Viognier, like Chardonnay, has the potential to produce full-bodied wines with a lush, soft character. In contrast to Chardonnay, the Viognier variety has more natural aromatics that include notes of peach, pears, violets and minerality. However, these aromatic notes can be easily destroyed by too much exposure to oxygen which makes barrel fermentation a winemaking technique that requires a high level of skill on the part of any winemaker working with this variety.
Although many say Viognier should be drunk young, a good Viognier is nearly always better after a few years. And a quality mature Viognier is a beauty to drink (at least I, Joelle, love the Rhone whites with a bit of maturity!).
Viognier can be a difficult grape to grow because it is prone to powdery mildew. It has low and unpredictable yields and should be picked only when fully ripe. When picked too early, the grape fails to develop the full extent of its aromas and tastes. When picked too late, the grape produces wine that is oily and lacks perfume. When fully ripe the grapes have a deep yellow colour and produce wine with a strong perfume and high in alcohol. The grape prefers warmer environments and a long growing season, but can grow in cooler areas as well.
The age of the vine also has an effect on the quality of the wine produced. Viognier vines start to hit their peak after 15–20 years.
The origin of the Viognier grape is unknown; it is presumed to be an ancient grape, possibly originating in Dalmatia (present day Croatia) and then brought to Rhône by the Romans. One legend states that the Roman emperor Probus brought the vine to the region in 281 AD; another has the grape packaged with Syrah on a cargo ship navigating the Rhône river, en route to Beaujolais when it was captured, near the site of present day Condrieu, by a local group of outlaws known as culs de piaux.
The origin of the name Viognier is also obscure. The most common namesake is the French city of Vienne, which was a major Roman outpost. Another legend has it drawing its name from the Roman pronunciation of the via Gehennae, meaning the "Road of the Valley of Hell". Probably this is an allusion to the difficulty of growing the grape.
Viognier was once fairly common. In 1965, the grape was almost extinct when there were only eight acres in Northern Rhône producing just 1,900 litres of wine. The popularity and price of the wine have risen, and the number of plantings has increased. Rhône now has over 740 acres (3.0 km2) planted.
In 2004, DNA profiling conducted at University of California, Davis showed the grape to be closely related to the Piedmont grape Freisa and to be a genetic cousin of Nebbiolo. We also know, through DNA analysis, that Viognier is related to Mondeuse Blanche and is therefore closely related to Syrah.