The Elegant Old Lady Winemakers are Falling Back in Love with
Viognier is a very fashionable white wine variety, synonymous with the high-quality whites and reds of the Northern Rhone valley in France.
For years it was the common crop on the farms south of Lyon, and has been grown on the poorer spoils of the Northern Rhone for centuries.
A combination of notoriously low yields and poor fruit set (coulure) saw plantings reduce in the second half of the 20th century. In 1968 there was just 14 hectares of Viognier left in France, all of which were in the Northern Rhone.
Demand rose sharply in the 1980s with demand for Condrieu leading the way. By 1997 there was 100 hectares of Viognier in Condrieu alone. Once the Languedoc vignerons saw the potential in warm climate areas, plantings had hit over 2500 hectares by the year 2000.
Today’s choice of Viognier ranges from the famous wines of Condrieu, lighter field blends of the Vin de Pays or firm and alcoholic Californian-style wines.
The wines are notable for their floral aromatics of peach blossom along with primary fruit of apricots and ripe peaches. The best wines can also have notes of chamomile, thyme, and lavender.
It is thought that many of the floral aromatics only come once the wine is fermented beyond 13% abv, so it is rare to find a top end Viognier below this mark.
Riper, lush musts and ferments can suit barrel maturation but the vast majority of Viognier is made in steel tanks to preserve and accentuate the floral character.
Viognier produces medium to low acid white wines with a full, viscous body, high alcohol, and almost metallic minerality. The floral character and stone fruit focus adds plenty of refreshment and the herbal notes lift the palate to make it a brilliant food pairing wine.
Very rare, but truly delicious, late harvest Viognier arose from winemakers trying to push the grapes on the vine to produce riper, more weighty fruit. Condrieu and Château Grillet examples exist and are produced in the warmer vintages. The stone fruit flavours remain, becoming slightly candied. Any herbal character from the grapes is replaced by honeyed aromas.
Viognier likes warm climates, being particularly resistant to drought conditions and prone to powdery mildew in wetter conditions.
The grapes are deep yellow and produce wines high in both colour and alcohol.
Viognier is likes fruit and fish and can cope well with creamier dishes. Parpadelle pasta with salmon, dauphinoise potatoes, and tuna lasagna all work well. Also, a brilliant paring with a well-made Chicken Korma.
Viognier is the primary grape behind the famous white wines of Condrieu and Château Grillet in France’s Northern Rhone. It is also historically used as a blending component, often in co-fermentation, with Syrah in Hermitage, Saint Joseph and Côte Rôtie. The limestone soils of the Côte Blonde provide perfect drainage and aspect for the Viognier to ripen properly.
Strangely for highly prized wines, Condrieu is actually designed to be drunk young, in order to enjoy its heady floral perfume and protect the youthful acidity bringing the balance to the wines.
The Languedoc regions now plant over 60% of France’s Viognier, most of which is simple, fruity, and floral Vin de Pays. Viognier is often blended with other southern French whites such as Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Rolle.
Viognier’s rise in California was meteoric in the 1990s, from just 10 hectares in 1988 to a whopping 800 hectares by 2003.
California’s Central Coast regions provide enough warmth to fully ripen the Viognier and show off the iconic perfume. The lack of drainage can, however, lead to heady Viogniers, pushing well above 15% abv.
Viognier has been planted across South America, with a couple of hundred hectares shared between Argentina and Chile, with a scattering across Brazil and Uruguay.
Australian Viognier can be made in both the Rhone and USA styles, with varietal Viognier in good hands at Yalumba in Eden Valley, and plantings increasing in cooler areas of New South Wales. It’s also used in Rhone style red wines as a 5-10% blender with Shiraz.
South Africa has plenty of top areas for Viognier, but as a very recent thought for South Africa’s winemakers, it continues to be slowed by South Africa’s understandably tight quarantine rules.
Some Viognier is grown in the warmer regions of Piemonte and Switzerland as experiments, where it is often blended with Chardonnay.