They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I doubt the wine producers of Condrieu are feeling too wild about the flattery their precious viognier grape is currently receiving. Until recently, this exclusive Rhône Valley grape had doggedly held out against decent cover versions from the New World. Now there are signs that the demand for alternatives to the ubiquitous chardonnay is helping viognier break the mould, even to the extent of stealing Condrieu's thunder.
Outside the Rhône in France's south, and in a number of southern-hemisphere hot spots, a critical mass of new viognier plantings is helping to establish a style of wine that doesn't have to be the exclusive preserve of the well-heeled (see www.enjoyingviognier.com). In fact, this fashion-conscious A-lister among grape varieties is starting to make progress towards the ready-to-wear shelves occupied largely by chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
California is the hottest New World spot for viognier, where virtual cult status is accompanied by prices to match Condrieu itself. Recently, the demand has spawned a new breed of ready-to-drink imitators like Tesco's Finest Californian Reserve Viognier (£4.99, Tesco). In a screwcapped bottle, this fresh and fragrant viognier-based dry white from McManis Family Vineyards, brings with it plenty of peachy opulence and an almost Florida grapefruit-like citrus aftertaste.
Good value South America viognier is a growing presence in the high street from both Argentina and Chile. The 2003 Finca Las Moras Viognier from Argentina (£4.99 or buy 2 = £4.49, Majestic), is made with plenty of voluptuously juicy fruit, typically peachy in flavour and with a refreshing spritz and clean acidity to make it seriously food-friendly. Chile's unctuously rich 2003 Cono Sur Viognier (£4.99 - on the water and shortly in at Threshers, Majestic, Morrisons and Somerfield) is an affordable star worth waiting for.
Australia has more alternatives to chardonnay than most, but viognier has lagged behind until its recent pioneering development by Yalumba, one of South Australia's oldest family companies. Yalumba now makes four viogniers of which the 2002 Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier, South Australia (£9.99, Waitrose), is a powerful, richly flavoured example of the grape, with spicy, apricot-like fruitiness shot through with cleansing acidity.
With plantings now outnumbering the Rhône, the south of France could be Condrieu's greatest competitor. With a spicy, aromatic quality hinting at honeysuckle, and a rich but dry, powerful fruitiness, wines like the 2002 Cazal-Viel Grande Réserve Viognier (£6.99, Threshers), show the potential. All the more so at the price, the 2002 Domaines Paul Mas Viognier from near Carcassonne (£5.47, selected Asda stores), is a peach of a dry white with jasmine and honeysuckle floral notes and juicy, apricot-like fruitiness worthy of a mini-Condrieu.
Speaking of which, could the northern Rhône be taking heed? One of the best opportunities for a glimpse of Condrieu at a reasonable price is the 2001 Viognier, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, Domaine Cuilleron (£10.95 or £10.40 bottle/case, Berry Bros & Rudd, 0870 900 4300). Made from young vines at Yves Cuilleron's family domaine, this hedonistic delight is delicately aromatic, showing subtle undertones of honeysuckle with the thoroughbred character and true peachy flavours of the variety.Reuse content