is now much less the character of modern Cape viognier, I still tend to be nervous and suspicious.

Strange to think that it was only 25 years ago, in 1996, that that the first viognier wines (less than half a hectare of them) were planted here, by the innovative Charles Back at Fairview in Paarl. Viognier seems to have suddenly become fashionable in the 1990s – reflecting, no doubt, an increasing interest in the wines of the Rhône. It’s at Condrieu in the north of that region that viognier had its best known – though small – redoubt. In the south of France, plantings proliferated, as they did in California too in a big way, and round the world.

Charles Back of Fairview was a key figure in establishing Viognier locally in the early 1990s.

In the Cape, in the years following the maiden 1998 Fairview (big, ripe, and oaky), plantings grew apace. Within a decade there were dozens of bottlings, heavily or lightly oaked or unoaked, with some subtler examples emerging (an early favourite was The Foundry Viognier from Stellenbosch, still undoubtedly a leading example). Arguably even more auspicious and influential than the varietal wines had been the inclusion of viognier in the blend of the pioneering Sadie Palladius of 2002. That style blossomed, Viognier also found its way into some syrahs, with the authority of Côte-Rôtie and the success of Australian examples as inspiration (that practice seems to have waned, unlamented). With plantings a little reduced in recent years, it’s now still ranked 16th in South Africa, between cab franc and petit verdot.

One of the problems of viognier is that it has no reputation for ageability – and I do believe that the comparatively unimpressive performance after 10 years of even the best of the Swartland-style blends that significantly include viognier is partly because of that limitation. So I was slightly doubtful when a friend last week opened a bottle of Eagles’ Nest 2016, from Constantia. I have admired and enjoyed Eagles’ Nest Viognier over the years, but in their youth – up to a few years. This 2016, however, even though it had not been optimally stored, was impressive and very drinkable – less beautiful and delicately scented than in its youth, but more interestingly savoury now that there was little obvious primary fruit left. Much enjoyed, and a good food wine, but I wouldn’t trust its luck for much longer.

Changing the subject entirely, but not entirely irrelevantly, the same evening offered a bottle of Progeny Semillon 2008 from the Franschhoek estate La Bourgogne. Possibly offering the same sort of development level as the Viognier, though eight years older, and actually the superior wine by most measures in my opinion (though Platter’s had rather dissed the wine in its youth and suggested it would be best within a year or two). Viva Semillon, especially aged Semillon!

Also last week, I became aware of a few excellent bargains available from Solms-Delta (sadly, no good news coming yet from that Franschhoek estate once so promising, especially in terms of its social experiments but increasingly also in terms of its wine, now under business rescue), including the 2015 flagship white, Amalie. Actually, I shouldn’t include it here where I’m praising viognier, as by 2015 there was no viognier left in the blend (it had once been the majority grape), although I confess I had forgotten that when I bought a few bottles. So this wine is more an advertisement for the progressive diminution of viognier in these warm-country white blends in the interests of greater freshness and lightness – and ageability. The 2015, based on Grenache Blanc and Chenin, with Roussanne and Verdelho, oak- and concrete-matured, is a beautifully matured wine, probably at its best now, though likely to be cruising. If the farm still has some on offer at R50 per bottle, you won’t find a better bargain anywhere – even at this pandemic time when special offers abound.

A blend that still includes viognier is the one from Noble Hill (the Simonsberg-Paarl estate I wrote about last year), which I’ve also had recently. Admittedly it’s down to just 5% in the latest 2020 release – pretty equal Grenache, Chenin, and Marsanne making up the majority; but the viognier does add, I think, to the texture as well as the aromatics. On “sale” at present from the website at R179, down from R199, it really is a good buy in these days of inflationary prices – certainly at the higher end of Cape Blend whites (if I can get away with that description). Bright, complex and densely textured, genuinely dry, and at just 13% alcohol, it’s impressive without being in the least showy. Very drinkable now, but likely to age in much the same way as the Solms-Delta Amalie, I’d guess, bringing out the spiciness.

As well as a pleasing Noble Hill Chenin Blanc, there’s also a recent release of the Viognier 2020 (R129 online) from the estate. In customary Noble Hill style, it’s elegant, silky, and understated – as far from the blowsy, excessively perfumed, old-style viogniers as one can get. The apricots are there, of course, but hinted at rather than thrust forward to dominate. Natural ferment, light oaking, properly dry, decent acidity thanks to the earlyish picking. A viognier to dispel any lingering doubts about its pleasure-giving potential at least.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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  • Lisa Harlow8 February 2021

    Aging is an interesting topic as many of the great Rhône whites go through a closed period from about 5 years to 10 years and then become even more beautiful
    I have some 2016 Lismore left, maybe I should put a bottle away for another 5 years
    I think there are some excellent examples of SA Viognier and luckily now most are not all flowers, peach and vanilla!

    • Kwispedoor8 February 2021

      Lisa, I had a very good 2012 Lismore Viognier a year or two ago and had the impression that it could perhaps get better with more years on it, which supports your theory. Perhaps one should drink Viognier in its expressive youth or leave it be for quite a while (the latter only advisable with the higher quality stuff, though). I’m still experimenting, but it’s obviously an exercise that takes time.

    • Tim James8 February 2021

      Very interesting comments. Thanks you two. I hope there will be more on this issue. The conventional wisdom is that Viognier from Rhône and elsewhere doesn’t age well – unlike the majority of top whites from the Rhône which are mostly marsanne and Roussanne. I’d be pleased to hear other people’s experiences. Kwisp’s one especially surprises me. But that’s what this is all about. Learning and enjoying.

      • GillesP8 February 2021

        Tim, I have drunk several Condrieu aged 10 years or so including the one from Guigual in 2006 vintage bought from Reciprocal wines. It was stunning and still full of fruit and life.

  • GillesP8 February 2021

    Hello Tim. Great to read about Viognier. I would add to your list 2 of the best Viognier rendition I have come across from South Africa. The Lismore viognier from Samantha O Keefe is consistently very good with a rich style as well as a new bee which is The Blank Bottle from Peter Walser also rich and beautifully made. Both are the closest examples to the typical French viognier.

    As for ageability, I am sure you would agree that Condrieu has great aging potential.

    • RH8 February 2021

      I can make no comparisons to typical French renditions, but I’ll nominate saronsberg’s viognier as a happy companion to the right meal (a bit too rich on its own)!

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