Niche white that viognier

Viognier’s a niche variety and likely to stay that way. Why? Well, for one it has too much flavour and individuality.

How can a wine have too much flavour? Well, look, for example, at gewürztraminer. Its heady, lychee-like aroma and viscous texture might be unforgettable, and a joy to drink on occasion. But that’s the problem: a little goes a long way. It’s simply too much to drink regularly.

If viognier (a native of France’s Rhône valley) falls into that category it has, in Australia, the considerable advantage of being relatively unknown.

While gewürztraminer – of which there are some very fine examples, like Hanging Rock from Macedon, Victoria – suffers from its use in bland, sweet blends with riesling, viognier walked straight into the premium end of the market sans popular pre-conception.

Viognier’s short history in Australia, as outlined here a few weeks back, parallels its resurgence in France.

Winemaker interest in the variety seems to have begun in the late seventies. According to Yalumba, Heathcote winery, central Victoria, probably trialled viognier prior to Yalumba’s acquisition of cuttings from Montpellier, France, in 1979. Yalumba propagated these cuttings and planted 1.2 hectares on the Vaughan vineyard, Eden Valley, in 1980, and claims this as Australia’s first commercial planting.

This vineyard remains a source of Yalumba’s ‘The Virgilius’, its flagship viognier that inspired many of the outstanding wines to have emerged from eastern Australia in the past decade.

These come, broadly speaking, in two main styles: those that feature the unadorned, plump, viscous, opulent, apricot-like flavour of the variety; and those attempting to incorporate that flavour into a matrix with others derived from fermentation and maturation on yeast lees in oak barrels.

The latter, modelled on the best of Condrieu, a village in France’s Rhône Valley, can achieve a high level of complexity. But even with this high level of winemaker artifice, ultimate quality is driven by the quality of fruit – just as it is with oak fermented chardonnay.

The divergence of the two styles is reflected in price, too. The opulent, simple, fruity wines generally come from higher cropping vineyards and don’t bear the purchasing or winemaking costs of oak. Wines like Canberra’s Meeting Place, Stepping Stone Padthaway and Yalumba Eden Valley, for example, generally deliver the variety’s plush flavour and leave change out of $20.

But as you move up to the hand crafted versions (with the high costs of lower yields, hand-picking and sorting and oak fermentation) prices step up accordingly – to $45 a bottle and more.

Regardless of which style you go for, viognier delivers a unique spectrum of flavours, whether overtly or subtly. That’s what the winemaker quest is all about – capturing the varietal character and, at the same time, expressing regional, clonal and winemaker inputs.

A tasting of eight Aussie viogniers this week showed the common and divergent traits of the variety. I describe them very briefly below in the order in which they were tasted, along with my score out 20 points.

I use the Australian wine-show scoring system in which 12 points or lower is a faulty, unpleasant wine; 13-15 is sound but unexciting; 15.5-16.5 wins a bronze medal – meaning a faultless wine that fits the class description; 17-18 point wins a silver medal – meaning an exciting drop, but not quite in the first league; and 18.5 to 20 points wins a gold medal – these are outstanding wines.

Ravensworth Canberra District Viognier 2006 17.5 points
Another classy barrel-ferment viognier from Bryan Martin. Not far behind the best.

Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Viognier 2006 15/20
A vibrant and pleasant wine with a strong, estery/passionfruit like aroma and flavour that was a little over the top for me – and not quite ‘viognier’ enough.

Grant Burge Chaff Mill Adelaide Hills Barossa Valley Viognier 2005 17 points
Shows considerable complexity from the barrel input, quite fresh and varietal. Very easy to savour a few glasses.

d’Arenberg The Last Ditch McLaren Vale Adelaide Hills Viognier 2006 16 points
An outstanding example of the ‘let-it-rip’ varietal style – apricot-like, opulent and very fresh, but simply upstaged by the more complex company.

Fox-Gordon Barossa Valley Viognier 2006 15.5 points
From the southern Barossa, this one’s big, fat and juicy – definitely viognier but will probably fatten up quickly, so drink now.

Petaluma Adelaide Hills Viognier 2005 19.0
A simply stunning wine – seductively aromatic, tingly fresh, finely textured for viognier, yet unmistakably of that variety and with a lingering, delicious flavour.

Clonakilla Canberra District Viognier 2006 18.5 points
Not long bottled and very complex, soft and layered, with a wonderful texture. Only just pipped by the Petaluma in this tasting but it could be a different result after another six months in bottle.

Yarra Burn Yarra Valley Viognier 2004 16.0 points
This was surprisingly fresh and fine for viognier – as the variety normally fattens and fades quickly. The focus seemed to be more on texture and structure and less on overt varietal flavour, although it was definitely there.

Conclusion? Our best viogniers, like our best chardonnays, are whites to savour; the cheaper ones are more in-your-face, fade young and tend to heaviness. The flavours, however, are unique and pleasant. Be adventurous and try the best. But, like me, you might find that one or two bottles a year are enough.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007