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Where to for South African Viognier?

With the results of Michael Fridjohn’s Old Mutual¬† Trophy Wine Show announced today, another batch of press releases will be doing the rounds, espousing the range of warm feelings that producers feel after receiving recognition. Of course the email regarding the purchasing of bottle stickers to try and actually have some impact on consumers will be following shortly, if not already received. But that is another post altogether. Irrespective of your feelings on competitions, the Trophy results are generally well respected and noteworthy and serve as a good barometer of quality and style.

One of the awards that stood out for me was the Trophy for Best White Wine Overall. The past couple of years have seen more articles written about South African Bordeaux whites than just about anything else. Of course the inter-wino nose thumbing articles are out in first place. But internationally it has been the strength of SA Sauvignon Blanc and in some cases Sauvignon/Semillon blends that has been getting attention. And rightfully so.

So it was particularly interesting to see that the often awkwardly handled Viognier grape picked up the Trophy, in the form of Flagstone’s 2008 Word of Mouth Viognier. According to Platter’s it is from Elgin and Elim grapes and is 20% barrel fermented. I have not tasted the wine, so have no comment on it, but suffice to say Mr Jack remains efficiently influential at Flagstone.

So my question is this: aside from this particular wine selling well, will there be any interest raised in South African Viognier in the local market as a result? The varietal is still relatively new to the country, with Charles Back having introduced it in the late 1990s. The SAWIS website shows that plantings of Viognier increased from 5 hectares in 1998 to 860 hectares in 2008 (15th in overall varietal percentage). The 2010 edition of Platter’s lists more than eighty producers of single varietal offerings.

However the grape’s attributes seem to have conspired against it. Naturally higher in tannin and robust flavour, along with planting in warmer regions, has often seen 15% and over alcohols. It has also tended to be treated similarly to Chardonnay and there have been a lot of OTT, hot and chewy Viogniers around, at premium prices. Not exactly conducive to taking the local market by storm. But the last five years have seen more plantings in cooler regions and the fragrant nature of the grape is starting to make an impact. Of course the age of the vines plays a large role too. Viognier has also increasingly found its way into white blends, which is where many winemakers see its potential strength.

So my question to producers, retailers and restaurateurs alike is therefore threefold. Firstly, how much impact does a competition such as the Trophy Wine Show have on the varietals and styles that are trendy or fashionable? Secondly, are there enough good quality examples at realistic prices to make an inroad? And thirdly,¬† is Viognier going to go the route of (Weisser) Riesling – never quite fashionable enough to be a realistic commercial option? I’d like to know what you think?

(And I still haven’t gotten over the change to the labels…)

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