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Saturday, 27 August 2016

Just Say Vee-on-yay - Viognier Considered

Caroline Mooney - winemaker Bird on a Wire wines - wrote of Marsanne: “(it) has managed to avoid the undulating highs and lows endured by the many wines subject to the pressures of fashionable consumerism.” I offer that the same could not be said of Viognier, one of the three noble white wines of the Northern Rhone, along with aforementioned Marsanne, and the Roussanne.

Viognier was meant to be the great white hope, the answer to generic Chardonnay. For a brief moment in time Viognier was. But it’s story here in Australia goes way beyond that period in the noughties, some would say the story is still being written. As recently as 50 years ago, Viognier was struggling. In danger of becoming extinct, planted to a mere 35 acres (14 hectares). All of that was planted south of Lyon in France’s Northern Rhone. It is the only permissible variety in both Condrieu and Château Grillet (the latter unusually both an appellation and a domaine), and up to 20% is permissible to be co-fermented with Syrah in Côte Rôtie. But how did this variety variously described as ‘enigmatic’ or, less politely, a ‘pain in the arse’ get to have its fifteen minutes of fame and fall from grace in such a manner that production in Australia fell 83% from 2013 to 2014. 

No mention of the variety in Australia is complete without referencing Yalumba. It established the first commercial vineyard planted to Viognier in 1980. Yes, there were a few trial vines planted at Heathcote a few years prior, likewise some 400 vines were established at Elgee Park in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula in 1979. But it was Yalumba's Director Peter Wall, a keen oeno and Europhile, who - as a regular visitor to France - found love in the form of Viognier. Wall brought that love back to Yalumba and, on the Western boundary of the winery in Angaston, on 22 acres owned by long-term Yalumba grape-growers the Vaughan brothers, those vines were planted.

There those vines lay for some years, allowed to established themselves; the Yalumba team used the opportunity to play with the variety, to learn how to make it - to make it in a manner faithful to that inspirational appellation in the Northern Rhone, Condrieu.

Why Viognier?
First, let's get one thing out of the way, its pronunciation: Vee-on-yay as a starter, or vee-oh-NYAY to be precise. 

It's a thick skinned variety. Now that doesn't mean that you can be mean to it, on the contrary (well, not if you want to make something decent). Variously described as 'enigmatic', 'a very shy producer' and 'difficult to grow'. Fairly drought tolerant, it is susceptible to powdery mildew in humid conditions. It needs to be picked at optimal ripeness to get the most flavour from it. Pick too early and it's under-ripe, fairly neutral in profile; pick too late and an alcohol explosion is likely, rendering the resultant wine variously described as 'fat' and 'oily'.

Why bother you might ask? Well, when done right it can produce wines of such flavour, heavily perfumed with apricot, honeysuckle, blossom and even gingerbread.

Winemaking Consultant Adrian Kenny remarked: “it’s generally a pain, small berries and small bunches, even when established it needs shading to protect it from sunburn. It is that sunburn character that is all too common in the worst of examples in Australia".

Kenny continued “I had an epiphany a few years ago. I suspected that it needed three picks through the vineyard. The first when a little under-ripe, when you first start to see fruit presence in the grapes. A second pick - of the majority of the fruit - picked at around mid-12 baumé and then a final pick. 

Kenny considers that most Australians try and handle Viognier reductively, as that’s how they’re taught to do so at school. Being quite a thick skinned variety, his preference is oxidatively handle hard phenolics out and to use appropriate yeasts to bring out the fruit character. 

Early History
“It wasn’t just Yalumba; Zilzie were also selling well” comments industry Sales & Marketing Consultant Kate Giles. With theirs, at $15, people felt they could experiment and do so within a budget. As a variety, it had a similarity, not necessarily regional. For those looking to explore a style, it looked similar: apricot, ginger, acid and small amount of fruit sweetness. Viognier had a clear identity as a wine style - Viognier = apricot. You knew whether you liked it or not and it was different - it was not Chardonnay, Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc."

So where did it go wrong? More worked styles became more expensive, the clarity the variety had started to become diffused. Giles offered: “it didn’t look anything like the entry examples, there was a reluctance by the consumer to trade up and it typically was not a cellaring style, falling apart after 2-3 years”. The market has since become crowded at the same price point where Viognier was once seen as attractive. The ‘savalanche’ as the profusion of Sauvignon Blanc is referred, the resurgence of Chardonnay, the continued plight of Riesling struggling to gain acceptance over $20 and of course the emergence of food friendly ‘alternative’ varieties such as Fiano and Vermentino have all played their part.

Where Next? James Hook - Viticulturist
“It was a great white hope, going to be an alternative to generic Chardonnay” offers leading Viticulturist James Hook, continuing: “with a endency to over crop - especially when young - Sunburn is an issue, it needs love and that adds to the price"

The market shifted away from whites like Viognier, Chardonnay started to get a bad rep for being overblown and blousey, Riesling just fell out of favour and then the public’s love of cheap, commercial Sauvignon Blanc started.

Hook further offers: “With over-cropping, for a white grape removing crop assists, but it’s not generally the done thing. As those vines that remain have matured, you see a natural reduction with age, less bunches and smaller (self-regulating). But much of the original plantings have now been removed"

What we may be left with are a few serious growers, making the variety into something that resembles its origins in that tiny Northern Rhone appelation.

Three to Seek

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  1. Good article. Nice to see a perspective on viognier's performance in an Australian context, and that production fall statistic is amazing! Clonakilla's viognier is worth a mention too for serious quality. The grape's tendency to high sugars means I suspect it will continue to fight uphill on current trends.

    1. Thanks Sean - certainly aware of Tim Kirk's efforts, just not one that I've gotten around to tasting.