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A cool white for summer nights? Viognier is your ticket



Summer is days away on the calendar and despite our spring that means warm weather that should trigger lighter dishes and similarly styled wines.

Lighter weight, fresher fruit and less oak should all be on the menu and my suggestion for something new this summer is viognier. Pronounced vee-O-yay, at least in its home jurisdiction of France's northern Rhone Valley, viognier can be a pleasant diversion from the regular summer go-to whites like sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and riesling.

The origins of viognier are in the tiny but distinguished home of Condrieu in the northern Rhone Valley, but with so few producers (none are sold in government stores) you would be hard pressed to find more than half a dozen even in private stores.

The good news is this attractive honeysuckle- and mineral-scented white is growing in prominence outside of France, foremost in Australia, where the folks at Yalumba are leading worldwide research. Impressive viognier wines are also coming out of California, Argentina, Chile and right here in British Columbia.

It's not an easy grape to grow - yields are seldom predictable and often scrawny. Winemaker and educator Jane Ferrari has this to say about the aforementioned Yalumba: "The scruffy vines are low in vigour and often sport more bunches than leaves. At Yalumba, the research has been intensive and after many years of research the crucial information they are disseminating to growers is, wait for flavour development."

I'm told you can be in the vineyard one day tasting fruit and there is no flavour; the next afternoon almost inexplicably the fruit tastes and smells like a basket of ripe apricots and it's ready to pick. All of which suggest you must be in the vineyard everyday close to harvest or you could easily miss the moment.

While its colour and nose might suggest a sweet tasting wine, viognier is invariably dry. Its plethora of flavours span the gamut from mineral/apricot, white peach and candied orange peel to kiwi, apricot, lime, honeysuckle, pineapple, honey and even ginger. Viognier doesn't really need a lot of oak to shine, in fact its natural lower acidity suggest little if any oak might be the best route of all.

Food and wine specialist, sommelier Evan Goldstein, says it's dynamite with food. With young unoaked viognier he recommends foods that suggest sweetness but are not really sweet, like a Moroccan tagine of chicken, preserved lemons, and a cinnamon or yogurt-marinated Indian-style kebab.

Less fussy dishes include long braised chicken, trout stuffed with pine nuts and golden raisins, ham or turkey. The latter can be equally satisfying served cold with a chilled glass of viognier.

Sweet meaty seafood like lobster and prawns are equally well-suited to viognier and Goldstein raves about its affinity with cheese.

So here are some favourite bottles to explore this summer.

If consistency is something you value, the champion entry is the Cono Sur Viognier Limited Release 2009 ($11). This Colchagua-based Chilean white constantly over-delivers for the price, sporting fresh clean fruit with nectarine, honey, grapefruit, ginger and orange flavours throughout. It has a refreshing New World style and the value is crazy.

Across the Andes a competing value is the Santa Julia Viognier 2009 ($12), sourced from Mendoza, Argentina. This is a drier version of this grape but it's not without its charm. More apricot and honey are in play here with a flatter, perhaps oilier mouth. It's a perfect mid-week white for chicken or creamy pasta dishes. Fine value too.

Locally grown viognier is growing in stature led by two new labels. First up is the newly minted Mission Hill Viognier Reserve 2008 ($19). The style is fresh and elegant with a sweet-ish entry and bright mineral, lemon peel, ginger, tangerine, honey and five spice flavours. Thai food seems like the match here.

A first viognier from Laughing Stock Vineyards Viognier 2009 ($26) offers more of the buttery, candied ginger, orange and honey aromas with fresh acidity and more honey, candied orange peel, ginger, buttery, vanilla, floral flavours. Again, Thai or Indian dishes would work here.

South Africa gets into the act with the Excelsior Paddock Viognier 2009 ($16), from Robertson. You will love the freshness and the bright nectarine, lemon, orange, ginger, spicy aromas and the juicy orange peel, ginger, apple skin, honey and mineral flavours. It really offers fine intensity and juiciness for the money.

Our French pick is the Paul Mas Viognier 2008 ($14) from Languedoc. Jean Claude Mas blends viognier fruit from cool and warm sites using young and old vines and relatively low yields to produce a fresh aromatic style. On the palate, peach and honey mix effortlessly with a creamy lees character. A small percentage is barrel fermented in new oak but the bulk is aged only in stainless steel tanks to retain maximum freshness and finesse. A great turkey wine.

Our final two picks take viognier to another level. Yalumba Viognier Eden Valley 2008 ($28) is a big step up in intensity. Some 60 per cent of the fruit was gently pressed directly to barrels, the rest to stainless steel tanks. It has an enticing nose flecked with honey, butter, guava, orange, grapefruit and ginger aromas. The style is ripe, the palate soft with more mango, ginger, honey and orange creamsicle flavours. You will love its cool finesse and friendly style. Drink now.

The pinnacle of the Yalumba viognier program is the Yalumba Viognier Virgilius 2008 ($55) another Eden Valley label. Look for a jump in intensity that reveals spicy, floral, ginger, orange rind and grapefruit aromas that preview a delicate but full palate of grapefruit, ginger, guava, honey and nutty lees flavours. A cooler style Virgilius but with fine elegance for current drinking.

As you can see the style is varied and the opportunities to get to know viognier endless.

An interesting way to get your friends on board is to serve it before dinner with cured meats or satays with peanut sauce or simply a bowl of salty bar nuts. Let the summer begin.

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto