There are certain reasons why the most popular wines, both white and red, are so popular, and it does not always have to do with taste. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are all grapes that thrive in a variety of climates, are resistant to disease and bad weather, and can be aged and blended in a variety of ways that allow winemakers to create their own signature profile without completely eliminating what makes these wines great in the first place. Yes, if they were not rich full wines with great flavors, then the rest of it would not matter, but accessibility goes a long way towards popularity.
Today, winemakers have more options than ever before when it comes to getting their wines into the hands of new customers. This allows them to think outside the traditional varietals they would have planted just a generation earlier in order to have the best shot at profitability and instead, focus on grapes that they have always enjoyed. One of the grapes that is getting a new lease on life because of these changes is Viognier.
The history of Viognier is relatively obscure but many historians believe it dates back almost 2,000 years. It has been a crucial grape for the French appellation of Condrieu, on the west bank of the Rhone River. Crucial might be an understatement: it is the only white wine grape allowed in that region. There is little agreement on where the name for the grape comes from, but one explanation helps to demonstrate why this grape had become so rare in recent years. One legend has it drawing its name from the Roman pronunciation of the via Gehennae, meaning the "Road of the Valley of Hell".
Viognier needs to have a reasonable stable growing environment, one that does not get too hot, and most be picked at precisely the right time in order to achieve the full effect of aroma and tastes. It unfortunately has low and unpredictable yields, and winemakers in France slowly began moving away from it during the 20th century. It reached a low point in 1965 when there were only eight acres planted in all of the Rhone Valley.
California winemakers began to experiment with it about this time, but only in small batches, which resulted in ultra-premium vintages. Now there are over 2,000 acres of it planted in California's Central Coast region, home to the Santa Barbara wines. Additionally, it can be found in over a dozen states and is the official white varietal of the state of Virginia.
Similar to Chardonnay in its soft full bodied character, it manages to stand apart by also having a rich blend of aromatics. This summer, step out of the wine you have always known and step into something different. 50 years from almost being extinct, Viognier is back in the limelight again.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been covering the world of food and beverage for over 20 years. http://www.wineclubworld.com