Viogner — blended or straight

In the wine industry the lead-time from vision to realisation can be twenty years. It takes that long for vines and winemaking skills to mature. Indeed, in some cases, it may be even longer before consumers perceive the benefit of a visionary decision made decades earlier.

For example, when Karl Seppelt established vineyards at Drumborg, first landfall north of the Antarctic in Victoria’s cold Portland region, and at Keppoch (now called Padthaway) in 1964, he was twenty years ahead of the market. In Drumborg’s case, the lag was probably more like forty years, as we are only now seeing the best of that remarkable vineyard.

And so it is with viognier, the Rhone Valley’s most highly regarded white variety, now attracting serious intention in France, Australia and California – an interest that appears to have stirred in all three countries about twenty years ago.

Yet production figures tell us that, in Australia at least, viognier occupies a small but well publicised niche.

According to the Winemakers Federation of Australia, our vignerons crushed about 400 tonnes of viognier in 2000, 700 in 2001, 1300 in 2002 and 1910 in 2003. With a reported 540 hectares in the ground, we can expect future annual production in the vicinity of 5000 tonnes (350 thousand dozen bottles) a year – small change compared to riesling’s 30 thousand tonnes (2.1 million dozen) or chardonnay’s 250 thousand tonnes (17.5 million dozen).

I quote these figures not to deny the importance of viognier, but to underline the fact that wine consumption is not nearly as prone to fashion swings as is sometimes suggested. Almost invariably wine ‘fads’ are more about winemakers and adventurous drinkers gradually expanding the sensory palette available to all of us rather than introducing any popular shift in taste.

In viognier’s case, that sensory experience can be sensational, offering a unique spectrum of aromas and luscious flavours and a silky, viscous texture. However viognier’s charms are not easily captured

Australia’s interest in viognier seems to have begun in the late seventies. According to a Yalumba paper, Heathcote winery in central Victoria probably trialled the variety 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, claiming this as the first commercial viognier planting in Australia.

Viognier seems to have made its way to France from Bosnia in about 280 AD. Once widely cultivated, it fell from favour, the total area planted falling to 29 hectares by 1958 before its renaissance in the 1980s.

Although widely planted in Provence and the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south, viognier’s most profound expression is found in the sumptuous whites of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet in the northern Rhone Valley. It also plays an important supporting role to shiraz in many of the reds of neighbouring Cote-Rotie.

These wonderful whites and reds serve as inspiration to new-world winemakers. Like most global benchmarks, the best Rhone wines cost a packet but they do find their way into Australia and have done for twenty years. The best known and distributed, and also amongst the very best are those of Marcel Guigal.

To taste Guigal’s Condrieu (100 per cent viognier) or Chateau d’Ampuis Cote-Rotie is a fast track to enlightenment. (The wines are imported by Negociants Australia, the import distribution arm of Yalumba).

However, Australia has made great progress with viognier – both as a straight varietal white and in tandem with shiraz. A benchmark of the dry white style is Yalumba’s ‘The Virgilius’ made from those old vines in the Vaughan vineyard. It retails for $80, when you can find it. Or for around $60 you can savour the superb – and even scarcer – Clonakilla Canberra District Viognier.

But there are many more affordable versions available of which Yalumba Eden Valley, Stonehaven Limestone Coast, Meeting Place, Ravensworth and Kingston Estate Empiric provide interesting variations on the variety’s sumptuous apricot-like flavours.

The cutting-edge versions, though, seem to moving towards a subtler, complex style as makers come to grips with the variety. I’ll report back shortly after a planned tasting of the cream of Australia’s viognier crop.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007