Viognier – The True Phoenix Grape Variety

By Nick Adams, Master of Wine.

When Jancis Robinson mw wrote her seminal book on the grape varieties of the world – Vines, Grapes & Wine – she noted then, that in 1986, Viognier was recorded as only being planted in around 32 hectares in the whole world. In effect it was close to viticultural and commercial extinction. Even in its spiritual home – Condrieu in the North Rhône – only 23ha (out of a possible 200 ha) were planted. Importantly and perceptively she still classified the variety as “Major” in her book – a reflection of both its intrinsic quality and potential.

Just 35 years later plantings in Condrieu are standing at 170 ha and the variety has also become widely planted in the south of France in particular. Interest in the variety has spread well into the New World – especially in the USA, Chile, South Africa, and Australia, where producers such as Yalumba (in the Barossa) and Calera (in Santa Cruz California), to take two examples, became true champions of the grape.

And this is indeed good news, because good quality, well made Viognier is one of the most hedonistic white wines in the world – powerful, rich, and seductive – giving immediate and voluminous pleasure for the drinker.

Viognier delivers the sort of power and weight that would match a good Chardonnay. It needs to be picked late and ripe to elevate both its aromatic and flavour profiles (hence why its acidity is therefore relatively moderate). However, it must not be grown in too hot a climate as this leads to too much sugar and even flatter acidity. The wine then becomes “hot”, alcoholic, and flabby. But caught exactly right, it packs a punch with its bold perfume and flavours of apricots, peaches, honeysuckle, and musk. The only other commercial aspect is it tends to be a naturally low yielding variety, so crop returns can be relatively meagre.

The grape is believed to have arrived in the Rhône via the Romans, but its origins are obscure although The University of Davis (California) believes its DNA is quite close to Italian varieties Freisa and Nebbiolo – others allude to a close link to Syrah. Because of its weight and power, it also makes for a useful component in blends – ironically both with other white varieties but also one black in particular.

So, let’s have a look at where it is performing best and with most interest and potential, and along the way make some Wine Trust recommendations for you to enjoy. And to start – its spiritual home.

Condrieu

Formally defined in 1940, this tiny area is only half the size of its renowned red wine neighbour Côte-Rôtie. Condrieu includes the AOC of Château Grillet (3.5 ha). At its best Condrieu is considered to make the finest Viognier in the world and some producers believe it is due the special soil vein known as “arzelle” which lies in the AOC in the mainly decomposed granite. This artery is made up of fragmented mica, shist as well as granite, with some clay – and the Viognier seem to do especially well here. Certainly, most of the finest wines seem to come from grapes grown on arzelle. And no surprise that New World producers look to plant Viognier on decomposed granite soils if possible.

Modern day Condrieu seems to be even richer than ever, with later harvesting, increased use of oak (new barrels) and even some botrytis percentage of grapes included in some blends. However, records indicate that 19th Century “Condrieu” was often made and drank with levels of residual sugar in the wine. Also, the use of oak needs to be done sensitively as Viognier is not as robust a grape as Chardonnay when exposed to oxygen.  Above all, even with the finest examples, these wines are never intended for aging and are best enjoyed within 4 years of release. The key to great Condrieu (Viognier) is that the wines are intensely fruity and perfumed, very full bodied and textural with soft acidity, but never flabby.

Top producers include:

  • Yves Cuilleron – cuvées Les Chaillets & La Petite Cote
  • François Villard – Grand Vallon, Deponcins & Les Terraces du Pralat
  • Georges Vernay – Coteaux du Vernon & Les Chailees de l’Enfer
  • André Perret – Clos Chanson & Coteau du Chéry
  • Robert Niero – Coteau du Chéry

The reference to Côte-Rôtie (earlier) is in respect to a twist for this white grape, for here it can be co-fermented with the black grape Syrah (up to 20% by law, though in reality around 5% is used these days) to assist in both the aromatic and fruit profile of the red wine but also – some producers say – in the fixing (stabilising) of colour with reference to bottle aging. Many New World producers these days copy this process in their own Syrah/Shiraz blends.

In addition, because of its power, the use of Viognier in white blends is also important as it adds real punch and weight, which can also be cost effective when blended with larger cropping varietals.

Producers in other areas of France look to plant Viognier on granite soil, if possible, too. This is most prevalent in the Southern Rhône and South of France. Some impressive examples are emerging these days from both the generic Côtes-du-Rhône, Languedoc and Pays d’Oc areas.

Other European Practitioners

Ascheri in Piedmont Italy have used Viognier blended with Chardonnay, Graff Hardegg is a pioneer in Austria, and I understand that Henri Cruchon is a specialist in Switzerland although I have never tried the wine. Planting across Europe are increasing, and this varietal now seems firmly established on many white winemakers’ radars. So, it really is a case of “watch this space”.

New World – highlights

USA

In the 1980s and 90s a movement evolved called “The Rhône Rangers” (very much Californian led) which naturally included Viognier in its portfolio. Again, using the Condrieu (Rhône) role model producers sort out sites and practices to mimic this classic region. Calera in Santa Cruz, and Joseph Phelps in the Napa set an early high standard and others used it widely in their Shiraz/Syrah red blends. Today well over 800 ha (and growing) are planted in California with Viognier.

South Africa

In the last 30 years a bastion of development – this country holds Chenin Blanc most dear as its no 1 white grape but have found that Viognier also complements that grape well in blends as well as stand-alone examples. And again, they often use a judicious amount of Viognier in their Shiraz/Syrah red wine blends. Viognier works better away from the cooler coastal wine regions – inland in areas such as Stellenbosch and Paarl for example.

Australia

Here Yalumba (a Barossa based producer) pride themselves at the best and most focused producer of Viognier – as a straight varietal – led by their Eden Valley special cuvée, the barrel fermented “The Virgilius” which can rightly claim to be Australia’s finest example and rival others in the New World. It was interesting that Yalumba saw potential as long ago as 1980 when they first planted Viognier in Eden Valley (not unlike Calera who first planted in 1983 in Mount Harlan). These were quite serious initiatives when you think how little was grown in the Rhône at the time, and how obscure that grape would have been commercially to both the wine trade and drinker.

Food Matching

Viognier works particularly well with white meat, fish and vegetable based spicier food, including milder curries and Thai dishes. It also works surprisingly well grilled or steamed asparagus, with or without a butter or richer sauce as a starter.

Please find three excellent examples which feature Viognier in a newer wave form – see how it elevates the Percheron blend and works well with Chenin Blanc; also, the new wave styles from the South of France and leading Viognier specialist Chris Williams in the Cape.

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