This year’s wine festivals in Malta and Gozo got caught up in an unusual fad.
I’m not referring to Pokémania or the Pokémon Go players engrossed in their virtual phone game, so lost in the real world of wine stalls that they remained oblivious to the vinous treasures up for tasting.
Out in the parks and gardens, I met with other throngs of people captivated by their wine glass, giving approving winks and nods to each other as if to say that they too had discovered the open secret that this year’s special varietal to hunt down is none other than Viognier.
This white wine grape variety is, of course, closely associated with the tiny French appellation AOC Château-Grillet, an enclave in Condrieu, where its single producer makes around 13,000 bottles per year of all-Viognier wine from about four hectares of vines.
In Malta, the entire land planted out to Viognier is only marginally larger. It amounts to a surface area of barely eight football fields, or less than seven hectares.
This difficult-to-grow variety arrived here in the late 1990s. By then Viognier had already spread its wings from its south of France homeland to many other wine- producing countries. Winemakers in the Languedoc-Roussillon and the New World especially have latched on to it.
Locally, there’s a big thirst now for wines made from this grape variety that’s relatively new to Malta but grows so well in our soils. Understandably, because Viognier, either vinified dry or as a sweet wine, can make a very seductive drink indeed. Generally, it produces unwooded as well as oaked dry white wines that are similar in weight to Chardonnay but that have a marked peach and apricot character and an opulent lushness – at least the best examples do. Well-made wines full of distinctive perfume and ripe fruit serve as a welcome alternative to the excellent although usually expensive Condrieu bottlings.
Locally, there’s a big thirst now for wines made from this grape variety
Delicata is a believer in its potential. Apart from using Viognier as a modish dash in blends such as the white Pjazza Reġina, Malta’s leading winemaker majors in an unoaked dry mono-varietal in the premium Grand Vin de Hauteville range.
The winery crushed its freshly-picked Viognier grape crop slightly earlier than usual this August. Luckily, the yields were slightly higher than previous years thanks to smarter pruning practices and because of the deeper soils that have helped mitigate the effects of the long drought.
The vat sample I got to taste of Delicata’s unfinished wine, which is destined to become the next 2016 Grand Vin de Hauteville Viognier, is particularly promising.
The racked but unclarified Viognier juice that has just about finished fermenting startles the nose. Aromas of honeysuckle, lily and white blossom as well as delicate flavours of green melon and pear fruit are very distinctive. A sweet pie crust scent coming from the fine lees nicely marks the unfinished wine whereas a finished bottle is likely going to delight with subtle hints of mango, anise and lychee. The only remaining question has to be: how soon can you try it?
The 2016 vintage in the making is not expected to be ready for release before early next year. In the meantime, enthusiasts can ask for the delectable 2015 vintage of Delicata’s top Viognier (pronounced Vee-yoh-N’YAY) which was so well received at the winery’s wine festival only weeks ago.
It’s a real uplift of a Maltese white. Drink it well chilled on its own or match with firm fish, lobster and crab, mild Indian kormas or, best of all, a fruity chicken tajine.
I’m not sure if this chic grape’s popularity will persist or not, or whether Viognier will actually firmly establish itself as the ‘new Chardonnay’. But, for certain, wine lovers in Malta, this summer it’s surely been all ‘Viognier Go’!
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