Viognier is perhaps as well known for red wines as it is white, even though it rarely occupies more than 5 per cent of a blend with shiraz. The opulently apricot-scented grape was most vocally championed by Yalumba in the 1990s, with there now near to 800 hectares planted across the country.
Also known as
Viognier has no common synonyms, and certainly none that appear on wine labels.
What viognier tastes like
A highly aromatic grape, viognier is very distinctly scented with apricot, which can vary from the flesh, to the kernel, to apricot blossom, and those characters can be extremely exotic when quite ripe. It is also a grape that is quite phenolic but with low acidity. So, ripe examples will tend to be luscious and rich with high alcohol. Picked earlier and the apricot notes are more delicate, with acidity more of a feature. New oak flavours are not uncommon with more serious examples.
Vineyard & winemaking
Viognier requires a warm enough climate to develop its signature aromatics, but the trade-off is that it can lose acidity easily, with the aromas also dissipating if too hot. So, a relatively warm season where the late-maturing grape can ripen slowly is ideal. For white wines, picking viognier early enough to retain some acidity while still having developed flavours is often seen as advantageous. Given its tendency to produce richer, more textural wines, many winemakers employ new oak and winemaking methods similar to chardonnay. Viognier can also make highly aromatic dessert wines, sometimes botrytis affected, sometimes not, and some makers celebrate the phenolic qualities by making skin-contact wines. Adding viognier to red wine gives it a fragrant lift and builds texture and colour in the wines, which may seem odd given that it’s a white grape, but it helps the colour from the red skins chemically bind and stay in the wine. Too much, and the wines can look very, well, apricotty. As viognier ripens earlier than shiraz, some will pick and chill the white grapes, then co-ferment, rather than blending finished wine back, as you won’t get the colour benefit otherwise, and the viognier just integrates better. Others ferment on top of the pressed viognier skins that have been used to make white wine.
Where is viognier grown?
Viognier hails from France’s Northern Rhône where it is used as a blending grape for both red and white wines. Famously, small amounts of viognier were historically included in the great syrahs of Côte-Rôtie, though this practice was generally due to the vines being planted together and therefore picked and vinified together. Today, less and less viognier is being used in reds, though it still plays an important role. It is in the appellation of Condrieu that viognier takes full flight, producing exotic and lush white wines. Unusually, within Condrieu there is another appellation for viognier that is assigned to only one producer. Château-Grillet is the maker and the AOC, with the vines arrayed across ancient terraces in an amphitheatre that catches the sun. But for the few hectares of Château-Grillet, less than a dozen hectares in Condrieu and some errant vines in red vineyards, viognier was almost wiped out by the 1960s, but it made quite a comeback, now occupying the allocated 200 hectares in Condrieu, as well as finding homes elsewhere. Viognier is now grown throughout the Southern Rhône in small amounts, and is used as a blending grape, principally with marsanne and roussanne, right across the Rhône. And while Condrieu is the marquee name for viognier, it is now widely grown through the South of France, where it is often varietally labelled and sold as a simple, flavourful white, as well as bolstering blends of other grapes.
Viognier around the world
While viognier may have hit the skids in France for a time, being almost an endangered species, its resurgence at home has also seen it planted in meaningfully large amounts in the New World, principally the USA, and mainly California, as well as Australia, but it has a surprisingly decent presence in places such as Italy. With over 1,200 hectares, viognier takes up major residence in Sicily, with almost 90 per cent of the plantings, but it also pops up in Tuscany, Umbria and Piedmont, with the grape allowed as a major component of 24 DOCs and IGPs. Viognier is also making South American inroads, notably in Chile and Argentina.
Viognier in Australia
Viognier was embraced in Australia in the 1990s, with the Barossa Valley’s Yalumba making a particularly significant investment in the grape, after having first planted it in 1980. Their ‘Virgilius’ is still seen as the leading example in the country, but they also produce large amounts of economical viognier from fruit grown in the Riverland. Prior to Yalumba’s big push, Yarra Yering’s Dr Bailey Carrodus had planted viognier to blend into both white and red wines, with his ‘Dry Red No.2’ a homage to Côte-Rôtie and serving as inspiration for makers like Tim Kirk of Clonakilla who arguably makes the country’s finest example. Today, viognier accounts for almost 800 hectares of vineyard land, with it contributing to both red and white wines.
Some of the best Australian viognier
Some of the icons
Some of the new wave
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