It seems surprising to hear that nearly 50 years ago, the Viognier plant was in decline, and even in the Northern Rhône area was virtually extinct. This plant has grown in European soil for more than 2000 years, having come to the Rhoneland area with the Romans. Since that sad decade of decline, the plant has achieved increasing success in the New World, and France has struggled to catch up with the vine growth of countries such as South Africa. Countries with hotter climates have done well with the wine, and this has lead to a strong Viognier producing culture within South Africa and other areas of the Southern Hemisphere.
One of the reasons why Viognier has declined and not been replanted is due to the difficulty of growing the vine successfully. It is vulnerable to a number of wine diseases, including powdery mildew, and its fruit production is generally low and unstable. The grapes themselves can only be picked once fully ripened, otherwise they become ‘green’ and tasteless. On the other hand, if they are left too long, the Viognier wine produced will be oily and lacking in bouquet. The quality of the wine depends very much upon the good timing of the wine grower.
When successfully picked, the Viognier grape can produce a good, clean wine which has a high alcohol content, around 13 percent, and heavily perfumed. The wine produced will have a yellowish tint to the liquid. Since the grapes have to be left to ripen well beyond the normal time allowed, the Viognier wine produced in South Africa can have a low level of acidity, as well as being excessively sweet. This lack of bite to the wine can often mean that drinkers prefer to have it while the wine is still young, often within the first five years of production. This is against the traditions of Viognier wine making, which has relied upon a long shelf-life of around 15-20 years for a New World Wine, with French Viognier wines being up to 70 years old before drinking. However, the majority of these wines have lost the floral bouquets which make Viognier so distinctive. It is also possible to use the very sugary nature of the wine to produce excellent dessert wines, while other wine makers prefer to make a much drier wine using the natural actions of the grape. In Australia, it has been common to mix Viognier with Syrah to ‘tone down’ the dryness of the wine, but this is not generally accepted in South Africa.
There are a few wine estates in South Africa able to make good Viognier wines, such as the Radford Dale 2009 Viognier, produced in the Stellenbosch region. This wine offers a rich bouquet of fruit, with a hint of steel in the background. The oak barrels provide a hint of butter to the aroma. This butter lasts into the flavours, complimented by a light flowery taste and mild acids which last into the aftertaste. This wine has added peppery notes to provide an extra element of flavour to the wine.