Viognier – Rich, Heady and Complex

What is viognier supposed to taste like?

For any grape variety, the answer depends on which wine we’re discussing. Take chardonnay. The answer could vary between pale, delicate, low-alcohol, high-acid, unwooded, cool-grown styles and buttercup-yellow, full-bodied, rich, complex, oaky styles. Or one of many between those extremes.

Ask a chef what pork tastes like, and he or she might reply that it depends how you cook it, sauce it, marinate it, even which cut you select. With wine it depends on where the grapes grew and how the wine was vinified.

Take Yalumba (tastings), which makes a wider range of viogniers than any other producer. They range from $13 to $50, and the way they taste has a similar variance. Like most varieties, the cheaper the price, the simpler and less-intense the wine. Cheaper white wines also tend to be sweeter.

Yalumba’s $13 Y Series viognier (tastings) and $19 Organic viognier (tastings) are simple, fruity wines without great personality or depth. Their $25 Eden Valley viognier 2010 (tasting) is richer, more intense and lingering, and has a greater range of flavours, a hint of oak barrel, and a glossier texture. The big gun, a $50 number with an important sounding name, The Virgilius 2010 (tasting), is more concentrated again and has more evidence of barrels – without being oaky – but is also multi-faceted in a more savoury, less fruity way. It has a tightness and reticence that suggest it will age well and reveal more complexity as it matures.

The cheaper wines come from Riverland grapes; the dearer from Eden Valley where the vines are lower-yielding vines and give more concentrated flavour. And the winemaking is more labour-intensive, part of which is fermentation in small barrels. Cheaper viognier often smells and tastes shrilly of apricot; high-end viognier is much more complex and detailed. You get what you pay for.

At the Farr family’s vineyard in the Moorabool Valley near Geelong, there are no budget wines. Everything is done the high-quality way. The viognier has a malolactic fermentation, which is deemed important for the rich, slightly viscous mouth-feel that is part of what makes the original viognier, France’s Condrieu, so distinctive. The 2009 Viognier By Farr ($55 tasting) is a superb wine, tremendously complex and beautifully textured. It tastes like viognier but is much more than dried apricots: it has nutty and vanilla notes, multiple spices and that high-note of honey that typifies many of the great French wines, but rather few Australians.

Tim Kirk’s 2010 Clonakilla Viognier ($50 tasting), from the Canberra district, is another great Australian example. It manages to combine complexity with finesse and is superbly drinkable. Due to its innate oiliness viognier – especially in too hot a climate – can be heavy, even clumsy, but Clonakilla’s 2010 is the antidote to that style.

Other stand-out viogniers I’ve had lately are Quartz Hill 2009 (Pyrenees $32 tasting), Punt Road 2010 (Yarra Valley $23), Stella Bella 2010 (Margaret River $30 tasting), Balgownie Estate 2010 (Bendigo $40 tasting) and Turners Crossing 2010 (Bendigo $35 tasting).

The model for viognier is Condrieu, a small appellation at the northern end of the Rhone Valley, just below Cote Rotie, where my favourite producers are Cuilleron (tastings), Georges Vernay, Andre Perret, Villard (tastings), Gaillard (tastings), Gangloff (tastings) and Guigal (tastings). Cote Rotie grows some of the world’s best shiraz/syrah, so it’s no surprise the best Australian viogniers also come from regions that excel with shiraz – but at the cooler rather than hotter end of a wide spectrum.

But viognier is still a hard sell in this country. Nick Farr of By Farr says his family scaled back their output from 500 dozen to 125 dozen three years ago. Now they’re creeping up a bit and this year will sell 200 dozen ‘if we’re lucky’. Says Farr: “It’s difficult to get the public to taste it, and even to get sommeliers to look at it. And the price doesn’t seem to matter: over $20, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s $50 or $30.”

It doesn’t help that it’s difficult to pronounce (try “vee-OHN-yay”). But that’s not the full story.

Viognier is a fringe variety. There is little profile or understanding of it. Low yields and difficulties of cultivation at a time when growers were more interested in quantity than quality led to it almost dying out in France by the 1970s. Plantings have bounced back strongly.

The grapes and wine have fairly low acidity, which means it’s best drunk young – surely an advantage for drinkers. By Farr is fermented in barriques (two and three years old; none new since 2007), and given a malo for textural reasons. It has four hours skin-contact and then they foot-stomp the skins, resulting in more tannin. There’s no fining, of course. They also harvest earlier than they used to (at 12.5 rather than 13.5 degrees Baume) giving a wine with modest alcohol and higher natural acidity – although it’s still not high (6 to 6.5 grams per litre). The result is a wine whose body and texture have more in common with chardonnay than any other grape. But the acidity is lower, the texture is oilier and the flavours are different.

It’s sometimes a puzzle to know what to serve with it. I’ve enjoyed By Farr with nuts as a pre-dinner drink, or with poultry in a rich sauce. Nick Farr suggests spicy prawn linguine. “Many Asian dishes work with viognier, but I’ve also discovered it’s great with blue cheese tart.”

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 6 March 2012.


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