Everything about viognier is exotic. One of the most highly perfumed and full-flavoured of all white grape varieties, it produces wines with heady scents of sun-kissed apricots, ginger and jasmine that tumble from the glass, and a creamy texture that caresses the tongue.
Even the name is exotically elusive. Hard to pronounce – ‘vee-on-yay’ is the closest approximation – its origins are mysterious, but some think it’s a reference to the old Roman city of Vienne, just south of Lyon, where the grape has been grown for centuries.
Viognier comes with a dramatic back-from-the-brink story, too. Brought to the Rhône Valley in France by the ancient Romans, it was once widely planted in the region, but it’s not the easiest grape to grow. By the mid-20th century it had fallen out of favour to such an extent that less than 20 hectares remained, mostly in the appellation of Condrieu, in the northern Rhône.
Thanks to a revival of interest in Rhône wines in the 1980s and early 90s, growers started planting more viognier, both in Condrieu and further south down the Rhône Valley and into the flat country of Languedoc-Roussillon. Now there are thousands of hectares of viognier planted, not only in France, but around the world, including Australia (almost 500 hectares), California, New Zealand and Japan.
In Australia, Barossa winery Yalumba has grown the variety since 1980, and is regarded as the country’s leading producer with five wines in its portfolio ranging from a well-priced organic viognier to the luxurious flagship dry white The Virgilius and an intensely sweet botrytis-affected version. They even make an eau de vie distilled from viognier wine.
For a while, Yalumba and a handful of other pioneering viognier growers were lone champions of the variety, but its popularity has grown in the last 20 years and there are now around 500 producers of the variety across the country.
Many of these not only make whites from the grape, but also add a small amount – around 5% – to shiraz. This is a nod to the reds of Côte-Rôtie, neighbouring appellation to Condrieu in the northern Rhône, where co-fermenting a little viognier with syrah (the local name for shiraz) is traditional practice. The white variety brings both its characteristic perfume to the blend, enhancing the spicy characters of the red variety and also adds some structure, as the skins of the viognier grape are quite tannic.
The first Australian winemaker to adopt this practice was Dr Bailey Carrodus, at Yarra Yering in the Yarra Valley, who started co-fermenting shiraz with a little viognier in the 1970s to produce his Dry Red No 2. This wine inspired winemaker Tim Kirk who started producing one of the country’s best examples of the style at Clonakilla in the Canberra District.
In recent years, adventurous winemakers have also played with other expressions of viognier, and now the grape comes in many different forms.
Its heady perfume lends itself to sparkling wine such as the crisp, prosecco-like style produced by Tallis Wine in central Victoria, and the fabulously funky pet-nat made by The Other Right in the Adelaide Hills. And the variety’s tannins come to the fore when the juice and skins are fermented together, as if it were a red wine: look for Kalleske Plenarius from the Barossa Valley if you want to try this deliciously exotic ‘orange’ wine style.
2016 Yalumba Viognier, Eden Valley, A$24
This is the core of Yalumba’s range of different viogniers; the variety features in eight of its offerings. This is a textbook expression of the grape: lovely perfume of honeysuckle and apricot, gentle creamy texture on the tongue. It offers outstanding value, too, at this pricepoint. yalumba.com
2016 By Farr Viognier, Geelong, A$65
The Farrs – father Gary and son Nick – have a great reputation for their pinot noir and chardonnay, but one of their most consistently brilliant wines is this rich, savoury, complex and deeply satisfying viognier. They recommend 12 months bottle ageing, if you can wait that long. byfarr.com.au
2016 Yves Cuilleron La Petite Côte, Condrieu, A$100
Yves Cuilleron is one of the top producers in Condrieu, and although the wines never lack viognier’s trademark richness, they often show a little more restraint, freshness and finesse than other examples from this region.worldwineestates.com.au
2017 Dub Style Bubbly, McLaren Vale, A$10
Probably the world’s only no added preservative, skin-contact ferment, sparkling, slightly sweet viognier in a can. Regardless, it certainly is the best: heaps of ripe apricot, refreshing fizz, some food-friendly grip. Yum. inkwellwines.com