It may hail from the Rhone, but viognier has found a new home in Australia, as Peter Ranscombe discovers.
LOUISA Rose takes her viognier very seriously – so much so, that she’s even designed her own glass for the white grape variety.
The shape of that vessel gives some clues as to how Yalumba’s head winemaker likes to create her viognier too.
She opted for a design that was similar to a shiraz or a tempranillo glass, with a big bowl at the bottom to allow lots of air to come into contact with the liquid and release fruity aromas, and then a narrower mouth at the top of the glass to direct all those scents back up to the nose.
When it comes to viognier, it’s all about the nose – and the texture.
Its spiritual home is in the Rhone valley in the South of France, but it’s found a new lease of life “down under”, and Yalumba was at the vanguard of the variety’s renaissance.
The Barossa Valley winery, which has been run by the same family since it was founded in 1849 and now includes the sixth generation of the clan, planted its first viognier vines in the Eden Valley in 1980, the same year as fellow pioneer Elgee Park on the Mornington Peninsula and two years after Heathcote in Victoria.
The first cuttings of viognier had arrived in Australia from Montpellier in southern France in 1968 and, by the time Yalumba was planting its first vines, fewer than 15 hectares of the variety were left at Condrieu in the Rhone.
Since then the grape – which is often blended with roussanne and marsanne in the Rhone, and even in some proportions with syrah or shiraz – has slowly garnered more attention.
Yalumba began selling its first viognier from its cellar door in 1989, with Rose joining the company in 1992.
She admits that those early examples were a bit dull and tasteless because they were treating viognier as if it was riesling, keeping the grapes cool in the winery and not exposing them to oxygen.
It wasn’t until the mid-90s that things started to change, leaving the “strange” grapes on the vine to get riper.
“Viognier grapes are typical Australians – they like to be out in the sun,” laughed Rose during this morning’s online tasting.
“They like to get a little bit sunburnt; they even like to get a little bit shrivelled.
“As the grapes get closer to the ripeness we would expect in red varieties like shiraz, that’s when the viognier starts to get more texture and flavour.
“The flavours appear almost overnight – when they’re there, you can pick them.”
As well as leaving the fruit to ripen for longer, Yalumba also began working with the natural yeasts found on the grapes’ skins in 1993, with its first “wild ferment” viognier following in 1998.
All four viogniers in the winery’s range are now fermented with wild yeasts instead of inoculated varieties, with Rose also seeking to capture the tannins found in the grapes’ skins, adding even more texture to the wines.
What sets each of the four wines apart is the way in which they are aged and the sources of the fruit.
The 2019 Yalumba Y-Series Viognier (£7 until 15 May then £8.50, Morrisons) is made using a blend of grapes from the Riverland, Barossa and Adelaide Hills.
It’s aged in stainless steel tanks, which retains its peach and lemon sherbet aromas and flavours – it’s the freshest style in Yalumba’s viognier cellar.
Similarly, the 2019 Yalumba Organic Viognier (£10.95, The Fine Wine Company) spends all its time in stainless steel, but the grapes all come from the Riverland, where one of Yalumba’s growers switched to organic farming in the early 90s, allowing it to release its first organic viognier in 1995.
Whether it’s simply the fact that it comes from one region or whether it’s the flavour concentration in the organic fruit, there are definitely brighter apricot and lemon aromas in the organic version, with a twist of lime joining the lemon sherbet on the palate; it feels slightly rounder in the mouth too.
While the organic viognier focuses on fruit from the Riverland, the 2017 Yalumba Samuel’s Collection Eden Valley Viognier (£14.95, Slurp) hones-in on those original plantings in the Eden Valley.
On the nose, the peach and lemon aromas are more intense, while the palate is much more textured, with a savoury lemon rind note too, and some spicier white pepper and ginger touches.
Half of the wine is aged in stainless steel tanks, while the other half spends time in a mixture of old French oak barrels and puncheons, again building up its texture.
Rose described a “bitterness” from the grape skin tannins in both the Samuel’s Collection Eden Valley Viognier and the 2017 Yalumba The Virgilius Viognier (2016: £33.95, Soho Wine), the winery’s flagship white, made from a selection of the best Eden Valley barrels, which tend to come from the fruit harvested from the oldest vines.
The Virgilius, which was bottled under cork until 2002 before switching to screwcap, may have a duller nose – with just a hint of ginger in amongst the lemon and peach – but it’s incredibly complex on the palate, with more pronounced savoury notes and a lovely apricot sign-off coming through on the finish.
During the online tasting, food and wine matching queen Fiona Beckett suggested pairing viognier with a korma, and later praised its finesse alongside cheese.
For her part, Rose suggested matching the variety to Moroccan tagines – with the layers of fruit, spice, sweetness and sourness built up in the food mirroring the way she constructs the layers of flavour in her wines – or pork dumplings.
It seems like she takes her food and wine pairings as seriously as she does her viognier.
For more stories from Peter Ranscombe’s The Grape & The Grain drinks blog visit https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/category/grapegrain/