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Viognier

bunch of viognier grapesThe Viognier grape variety has staged a quite remarkable come-back in the last couple of decades or so. In the mid-1980s a mere 32 hectares of vineyard was planted with this capricious, heady variety and the majority of that was grown in just two French appellations Condrieu and Château Grillet in the Northern Rhône where it reaches its peak expression in the arzelle soil of decomposed granite, mica, schist, loess and clay. The variety had fallen so much from favour that a scant 23 hectares of the 200 or so permitted in Condrieu was planted with it at that time although even that was an improvement on the 10 hectares that were planted there in the early 1960s. By 2011 that figure had increased to more than 160 hectares in Condrieu and in excess of 4,000 hectares throughout France today. The reason for the renewed interest is that Viognier is capable of producing some of the most alluring wines in the world, both red and white.

How is it possible to make any kind of red wine, let alone an alluring one, from a white grape? Well of course it isn't, not without blending, and the most famous red wine of the Northern Rhône, Côte Rotie, is allowed to have up to 20% Viognier in the blend, although 5% is more in line with the norm, as long as it is fermented together with the Syrah grapes. It lends its richness and an almost other-worldly, sensuous perfume to add an extra dimension to this Syrah based wine. It is also claimed to "fix" the colour of the Syrah during fermentation. The explosion in wine-drinking across the world also spurred growers and wine-makers on in their relentless pursuit to find the next big thing or, alternatively, to create a new niche product to tickle consumers' taste buds. Viognier produces lush wines that are rich in body and high in alcohol with the aromas of ripe peaches, apricots, spring flowers, honeysuckle and even violets. Clearly, Viognier is just a bit special as anyone who has drunk a decent bottle can attest.

If Viognier is capable of such delicious and distinctive wines why had it fallen so far from grace with the Rône's vignerons? The reasons for this state of affairs is that it is a demanding grape to grow and one which delivers very small yields, typically 15 hectoliters per hectare although the AOC regulations in Condrieu allow 30hl/ha. Viognier requires a long growing season without which it just will not deliver the full aromatic range of which it is capable. Although requiring a warm climate, withstanding drought quite comfortably, if the conditions are too hot then it will ripen too quickly and produce very high fruit-sugar levels before those aromatics have developed. It also has something of an acidity problem in that it has a tendency to achieve quite low levels and so there is a danger that, in the wrong conditions and hands, it can produce over-ripe, flabby, high alcohol wines that are very low in acidity. In the 1950s and 1960s the world had little interest in wines from the Northern Rhône. Add to this the fact that the consumer wine-drinking revolution was still to take place and that the slavish adherence to the revered appellation contrôlée regulations throughout France acted as a barrier to any grower that might have considered experimenting with Viognier and we begin to have an appreciation of just why it had arrived at such a precarious state. As if these reasons weren't enough it is also very prone to succumbing to coulure (a.k.a. powdery mildew) if there is any late season rain and dampness although this is usually mitigated in the northern Rhône by the effect of the Mistral which can also reduce the heat affecting the vines near harvest time. Viognier is, then, a grape which requires a particular set of conditions to be satisfied before it will deign to deliver the goods.

History of Viognier

As a result of DNA profiling the Viognier grape has been shown to be a close relative of the Piedmontese variety Freisa and a cousin of Nebbiolo which is suggestive of an Italian sub-alpine origin. Historical records have suggested that the Roman Emperor Probus introduced Viognier to the Rhône in A.D. 281 from Dalmatia which is the present day Croatia. These vines were to replace those in Condrieu that had been ripped up on the orders of the Emperor Vespasian after the locals had staged a revolt which he though had been caused by drinking too much of the local wine. It is not difficult to understand how a wine with a very good potential to produce high levels of alcohol might have become quite popular throughout the centuries since. It was planted over a thousand years ago in what is now the tiny, 4 hectare appellation of Condrieu, in a natural amphitheatre of a vineyard which has a south easterly orientation. It subsequently travelled south to the Papal Palace near Avignon in the 14th. century.

