If I mentioned Condrieu or Château Grillet, would you know the grape variety involved? Regular readers of the column will, no doubt, but my suspicion is that many of you will be shrugging your shoulders, maybe even wondering what or where on earth Condrieu or Château Grillet are?
For a long time, viognier was the yeti of the wine world. We suspected it was lurking there somewhere in France's Himalayas, aka the northern Rhône Valley, but not many people really knew whether or not it existed.
It's because, unlike chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, viognier was once confined to two very small appellations indeed (at 3.8 hectares, Château Grillet is one of France's smallest) and the wines of Condrieu and Château Grillet were prohibitively expensive. When intrepid explorers eventually entered the valley and tasted, it dawned on them that viognier was capable of making some of the most voluptuous and opulent dry whites in the world; word spread, and along with the word, so did the variety to the New World.
Viognier begins at home, though, starting on Condrieu's doorstep in the Rhône hills themselves in wines like the jasmine-scented 2009 Viognier de Rosine, Stéphane Ogier, £16 bottle/case, Genesis Wines (020-7963 9060) and appetisingly rich and sensually creamy dry whites like the delicious 2009 Pierre Gaillard Les Gendrines Côtes du Rhône Blanc, £18.25, or £16.50, bottle/case, Lea & Sandeman (020-7244 0522); or, in a blend with marsanne and roussanne, the intense fresh peach and pineapple concentration of a 2010 St Cosme Côtes du Rhône Blanc, £15.95, or £14.35 bottle/case, Vagabond Wines, Fulham (020-7381 1717).
What this all means is that whereas Condrieu and Château Grillet were pretty much the elite preserve of the rich, viognier has today become mainstream. Even if it rarely achieves what Andrew Jefford in The New France calls "the aromatic power and glycerous fullness it achieves" on the terraces of the Rhône, some of its heady floral scent and sensuality and its full-bodied peach-rich fruit is at least captured in manifestations of viognier in the New World.
Led by the pioneering Yalumba, Australia has taken viognier to heart, producing fine examples in wines like the floral, powerfully rich, spicily oaked and beautifully balanced 2008 Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier, £10.44, Waitrose. South Africa is showing an increasing aptitude with, and appetite for, the variety, doing a fine job with whites like Bellingham's 2009 The Bernard Series Viognier, Franschhoek Valley, £9.99, Majestic, a powerful dry white whose refreshing spritz brings the exotically peachy fruit to vivid life here. Chile, too, is making a good fist of it, so much so that for sheer value, the honeysuckle-scented and ripe peachy 2010 Yali Reserva Viognier, Colchagua Valley, £.7.99, buy 2 = £5.99, Majestic, is a tough one to beat at the price.
If you want to go back to basics, however, to see what all the fuss was about in the first place, try Pierre Benetière's thoroughly seductive 2008 Condrieu, £31.99, Uncorked (020-7638 5998), a classic of aroma, texture and finesse, or Guigal's 2008 Condrieu, £28.99, Waitrose, whose subtle touch of oak and floral honeysuckle and jasmine-suffused bouquet is richly concentrated with classic apricot ripeness and above all, a genuine freshness that brings finesse and balance to what could so easily be overwhelming, but isn't.