43 minutes | Oct 19th 2020

Ep 347: The Grape Miniseries -- Viognier

Saved from the brink of extinction just 50 years ago, Viognier (pronounced vee-ohn-yay), is a white grape that's native to the Northern Rhône in France – mainly the areas of Condrieu and Ampuis. The grape produces effusive wines with a strong aromatic character -- peaches, apricots, flowers, herbs, and ginger are common -- and when made well it has a medium body with a touch of acidity and a pleasant bitterness. This week we continue the grape mini-series (maxi series now?) by exploring this comeback kid and the pleasure it can bring when in the right hands. 

 

History

Viognier's parentage is a bit ambiguous, but it is related to Mondeuse Blanche, which makes it either a half sibling or grandparent of Syrah (as MC Ice points out, we could definitely make a word problem out of this – it’s a brain twister to think about, but possible!). The grape is also tied to Freisa and may be related to Nebbiolo, both which are native to the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy.

 

 

 

Viognier was once grown pretty widely in the northern Rhône but the combination of the phylloxera outbreak in the mid- and late-19th century, followed by WWI, the Depression, and WWII drove a lot of growers to cities and left vineyards abandoned. By 1965, only about 30 acres (12 hectares) of Viognier vines remained in France, and the variety was nearly extinct.

 

In the mid-1980s, interest started to grow both in France and from winegrowers in Australia and California. Growing interest lead to more plantings and today the grape is grown in Condrieu, Chateau Grillet, and Côte Rôtie in the Northern Rhône, all over the southern Rhône for blends, the Languedoc in southern France, as well as in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, Japan, Switzerland, and Spain.

 

Climate and Vineyard

  • Viognier needs a long, warm growing season to fully ripen, but not so hot it develops excessive levels of sugar before its aromatic notes can develop. Viognier must get ripe to allow flavor to develop and that happens late, often after sugars develop.
  • Viognier is a small thick-skinned berry with good resistance to rot. It does well on acidic, granite soils. Older vines – more than 30 or 50 years old are best for the grape.
  • There are at least two clones of Viognier. The older, original one from Condrieu is highly aromatic and tight clustered. The other is healthier, higher yielding and looks and tastes different according to some. This clone, likely made at the University of Montpellier, is widespread in Australia.

 

Winemaking begins in the vineyard – picking decision is vital:

  • Pick too early and the grape has no flavor, and makes a flat wine. Pick too late the wine is flabby and oily. Must be ripe but not overripe, with lower yields.
  • Although it is likely best to make the wine in stainless or neutral oak with perhaps some skin contact for a few hours before fermenting, the barrel fermentations, malolactic fermentations, and aging on lees can squash the unique flavor and scent of Viognier.

 

Flavors and Styles

  • Viognier is like peach, apricot, clementine, honeysuckle, chamomile, jasmine, thyme, pine, spice, ginger, crème fraiche, and honey with a full body and can be oily, or sometimes a bit bitter. It is low in acidity. When aged in oak it tastes like vanilla bean and with malolactic fermentation it is creamy and custard-like. It is almost always high in alcohol, with 14.5% ABV being common. The best Viognier from France often doesn’t age, and even loses aromas after a few years in the bottle. Some of the styles from Australia and the US, which have been aged in oak, last a few more years.
  • The grape is often bottled as a single variety but can be blended with Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc.
  • We didn’t mention this in the show, but the wine can be off-dry or even late harvest and sweet. Condrieu and Château-Grillet produce sweet wines in warmer years.

 

Regions...

France

Northern Rhône: Viognier is grown as single variety in Rhône appellations Condrieu and Château Grillet on right (west) bank of Rhône River. In Côte Rôtie, winemakers can include up to 20% of Viognier though most growers add no more than 5%.

Condrieu

  • Includes seven communes along 14 miles, and makes wines that are usually dry, delicious young, and very aromatic wit structure. The area includes steep hillside vineyards, that face south-southeast to maximize morning sun, not hot evening sun. The soils are granite with a deep sandy topsoil called arzelle. This soil makes the best wine. Yields must be low, and picking must be after the grape has full aromatics.
  • Top producers: Guigal, Rostaing, Delas, Pierre Gaillard, Vernay, Francois Villard

 

Chateau Grillet

  • This appellation is owned by one producer, it is a monopole. It is just 7.6 acres/3.08 ha on granite soil with mica – making the wines higher in acid. Vines are 80+ years old and although the area seems ideal, there have been problems with wine quality. Recently the owner of Château Latour of Bordeaux acquired the monopole; there’s hope for restoration of its former glory.

          

Côte Rôtie

  • We did a whole podcast on this area, but north of Condrieu is Côte Rôtie, a Syrah appellation that can include up to 20% Viognier in the wine (in reality it’s more like 5%). Viognier helps darken the color of the Syrah in co-pigmentation but it takes up valuable real estate so it’s not used as much as it could be.

Other French areas: The southern Rhône, where it is blended, the Languedoc and Ardeche, where it makes serviceable Vins de Pays varietal or blended wines.

 

Other Europe: Switzerland, Austria, Italy

 

New World

Australia

  • Yalumba was the pioneer producer in South Australia’s Eden Valley in 1979. The Virgilius is their top wine (aged in oak).
  • McLaren Vale, Barossa, Adelaide Hills, Heathcote, Geelong, Central Victoria, and more grow the grape, which is a challenge to growers because it stays flavorless for much of the growing season and then transforms into something delicious – patience is a virtue!
  • One of the best uses for Viognier in Australia is its blends with Shiraz:
    • Clonakilla (Canberra), Yering Station (Yarra), Torbreck (Barossa)

 

United States

California

  • Viognier came in 1980s to California when John Alban (Alban Vineyards in Edna Valley), Josh Jensen of Calera (Central Coast), and Joseph Phelps (Napa), brought it into the United States in small quantities. The plantings and interest grew as a group of producers dedicated to growing Rhône varieties, called the Rhône Rangers, grew in numbers and popularity. Today California has more than 3,000 acres of Viognier.
  • Yields are high compared to France, the wines can often be overblown if grown in too-hot weather but the greatest examples are full-bodied and rich.
  • Top Producers: Tablas Creek, Crux, Qupé, Alban, Calera, Kunde

 

Virginia

  • Viognier is a signature grape of Virginia because the thick skins of the grape work well in the humidity and the diurnals of the mountains mean Viognier can ripen but maintain acidity over a long growing season. The typical VA Viognier has great fruit, slight bitterness, medium body and good acidity.
  • Top producers: Barboursville, King Family, Horton

  • Other US: Oregon, Washington (we mention ABEJA), Texas
  • Around the World: New Zealand, South Africa, South America (Argentina has a lot, Chile some – all young plantings)

 

Food: The wine is great with dishes that have rosemary, thyme, saffron, and creamy sauces.

 

Expect to spend more than $50 a bottle for good Viognier (we had the 2017 version of the Guigal below. It was US$50).

 

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