Viognier Wines

From the above it is apparent that Viognier produces wines that can be intensely aromatic with beguiling perfumes of ripe peaches and apricots along with a range of floral notes. On the palate it is a rich, full-bodied wine with a lush mouth-feel and flavours of stone fruits with a honeyed edge that balance the usually high alcohol levels which are in the 13% - 14% range in the northern Rhône and often higher still in such places as California and South Africa. Its richness is matched by its lovely golden colour. Generally speaking it is not a vin de garde with the wines of Condrieu offering up their delights early with the lack of acidity conspiring against long bottle maturation. Just a little further south the grapes at Château Grillet are harvested a couple of weeks earlier than those in Condrieu to produce a slightly less rich wine that is matured in oak for two years before bottling. As a result Ch. Grillet will continue to evolve in bottle for several years, decades even in exceptional vintages, and will achieve its peak after Condrieu from the same vintage will be way over the hill. In very hot years both of these appellations will produce a sweet or demi-sec version to exploit the extra ripeness achieved in such conditions. Elsewhere in the Rhône it is blended with higher proportions of either Marsanne or Rousanne and sometimes both in e.g. Côte du Rhône Blanc and Lirac Blanc making very good food-friendly wines.

Encouraged by the success of New World wine styles in the market growers in Languedoc-Roussillon started to experiment with the less prescriptive vin de pays (now I.G.P.) regulations and make fruit-driven wines that proved popular with consumers. Here Viognier was blended with Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay, Rousanne and Marsanne to add complexity and freshness to the opulence of the Viognier. They provide a glimpse of the delights of Viognier from the northern Rhône at a fraction of the cost.

Both the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California produce very good examples of Viognier with the high alcohol balanced by the lychee fruit and full-body that these wines exhibit. Chile has also enjoyed success with this grape producing wines that are not only very well-priced but which manage to show a degree of freshness quite possibly by virtue of the judicious addition of tartaric acid to the grape must. In Australia Yalumba in the Eden Valley and Château Tahbilk in Victoria are justly proud of their Viognier wines. Wherever it is grown Viognier gains extra elegance and finesse where there is a larger diurnal temperature range and benefits from proximity to bodies of water and cooling breezes. New Zealand's Hawkes Bay fulfils these criteria and makes some extremely elegant wines but with less richness and body. South Africa is another wine-producing country that has enjoyed a degree of success with the variety especially in the Coastal region where sea breezes help to tame the heat in the vineyards. Some very good Syrah/Viognier blends are also made in Australia and South Africa offering something of the style of the famous reds of Côte Rotie if not the elegance and finesse.

As a wine with a high degree of richness and relatively low acidity Viognier pairs well with the type of food that would also suit good, oaked Chardonnay's. It matches well with cream or coconut sauces, not too heavily spiced south east Asian food, grilled fish, richly-sauced shellfish and almost any dish which incorporates fruits or fruit-based salsas such as a chicken salad with peach or Sole Picasso.

 

Video: Tasting Viognier and In the Vineyard, Yalumba, Eden Valley

 

  1. Chateau Grillet (Neyret-Gachet), 2007

    Chateau Grillet (Neyret-Gachet), 2007

    The Viognier grapes of Chateau Grillet grow in a natural amphitheatre in the Northern Rhone close to Condrieu, the other famous home of this most deliciously aromatic of white grapes.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Viognier
    Country France

    £80.00

    Out of stock

  2. d'Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier, McLaren Vale, 2008 (Magnum)

    d'Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier, McLaren Vale, 2008 (Magnum)

    This magnum of d'Arenberg's Laughing Magpie Shiraz-Viognier 2008 blend has a good colour with a highly perfumed bouquet and an abundance of black fruits, savoury charcuterie, and a suggestion of violets.

    Details
    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Shiraz, Viognier
    Country Australia

    Out of stock

  3. d'Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier, McLaren Vale, 2009

    d'Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier, McLaren Vale, 2009

    The Laughing Magpie is another superb fruit-forward and full bodied red from the famous d'Arenberg winery of McLaren Vale. Amongst the strong ripe fruity notes of this Shiraz Viognier blend are hints of violets, raisins and spice.

    Details
    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Shiraz, Viognier
    Country Australia

    Out of stock

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