Viognier is a grape that some folks around the winery describe as ‘enigmatic’. That’s just a polite way of saying that it can be temperamental. Viognier has been a labour of love for us since we first got involved with the variety about 29 years ago, when we were the first people in Australia to plant the variety in any real numbers. And when I say ‘labour of love’, I mean labour.
We switched on to viognier through our intrepid director back in the 1980s, Peter Wall, who would travel to France a couple of times each year. Whilst there, he would look for inspiration that might help us in our world at Yalumba. In the tiny Rhone appellation of Condrieu. he fell in love with this exotic thing called viognier. He was convinced that it could work in the Eden Valley and that it would complement beautifully our already strong lineup of riesling, semillon and chardonnay. So into the ground went our first commercial viognier vineyard in 1980 – right on the western boundary of the winery, on 22 acres owned by long-time Yalumba grapegrowers the Vaughan brothers – Neville in charge. We were fortunate because at our local Nuriootpa viticultural station were three vines of 1968 clone viognier. We assume they were imported into the region in 1968, hence the name, and today most of the viognier planted in Australia come from those three vines.
We then embarked on the never-ending journey of learning how to make viognier, with the only guidelines from the Condrieu – the spiritual home of the variety – being that if the wine were true to varietal form, it had to have apricot and viscosity.
We struggled for many vintages trying to come to terms with these grapes. Viognier is a variety you really need to understand before you can get the best out of it, and it turns out there’s a lot to know! After plenty of trial and error we’ve now got it sorted that viognier needs to stay on the vine for a good long time until it’s really ripe before those intense apricot flavours start to show. By that late stage of the season, the leaves are starting to drop and the berries start to ‘bag up’, changing from round to almost teardrop shape, with the skin softening to the point where the berries are barely hanging on. By that time, the bunches are just about ready to jump off the vines themselves!
So when we do pick, we handle the grapes with kid gloves, because the last thing we want to do is have any phenolic characteristics come in to the picture. These are the broad, untidy and even bitter things that can result from rough handling of fruit in such a fragile state. It takes us about four weeks to harvest the Vaughan brothers block – which is still the mainstay of our Eden Valley Viognier – and it’s all picked by hand into shallow baskets, taken across to the winery, gently bag pressed, and the juice run into old French oak barrels. We get 80 to 90 barrels (60 gallon or 300 litre hogsheads) from the vineyard, and each of these is left alone in a cool room to ferment away at their own extended pace by indigenous, or ‘wild’, yeasts from the vineyard.
Once we found the key to making viognier that truly showed varietal form, it was here that the skill and persistence of the winemaker – Louisa Rose – came to the fore. Not only was she able to nail the ‘apricot and viscosity’ that Condrieu had suggested, but Louisa has been able to coax all manner of other aromas, flavours and textures from the Vaughan vineyard. Using the diversity within the vineyard and barrel ferments, Louisa was able to produce two quite different wines: the Eden Valley Viognier and its ‘big sister’, The Virgilius.
The Eden Valley Viognier represents the majority of the wine from the vineyard, typically having that bold apricot, spring blossom and ginger aromatics with that lovely cool, slippery viscous and stone fruit palate. The Virgilius is made from those barrels that stand apart from the bold style, being more restrained, more complex, not just apricot and ginger on the nose but peach, honey and musk stick with a longer, more layered palate. Generally speaking, there are about 8 or 9 barrels (or 3,000 bottles) that make The Virgilius each year. To put it into a European context, The Virgilius from Yalumba is along the same lines as La Doriane from Guigal – a barrel selection from a single established viognier vineyard.
Not bad after only 30 years!
At some point we realised that if this is what we can achieve with essentially the one clone, what else is out there? When we started planting viognier in 1980, the variety was almost in danger of disappearing. There were only about 20 hectares left in the world, mostly in Condrieu. Because we’ve stayed true to the variety – through trial and tribulation – we’ve been allowed to go into some of the great vineyards of Condrieu and take selections from those vines that they think best exhibit the range of viognier’s flavour, aroma and texture. We’ve been able to do the same in California, selecting from the vineyards established by Jade Mountain and Tablas Creek, who also took their cuttings from Condrieu. In this way we have been able to introduce a whole range of viognier ‘highlight’ clones into Australia, and we’ve planted them out into small vineyards in the Eden Valley. As they have come into production over the last couple of vintages, Louisa has started ‘bleeding’ these ‘clonal highlights’ into the Eden Valley Viognier and The Virgilius wines. Even though currently the volume we’re talking about is small, the light and shade with respect to aroma, flavour and texture could eventually be quite significant.
At the end of the day, here at Yalumba, we don’t lay claim to making the best viognier in the world, but we can definitely say that we’re responsible for introducing a large part of the world to viognier via Australia.
So is viognier enigmatic? Yes. Temperamental? Yes. Hard to say? Yes. But is Vee – On – Yay worth chasing down and getting right? Absolutely! With those exotic flavours and aromas, never mind the texture, it can wrap itself around everything from smoked salmon to soft shell crab, from seared scallops in lime juice and coriander to salt and pepper squid, and from fresh asparagus drizzled with burnt butter and sage sauce topped with oven dried pancetta to foie gras.
Not a bad result for such a labour of love.