The surprising origins of Viognier
Over many centuries grape vines have grown and spread around the world; where some varieties have cross-pollinated and thrived, other offspring have died out. Many links in the chain are missing, making it very difficult to discover the true origins of some varieties, even with modern DNA analysis. Some terrific work has been done focusing in on Shiraz (Syrah), a very important variety worldwide. As luck would have it, the research on Shiraz has also shown a close relationship with Viognier.
Diagrams from the book “Wine Grapes – The most complete guide to vine varieties and their wines ever” illustrate a variety of genetic pathways that lead to the creation of Shiraz. In all cases, Viognier is very close by. A quote from the book states;
“… Syrah is either a grandchild or a half-sibling of both mondeuse noire and viognier.”
‘Pop Charts Lab’ has created a grape variety family tree – a truly amazing piece of work. To see this chart and access a very large version you can zoom in on, visit Pop Charts Lab, or this article by Huffington post.
I originally chose Viognier because it grows well in France where Shiraz and Grenache also grow well. Now it seems there’s scientific evidence which may explain why it likes such similar conditions.
Where is Viognier grown?
The most famous Viognier region is the Condrieu Appellation in France, situated just south of the city of Vienne near the northern tip of the Rhone Valley. Only Château-Grillet and the famous Syrah appellation of Côte Rôtie lie between Condrieu and the northern tip of the valley. While the latitude of Condrieu is much further north than the corresponding southern latitudes of Australian vineyards, the growing season is quite warm. The continental effects on this region bring cold wet winters with warm to hot summers, similar to the cooler areas of Victoria and the Adelaide Hills.
Darby Higgs’ ‘Vinodiversity’ blog states that Viognier was down to its last few hectares in the 1960’s, but has since had a resurgence in plantings worldwide. According to Vine Health Australia, there are now approximately 50 hectares planted in McLaren Vale, making it the second largest white variety by area after Chardonnay. From almost disappearing, Viognier is now grown in many viticultural regions of Australia, and the world.
What types of wine can be made from Viognier?
Like many varieties, a wide range of wine styles can be produced from one grape by altering production methods. The climate where the grapes are grown also has a huge effect on the style, and which style may produce the best results.
I have seen Viognier made as a sweet white, both as a late harvest and a Botrytis affected ‘stickie’. Generally, however, it’s made as a dry white with minimal use of oak to show off its intense aromatics. Viognier may also be oak matured and fermented with natural yeast to add further depth and complexity. That said, great care must be taken with these styles as Viognier has a tendency to become ‘broad’ and ‘oily’ all on its own, without the multiplying effects of oak and natural ferments. One of my most memorable ‘Viognier moments’ was trying an aged Condrieu wine that tasted like onions cooked on a barbecue! Probably not for everyone!
Why McLaren Vale is great for Viognier
As a region, McLaren Vale is a definite ‘sweet spot’. Because of its unique geography and proximity to the ocean, McLaren Vale can produce fully ripe grapes while maintaining a desirable level of acidity and structure. Tucked between the southern Mount Lofty Ranges and Saint Vincent’s Gulf, McLaren Vale’s climate can be described as Mediterranean with a maritime influence. This has the effect of moderating the extremes of temperature, both in summer and winter, which is extremely important during the growing and ripening season, particularly overnight. Various studies have shown that a drop in night-time temperature affects not only the metabolism of acids, but tannins and other related compounds as well. Here’s a link to an article if you want to read more.
Cool night-time conditions created by the ocean and hills slow down the degradation of acid, flavour, tannin and colour, leading to the high-quality fruit we see each year. If Viognier ripened too quickly, we would not see the excellent accumulation of flavour and aroma compounds, and we may easily miss the optimum time to harvest. In my experience, and from what I’ve gleaned from others, Viognier has a very small window when the level of ripeness is ideal. Picked too early and it will not have much flavour at all. Picked too late and the fruit displays less desirable ‘tinned’ apricot characters and a ‘fat, oily’ palate. We must monitor the vineyard very closely and taste often so we don’t miss the best harvesting window.
The flavours, aromas and characteristics of Viognier
Viognier fits into the category of aromatic whites. Stone fruit seems to be the predominant flavour and aroma characters used to describe Viognier, of which I’ve seen quite a range, even within this small category. White peach and nectarine are at the greener end of the spectrum, and yellow peach, apricot and ‘tinned’ apricots at the ripe end. In some years there are citrus fruit characters, particularly when the acidity is higher. And some ripe Sauvignon Blanc-like characters can add complexity that express notes of honey dew melon. Viognier can also display some ‘spice’ characters, often described as ginger or apricot kernel.
One aspect that characterises Viognier is the palate texture. Due to its close relationship to some red varieties, there seems to be quite a lot going on in the skins of Viognier. Phenolic compounds, higher in amount than other common white varieties, are present in the skins. Too much skin contact after crushing can lead to an over-fleshy, grippy and possibly bitter wine. But, some of these phenolics can add depth, weight and generosity to the palate which causes it to stand out amongst other un-oaked white wines.
Viognier also has a special ‘co-factor’ in the skins which helps colour formation in red varieties. This is one reason it is blended with Shiraz, but the colour enhancement only works if the two varieties are co-fermented. It also imparts delicate, and sometimes floral aromatics to Shiraz with only a very small addition of 2-5%
All about Rusty Mutt Viognier
Having selected Viognier as my McLaren Vale white of choice, it was important to me to make an enjoyable, easy-drinking wine, rather than an oily, oaky, fleshy monstrosity that would appeal to a very select few! The Rusty Mutt style is all about freshness and intensity of fruit. The small window of ripeness is challenging, but rewarding when we get a wonderfully balanced wine in the end.
First it is crushed, then immediately pressed to minimise pick up of the phenolic texture. The juice is settled before the addition of a selected yeast strain. I choose to use selected yeast as natural ferments are unpredictable and can lead to more broadness and viscosity on the palate. I also select a strain that’s good at making the best use of the available flavour and aroma compounds in the juice.
The juice is fermented in stainless steel and simply filtered prior to bottling. Incidentally, the bottling is booked as soon as the ferment is complete, so we minimise the possibility of any oxidation. We can then capture and retain the fresh, delicate aromatics in the bottle.
I simply love this variety! It can be consumed straight away as a youthful, fresh, fruity wine, or kept for a few years to develop more depth and complex aromas and flavours in the bottle. I really enjoy looking back at some of my earlier vintages to see what they’re up to! Check out the shop for our current release, or create an account to purchase what back vintages I have available.
Rienth, M., Torregrosa, L., Luchaire, N. et al. Day and night heat stress trigger different transcriptomic responses in green and ripening grapevine (vitis vinifera) fruit. BMC Plant Biol 14, 108 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2229-14-108
Darby Higgs, https://www.vinodiversity.com/viognier.html
Vinehealth Australia, https://vinehealth.com.au/
Pop Chart Labs, https://popchart.co/
Julie R. Thomson, Taste Senior Editor, HuffPost, Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/wine-chart-genealogy_n_6132660