As one of the most challenging grapes for a vintner to grow, viognier nearly precipitated its own extinction. But from near death 50 years ago, this complex grape has gone from strength to strength.

A complex but ultimately rewarding white, viognier is experiencing a real moment in the sun within the Australian wine scene. The cause for the excitement is obvious – this wine offers a breadth of experience that almost no other white can match – but there is also reason for this enthusiasm to be tempered. 

The complexity of viognier begins with its name, which is as French a word as any in the wine trade. Pronounced vee-oh-nee-aye, this is a wine list item that tends to intimidate the uninitiated. Viognier is often compared with chardonnay for the fact that both whites are full-bodied, typically aged in oak, and are known as somewhat neutral wines, gaining much of their taste from external factors. 

But from these similar starting points, the viognier story begins to diverge.

''This is a serious white […] The flavours take a moment to gather themselves on the palate, before imparting sweet notes of tangerine and stone fruit (think peach, apricot and mango), that turn bitter to finish.''

A close call in Condrieu

The home of viognier is Condrieu, an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (protected designation of origin) in France’s Rhone Valley that exclusively produces viognier wines. An ancient grape, it was possibly imported to the area from Croatia by ancient Romans. 

The history of viognier’s name is also unclear. Vienne, the nearest major city, has been cited by many experts as a potential namesake. But another theory sees the name originate from the Roman pronunciation of via Gehennae, which translates to ‘Road of the Valley of Hell’ – a possible reference to the difficulty of growing the grape. 

Referencing roads to hell isn’t artistic licence – growing viognier is just that challenging. Despite its status as an AOC, by the mid-20th century even the winemakers of Condrieu were questioning the value of the grape. In 1965 viognier was all but extinct, with one source stating that just eight hectares of vines remained, producing less than 2000 litres of wine annually. 

But from this nadir, wine’s New World came to viognier’s rescue.

New world, new life

In 1970 a chance encounter occurred between a representative of Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, and this long-forgotten grape. As chardonnay gained prominence through the ’70s and ’80s, full-bodied and complex Australian whites took the world by storm. Remembering that decade-old encounter, and looking to stay ahead of the curve, Yalumba made the decision to bring viognier back from the dead. 

Importing the plant from France in 1980, Yalumba planted 1.2 hectares of the grape in the Barossa Valley, and thus gave it a new lease on life. While it represented a challenge, the winery slowly began to understand the grape’s complexities, eventually harvesting crops that were as consistent as any in the Rhone Valley. A few Californian wineries followed suit, and the variety began to flourish. 

Viognier is now seen as one of Australia’s most fashionable whites. While it remains a low quantity variety that won’t replace sauvignon blanc, chardonnay or pinot grigio any time soon, its distinctive taste has seen it attract a substantial following in the last decade.

A fussy character

Viognier is an unpredictable grape that can produce very different harvests from very similar conditions. It is known for its variability, fussiness of climate, and small window of ripeness – pick it too early and the wine won’t have developed its trademark tastes and aromas, pick it too late and the wine will become oily and lose its bouquet. 

But when a winery gets things right, the results are stunning.

A fussy character

This is a serious white. The full-bodied creaminess of viognier is reminiscent of chardonnay, but that is where the similarities largely finish. A floral aroma with tropical hints will dominate the nose – most predominantly rose petals, exotic perfume and sweet citrus. The flavours take a moment to gather themselves on the palate, before imparting sweet notes of tangerine and stone fruit (think peach, apricot and mango), that turn bitter to finish. Almond, ginger and honeysuckle also feature. 

Viognier is a particularly high-alcohol white, with most vintners producing a wine that weighs in at 13% or more. It also offers a certain oiliness that is characteristic of the deep yellow fruit. 

Like chardonnay, viognier is a flexible tablemate, its aromatic flavours helping it to match with a wide variety of foods. Spicy Asian dishes pair particularly well, as does seafood. This is also a rare white that can hold its ground next to red meat, making it perfect for carnivores who aren’t as partial to heavy reds.

Notable drops

While around 360 wineries now harvest viognier in Australia, the original remains the best. Yalumba, still using fruit from clones of the vines imported from France in 1980, produces some stunning drops – most notably the Virgilius, the winery’s viognier flagship. Clonakilla, Tahbilk and Giant Steps also produce terrific examples. But for the genuine article, a trip to Condrieu is in order. For the finest examples of Condrieu Viognier, try Guigal, Rene Rostaing, Georges Vernay, Chapoutier, Michel Ogier, or Nicolas Perrin.

Viognier Titbits

1. Viognier grows best in climates that produce great shiraz.

2. Australian wineries use up to 10% viognier in shiraz blends to give them greater complexity.

3. While Condrieu wines are consumed young, Australian and Californian viogniers are far better suited to aging in oak.

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