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The Near Fall and Resurgence of Viognier

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Feb 2, 2007 7:00PM

2007_02_viognier.jpgSome wine grapes are grown in yields so small that they're either largely ignored by vintners or replaced by more popular varietals. Such seemed to be the case with viognier (vee-on-yay). As recently as 1965 this grape, whose existence can be traced back to Roman times, saw growth in only eight hectares of farmland in France's northern Rhône region, where viognier is the single permitted grape varietal of the Condrieu and Château-Grillet appellations. French vineyards slowly began to increase the acreage they committed to viognier, from 20 hectares in 1986 to 108 hectares in 2000. That's still far short of the 200 hectares allowed under law.

But it was the booming popularity of all wines white in the 1990's that led to a healthy recovery for viognier. Australian and American vineyards have planted significant amounts of viognier for cultivation. Improved vineyard conditions in South America and South Africa have also led to an interest in cultivating viognier in those regions. One of the reasons vineyards have been slow to embrace viognier is that it's a testy grape to grow. Viognier vines produce small yields of wildly varying quality, are prone to mildew, and have to be picked when fully ripe in order for drinkers to enjoy the wines the grape produces. But when the stars are aligned, you won't find a better white wine varietal around. Viogniers have high alcohol content (normally in excess of 13 percent ABV), a golden color, with hints of wildflowers, apricots, peaches, and honeysuckle on the palate. Yet there is also a dry character and low acidity to the wine that makes it a flexible pairing with a variety of foods. Try it with Thai and Mexican food, medium-bodied salty cheeses, fresh fruits, and pork.

The low yields of viognier vines are a large reason most of the wines produced from the grape hover in the $15-and-above range. However, root around and you'll find some amazing deals on the shelves. One of our favorite viogniers is Jewel Viognier. This California vineyard makes high-quality wines that belie their average list price. Jewel Viognier usually lists around $8-9 at your local grocery or liquor store. It has a crispness and dryness on the palate that we prefer in our white wines, with dominant notes of bright citrus. This is a wine that we wouldn't feel ashamed serving with a ham-and-swiss sandwich, which is actually how we paired it when we opened the bottle.