By Lisa Rowlands

The exact origins of the Viognier grape are unknown, however it is believed to have been brought to the Rhône Valley region of France (most likely from modern day Croatia) by the Romans. Here, it established itself over the ensuing centuries, becoming quite common and delivering powerful, perfumed wines of distinction. It remains the only permitted variety in the widely respected wines of Condrieu AOC and Château-Grillet AOC.

Early success though tells only half the story of this ancient variety. During the second half of the twentieth century, plantings of Viognier dwindled almost to nothing, with only twenty or so hectares left clinging to the steep slopes of the Rhône river. Renewed interest from the New World - particularly from California and the Eden Valley region of Australia - and further plantings of more reliable vines in France have thankfully rescued Viognier from the jaws of extinction. Nowadays the grape - although still considered relatively rare - thrives in its adopted homes and has established a fan club of enthusiasts everywhere that it grows. In addition to France and the afore mentioned US and Australian regions, significant plantings of the grape can be found in Argentina and Chile, with smaller amounts also in New Zealand, South Africa, Israel and Switzerland.

Perhaps one of the reasons for its demise from the 1960s onwards, is the grape’s reputation for being difficult to cultivate. Prone to a number of viticultural hazards as well as unpredictable yields, thick-skinned Viognier can pose problems for producers in terms of its economic viability. However, it is fairly versatile with respect to climate (so long as it is afforded the time to ripen fully), plays an important part in Syrah production (many winemakers add up to 10% Viognier to their Syrah - before or during fermentation - to improve colour, aroma and stability), and when carefully managed and picked at optimal ripeness, rewards winemakers with sensuous, full bodied wines.