February 10, 2020

V-v-v- Viognier!

Viognier, Condrieu in France’s Northern Rhone wine region’s, story is relatively recent.

viognier

It is thanks to the New World and the search for new varieties to explore, the fragrant white grape, Viognier, was lifted out of obscurity.

Being nearly extinct in your home region (there are reports that there was still just under 10 acres) because nobody loved you anymore would effect anyone’s mood. When it is due to insects and war, amongst other things totally beyond your control, flagging popularity would have a dampening effect, regardless of your quality.

Those dampened spirits have changed within the past 25 years. Australia has played a significant part in this grape’s change of fate, as has the US & other regions of France.

California led the viognier revolution in the USA.

More than 2,000 hectares of this grape were planted. Its popularity has waned somewhat though as the taste changed away from the overblown style. However, the winemakers that were more focused on elegance have carved their niche there. The grape has also been planted in Washington, Oregon, Texas. The state of Virginia has adopted the grape as one of the state’s ‘signature’ varieties.

You will now find Viognier planted in countries such as Argentina, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand. 

Yalumba’s work with Viognier in Australia has been ongoing since the first vines were planted in 1981. Earlier in the 2010’s, they added to their collection by sourcing seven new clones from Condrieu and the USA.

Viognier

Yalumba has an Australian Viognier story to tell.

The Hill-Smith family, one of Australia’s First Families of Wine, has been a pioneer in resurrecting the grape under the Yalumba label and their other labels. The Yalumba wines start with The Y Series through to the opulent The Virgilius.

This range includes styles from classic dry Viognier, Condrieu style, and an homage to the Cote Rotie classics featuring Shiraz Viognier, through to dessert styles. Interestly, they have also experimented with a unique blend of Viognier with Tempranillo and Grenache. Yalumba also now does an Eau d’vie version.

From the Hill-Smith vineyards and vine nursery, Viognier has spread rather rapidly across Australia with 1,451 hectares (3,585 acres) planted by 2010. However, like California, the popularity of this grape in Australia has waned and the vineyard plantings have contracted to just over 700 ha. 

The many faces of Viognier 

What has not waned in the innovative spirit with which winemaker’s approach this variety. Just like Riesling and Semillon, a wide range of styles can be produced with this grape. Sparkling whites through to boisterous reds of unusual blends and sticky dessert wines.  While I love its curvaceous side, I probably have a greater appreciation of it’s less flamboyant nature as well. 

The big and bold styles tend towards high alcohol which can too easily tip into the ‘hot’ zone. A little like Gewurztraminer, another aromatic white variety, does. The wine is richer with plenty of vanilla spice if new oak has been used during maturation.

A more elegant wine will still be fresh and perfumed and will have some fleshy weight to it. It still will have plenty of stonefruit character, with a floral and peppery nuance. The best may have an understated spice thanks to time left on lees. This will also give a silkiness to the palate. If the wine has seen some gentle oak maturation with seasoned barrels, there will be a creamy note and a subtle oak note.

A great blender…

Of course, Viognier enjoys teaming up with some unlikely companions. I particularly enjoy the more classic Rhonish blends – blends including Marsanne and Roussanne, are good ones to look out for. However, you might find the grape blended with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling or that southern France star, Grenache Blanc. 

Goats du Roam white

Finding a well blended red wine where Viognier is added to the blend (often co-fermented with the red grape) can be little more difficult. In some red blends that I taste, the stonefruit character of this grape is poking its nose out too much. I prefer the classic style where it adds pepper, lifted perfume & colour without taking over.

Luckily, winemaker’s have become more deft in blending these wines and the quality is getting more consistent at all price points. The classic CôteRôtie blend, from the Northern Rhone, is Syrah/Shiraz Viognier which is not hard to find once you start looking for it. However, you should also look for Grenache Viognier or Tempranillo Viognier blends. 

Here are some Viognier recommendations :

Laurent Miquel Vendanges Nocturnes Viognier UK £9 | CAN$14 – A delicious Viognier from the South of France with an evocative fragrance of apricot, citrus and melon. On the palate it takes a more peppery stance and the finish is long and elegantly proportioned.

Fairview Goats du Roam White US$8++ | UK £9.5 | AU$16 – In true Rhône style, it is a blend of Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne. Fruity apple and grapefruit aromas take on a spicy cumin nuance.

Louis Latour Duet Chardonnay Viognier US$14++ | UK £10 – Both varieties are harvested at the same time and co fermented with full malolactic fermentation. The result is a wine that has definite food appeal. Pineapple, lemon and fragrantly ripe apricot sits amidst ginger and a goodly dollop of cream.

Chateau Musar ‘Musar Jeune’ White  UK £13 | USA $19++  – A savoury combination of unoaked viognier, vermentino and chardonnay. The viognier adds its apricot and stonefruit plushness to the lemon citrus line of crisp acid. There is a smoky minerality tautness too. UK £13 | USA $19++

Here are some of my favourite Australian Viognier expressions:

Philip Shaw The Dreamer Viognier AU $22 | UK£17 – A  savoury style of Viognier with a lemon balm herbal, grapefruit and peach nose.  While it is sits lightly on the palate, it has lovely texture with excellent balance & poise thanks to a little residual sugar (7g/L). A very pretty wine that lingers.

Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier AU $21 | UK£17 | US$16++ | CAN$25 – Coming from pioneering stock, this wine has a stylish fleshy purity to the fruit.  The musky stonefruit is alluring with a long apricot length.  This wine is showing little fat – just ripeness & foodability.

Yalumba The Virgilius Viognier AU $50 | UK£25 – This wine is well worth spending more on.  This is one of the best Viognier wines that Australia produces. It is tight & minerally on opening with apricot & white pepper. It is linear along the palate with a long peppery, honey length. A very finely textured wine.

Blends …

Henschke Henry’s Seven AU$37 | UK£25 | US$34++ | CAN$58 – This addition of viognier has given the blend a fragrant lift of some extra pepper and enhanced the violet aromas. These are joined by fresh plum and more earthy, spicy characters.

Yering Station Shiraz Viognier AU$34 | UK£17 –  There is abundant white pepper, nutmeg, fresh plum with a citrus peel lift. It is silky with chalky tannins, generous fruit and finishes with a rich caramel flourish.

Want more Viognier – see The veritable story of Viognier, Vermentino & Verduzzo

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