The distinctive, yellow-hued viognier grape produces wines described as sensuous, hedonistic and seductive. These racy maxims perhaps belie the fastidious care required in the vineyard and winery to convey the best of this fussy variety. It requires a good deal of warmth to ripen and develop fully, and striking the balance between its delicate, floral quality and often rich texture and high alcohol levels presents a challenge to winemakers.
The trademark aromas and flavours of viognier wines include apricots, peaches, blossom and violets. Depending on the region from which they come, they vary in alcohol, body and viscosity: lighter styles tend to come from France and fuller ones from California.
The attractively perfumed viognier is not an easy grape to farm
Its heartland is in the northern Rhône and the appellation of Condrieu. It is from here that viognier has spread across the world, but it is amazing to think that the grape had all but disappeared until it became fashionable in the 1980s. Only 50 years ago there were barely ten hectares of viognier in the whole of France (and all in either Condrieu or Château-Grillet); today there are over four thousand hectares. The vine is highly susceptible to coulure and yields can be very low, but as it became more widely known outside of its home and growers around the world experimented with it, healthier strains of the vine were developed.
But it is here in Condrieu that it continues to create its best and most highly prized expressions of the variety. Unusually, these fine wines tend to be produced for consumption when young, while its perfume is at its headiest and in harmony with the wine's youthful acidity. Frequently in the Rhône, it is blended with marsanne and roussanne to create a softer, lighter style; it is also occasionally co-fermented with syrah in Côte-Rôtie to help stabilise the colour and add perfume to the red wine.
Despite its challenging nature, vine growers in northern California and cool regions of Chile and Australia have been able to produce excellent wines from viognier, retaining the grape's distinctive characteristics.
Northern Rhône | Languedoc-Roussillon | California | Chile | Australia & New Zealand | South Africa
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How do I pronounce viognier?
'Apart from some plantings in the northern Rhône, the attractively perfumed viognier grape had virtually disappeared until it suddenly became trendy in the mid 1980s. It likes warmth so it's no surprise that it found its way to Australia and California where those growers that managed to tame its tendency to heady fruit make some brilliant examples.'
Interestingly, viognier is used in small proportions to add aromatics and lift to some of the denser syrah-based red wines of Côte-Rôtie. It is rarely used in proportions of more than five per cent though.
Just south of this appellation is Condrieu, the grape's heartland. Here some of the finest white wines in France are produced entirely from viognier. The best sites are sheltered and south-east facing, allowing the vine enough ripening time to fully develop its heady, blossom-laden aroma. The wines are complex, perfumed, and full-bodied, with noticeable alcohol and aromas and flavours of peaches, apricots and apple blossom.
The terraced slopes of Condrieu are where the grape reaches its apogee.
They are distinct in character for several reasons, not least their ability to drink well young. Indeed, few Condrieus are made with anything other than mid-term ageing in mind. This is partly attributable to the fact that many vines are still quite young with very few more than 25 years old.
An exception that proves the rule is Château-Grillet. An enclave within Condrieu, it is one of France's smallest appellations and consists entirely of one eponymous property. Orientated to maximise exposure to the sun and shelter from northerly winds, its viognier is harvested earlier than Condrieu's. The resultant wine, less headily perfumed and slightly more restrained, can develop in bottle for decades.
For other white wines from the northern Rhône, viognier is frequently blended with marsanne and roussanne, and indeed it often takes a back seat in terms of the percentage used. Whites from appellations such as Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc and Lirac (in the south) offer a mature style of white wine, ideal for accompanying food. The flavours are buttery, full-bodied and with a nutty quality imparted by oak barrels. The addition of marsanne contributes body and substance whilst roussanne adds acidity and aroma.
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In the 1980s the vineyards of southern France were often referred to as 'the new world at the heart of the old', referring in particular to the attitude of the growers who were keen to experiment and make wines that consumers wanted to drink. Taking advantage of the more relaxed vin de pays regulations, some growers were quick to recognise the potential of viognier as 'the next big thing.' But the single-varietal wines were often lacking in acidity and while having characteristic hedonistic aroma, didn't deliver much depth of flavour. When blended with grenache blanc, chardonnay, marsanne or roussanne, the grape becomes far more interesting though, creating intriguing wines worthy of greater exploration, particularly in the vineyards of the Roussillon. None of the wines can match the finesse and complexity of Condrieu though.
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The cooler northern enclaves of Napa and Sonoma are home to the production of California viognier. Wines here still demonstrate the heady, perfumed character that they exhibit in the northern Rhône but take on more of a tropical dimension, reminiscent of lychees. The alcohol is usually higher but it tends to work in situ, balanced by the full-bodied, unctuous and rich nature of the wines.
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The focal point of Chilean viognier production is in the cool-climate region of Casablanca. At their best, these wines exhibit fresh, zippy qualities quite different from the more viscous wines of France and America. Laden with tropical fruit, peach and apricot flavours, they are intense on the nose and the palate, with high alcohol and acidity levels. Quality continues to soar.
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Australia & New Zealand
Yalumba were among the first to work with viognier in Australia carrying out pioneering work with the grape in their own vine nursery
The Australians were quick to realise the potential and attraction of the viognier grape suited as it is to their warm climate. However, they soon discovered that when it gets too warm, the grape quickly becomes overripe and the wines heavy and cloying. Some winemakers counteract this by adding acidity in the winery but the wines can sometimes lack poise and elegance. There are some brilliant wines being made though with some of the best examples coming from Yalumba, pioneers of this grape, in the relatively cool Eden Valley and from the another family firm, Tahbilk in upper Victoria.
South Australia is widely regarded as the best location for the perfumed wines produced from viognier, with many producers emulating the style found in the northern Rhône. The best wines are from regions in South Austraila where oceanic influences allow enough coolness to provide finesse and elegance, whilst the heat ensures full ripening and flavour development. Often viognier is blended with marsanne to produce an intensely rich white wine, full of perfume and tropical-fruit flavours.
New Zealand's North Island, specifically Hawkes Bay, also provides such a combination of heat and sea breezes. The resultant viogniers do not generally have as much body as their Australian counterparts however, the best maintaining lively acidity with wonderfully aromatic fruit flavours instead.
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It is perhaps not surprising that viognier is increasingly fashionable in South Africa, a country that has embraced other Rhône-style blends and it is used both to add perfume to reds, as in the northern Rhône, and to add aromatic lift and texture to the whites. Some growers are making pure varietal wines, often using a little oak to round out the flavours and impart structure. Once again the most successful wines come from vineyards that have good heat but benefit from the cooling influence of altitude or sea breezes.
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