Wines by Grape
Viognier is a white-wine grape variety known for producing textural, aromatic wines with pronounced stonefruit flavors; “apricots and steel” are the variety’s classic flavor associations. On the nose, Viognier wines can also be very herbal, with aromas of chamomile, lavender, thyme and even a hint of pine. In aged examples and sweeter styles, this potentially overpowering herbal profile is softened by honeyed notes.
In the late 1960s ,just 14 hectares (35 acres) of Viognier vines were all that remained in the world, located exclusively in the vineyards of Condrieu and Château-Grillet. Happily, the 1970s saw new life breathed into the near-extinct variety, by the Yalumba winery in Australia’s Eden Valley and a handful of Californian wine growers (notably Calera in Mount Harlan). During the 21st Century, Viognier has had a remarkable renaissance, is now found more widely in France, and is grown in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the US, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan. In some instances the plantings remain experimental, as in Rioja and Piedmont, where local wine laws impose restrictions on how the variety can be used. In other locations, notably California and Australia, Viognier has emerged as a prestigious niche variety.
Viognier declined because it is hard to cultivate and not naturally predisposed to producing healthy, reliable yields – the vineyard stock in 1960s France suffered badly from coulure. Moreover, thick-skinned Viognier grapes have naturally low acidity and require a great deal of sunshine to ripen properly – and plenty of sugar is need to push the fermentation towards a high alcohol level, since it is widely held that much of a Viognier wine’s hallmark aromatics are products of the ferment progressing beyond 13 percent abv. At the same time, if there is too much heat the grapes can yield overblown, hotly alcoholic wine that lacks the fresh, steely, apricot zing that is part of the variety’s appeal. Some of the richer versions suit barrel fermentation, sometimes using new oak, though most expressions of Viognier are made using stainless steel.
It is precisely this difficult balancing act that has led to so many late harvest Viognier wines being created. As winemakers anxiously wait for their grapes to develop the right flavors, the sugar levels go through the roof, often leaving a sticky late-harvest style as the only option. Both Condrieu and Château-Grillet produce sweet versions of their wines to complement the dry ones, particularly in hot vintages, which drive yields down and sugar levels up.
On the Côte-Rôtie, Viognier is co-fermented into the appellation’s Syrah-based wines, and the permitted 20 percent makes a significant difference to the final product. Here, the limestone soils of the Côte Blonde have proved well suited to the variety (and certainly better than the darker, ferrous schists of the Côte Brune). Other terrains have not been so successful, particularly those lacking good drainage. Californian Viogniers in particular have tended towards the over-powerful end of the spectrum, many reaching 15 percent ABV. In Australia, Eden Valley has historically produced the nation’s finest examples of the variety, although the cooler areas of New South Wales are also showing significant potential as Viognier-producing regions.