Viognier – The seductive and sensuous grape variety that was saved from extinction
Happy International Viognier Day Everyone.
Friday 30th April is the very first ever International Viognier Day and we must celebrate this variety, for it was only back in the 1960’s that Viognier was almost extinct.
Firstly, you pronounce it VEE-ON-YAY!
Secondly, How does Viognier taste?
This is a rich and hedonistic white wine. The acidity levels are quite low which means if the winemaker doesn’t quite get it right, you can get a really fat and flabby wine, but when they get it right, oh those church bells do ring. Incredibly perfumed, this wine has aromas of peach, orange musk and honeysuckle. The wine gives you weight on the palate and an oiliness. This is a wine of texture and aromatics.
Now lets look at Viognier’s history
This very seductive grape variety hails from the Northern Rhone Valley. There are two white appellations to look out for. The first being Château-Grillet which is directly south of the famous Côte-Rôtie (a region known to co-ferment a little Viognier with its Syrah wines). It’s only 3.8 hectares (9.4 acres) in size and even more surprisingly, it’s owned by only one winery. The second appellation being Condrieu, which is directly south of Château-Grillet. Although through history it seems this grape variety had seen some popularity, as peoples’ preferences turned towards red wine, and Viognier was a difficult grape to cultivate, by the 1960’s this grape variety was down to just 14 hectares (35 acres).
Jancis Robinson, a Master of Wine and wine critic said: “When I wrote Vines, Grapes & Wines in 1985 (for publication in 1986) I was able to identify records of just 32 hectares (80 acres) of it planted in the entire world.”
So what happened? Geoges Vernay is a name you should know about, making sublime Viogniers from Condrieu and from the 1960’s worked energetically to develop and popularize this grape variety again. Then in the 1980’s the grape travelled to several countries around the world. We can thank Calera and Joseph Phelps in California, and Yalumba in Australia, amongst others, for all their efforts.
After a trip in 2015 to South Australia, principally to Barossa and Eden Valley I want to honour this charmingly fragrant variety with some of the best that Australia has to offer, and this leads me to Yalumba.
Yalumba and Viognier
Yalumba, based in Eden Valley is one of Australia’s First families of wine dating back to 1849. Still family owned, this winery is the pioneer of Viognier in Australia and we owe all this to their chief winemaker Louisa Rose, the “Queen of Viognier” who has been with them since 1992. The first commercial vineyards date back to 1980 but it was Louisa who took on this grape, dedicated time to understand it and let the grape variety flourish. I was lucky to have Louisa herself as my host, taking me around their onsite cooperage, their underground vats that have been transformed into function room, and tasting through the wines. So approachable and knowledgeable, she was so giving of her time and information. It is no wonder she is known as one of Australia’s best winemakers.
When asked about the biggest challenges as she began working with Viognier back in 1992 Louisa says: “Viognier doesn’t behave in the vineyard like other white varieties, in fact it is more like a red variety in some ways. This took us a while to understand.” And for that reason, they began picking the grapes at the same time as the Shiraz, rather than the Riesling which it at least a 2-week difference.
But through all the challenges, Louisa really loves this variety: “Viognier is such a versatile white wine when it comes to food matching. The naturally low acidity, the textures and richness make it perfect with everything from spicy food, Asian flavours right through to dishes you would normally match with full bodied red wines.”
“People who don’t think they like white wines usually love Viognier, in many ways it’s as much like a red wine as it is a white… just doesn’t have colour.”
Check out Yalumba Y Series Viognier 2020 £8.50 Morrisons, £9 Coop, £7.49 (Mix 6) Majestic
All of Louisa’s Viogniers are fermented with wine yeasts and vegan.
This Viognier is intense and aromatic on the nose, there isn’t any holding back here. Its filled with mango and pineapple with a big dollop of nectarine juice, followed by some ginger spice, manuka honey and even fig syrup.
The wine is full of flavour on the palate. Medium bodied with some oiliness, medium acidity some jasmine flowers to accompany all the stone fruits and a spicy finish. The is an absolutely great value wine for the price
I recommend this wine with a chicken tagine and apricot, Syrian chicken with saffron, ginger and lemon or roasted pork with apple sauce.
Or step up to the Yalumba Samuel’s Collection Eden Valley Viognier 2017 £15.99 Taurus wines, £16.95 (on sale £13.95) winedirect.co.uk
Dedicated to the Yalumba’s founder Samuel Smith, this Viognier is a blend of six vineyards in Eden Valley, with 60% barrel fermented in old hogsheads and 40% stainless steel. The wine spends 10 months in contact with it’s lees.
The wine has medium plus intensity with aromas of ripe sweet papaya, orange musk, honeysuckle with soft notes of peach and a touch of cinnamon.
The wine is medium body and full of peaches and papaya with white flowers and a soft chalkiness, silky texture and medium plus acidity. This really shows Viognier in a soft and seductive way.
I recommend this wine with Singapore rice noodles, Lamb biryani (yes lamb, but you could swap it with prawns), pulled pork with cinnamon and ginger, or Honey sesame and orange king prawns.
Now for those nonconformists out there, Viognier is not always drunk as a single varietal. White Rhône blends are typically Marsanne and Roussanne with a little bit of Viognier. These blends can be exotic with richness and nuttiness.
My memories of Torbreck are special. Getting to stay in their cottage at the top of the Laird Vineyard, just off Seppeltsfield Road is one of them. Everyone needs to drive down this road, at least once in their life, with palm trees lining a road as far as the eye can see, and iconic vineyards and wineries on both sides. Torbreck are known for working with very old vines and their wines (especially the reds) are just explosive.
Now their reputation may be for reds, but they have planted part of their famous Descendant vineyard on Roennfeldt Road, Barossa Valley to Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
As for the wine: Torbreck The Steading Blanc 2019 £31 Honest Grape, £33.50 Specialist Cellar
The blend is 41% Marsanne, 39% Viognier, 20% Roussanne. The wine was tank fermented and then aged on the lees for 10 months in a mixture of seasoned and new French oak barriques.
Super fragrant on the nose but with serious restraint. Medium intensity with aromas of lemon sherbet mixed in with apricot, a touch of wet pebbles and white flowers.
The palate feels so light and lively, but the wine is medium bodied. Its super smooth with a silkiness. This wine is heavenly and elegant with all the softness of stone fruits and citrus coming through from the nose with acacia flowers and mineral notes.
I recommend this wine with Norwegian king crab, pan seared scallops and five spice, pork dim sum or fresh thai crab and mango salad