What is Viognier?
Viognier is pronounced Vee-on-yay.
The exact origins of Viognier are unknown, though Dalmatia (present-day Croatia) is the leading candidate.
Legend has it, it was brought to the Rhône Valley in Southern France by the Roman emperor Probus in 281 AD. As little as 60 years ago, the varietal was on the brink of extinction, with limited surviving vines concentrated in the Rhône Valley region of Condrieu. Fortunately, cuttings where taken to the new world, where the varietal was given a second chance.
Viognier needs a long, warm growing season to ripen fully. It is a low yielding grape, which makes it a less viable option in many vineyards. Like Chardonnay, Viognier can produce full-bodied wines. However, Viognier is generally considered more aromatic.
Interestingly, in some regions, it is co-fermented with Syrah (Shiraz). This came about because the two varietals grow alongside one another in the Northern Rhône. The Viognier/Syrah blending practice also takes place in California, Australia and New Zealand.
With most grapes, flavour development when ripening occurs at a steady pace. But Viognier fruit undergoes change late in the season that affects aromas, flavour and mouthfeel. Not surprisingly, timing the harvest is critical to getting Viognier just right.
Viognier wines typically display floral aromas, such as honey, herbs and lavender. Common descriptors include stonefruit flavours of apricots, peaches and pears, as well as citrus, apple, pineapple, honeysuckle, spice and steely minerality. Oak is sometimes used to develop flavour, but judicious use is favoured as oak can overpower the fruit, which means the winemaker must possess a high level of skill to succeed.
Pairing with food
Viognier’s aromatic, fruit-forward character makes it an excellent match with many spicy foods. It goes well with Thai and Chinese cuisine. It also pairs well with sushi and other Japanese food. And it’s one of the few varietals that can take on Indian curries (especially those with peach or apricot ingredients) and Mexican.
Stronger-flavoured Viognier will handle roast pork, chicken and turkey (it’s a winner at Christmas!). Dishes made with cheese sauces also go well. For something lighter, Viognier goes delightfully with shellfish, especially scallops. Cheese pairings include soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert, Gouda, Sheep’s cheeses and Jarlsberg.
Notable regions for Viognier wines
New Zealand - Seventy-five per cent of New Zealand’s Viognier is grown in the warmer climates of Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, though some good examples are coming out of Waiheke Island and the Wairarapa. New Zealand Viognier stonefruit displays flavours of peaches, pears and apricot with herbs and honeyed notes. Examples tend to be made to be enjoyed young.
Australia - Yalumba is Australia’s largest producer of Viognier, and to some extent is credited in helping save the varietal from vanishing from the face of the Earth. Most of Yalumba’s plantings are in the Eden Valley. However, it is grown widely by many producers across other regions, including Clare Valley, Rutherglen, Murray River, McLaren Vale, Barossa, Adelaide Hills, Geographe and the Yarra Valley. The popularity of Viognier/Shiraz blends has inspired Australian winemakers to seek success with this style. The very ripe Viognier fruit adds notes of apricot and ripe peach to the spicy, plummy, full-bodied Shiraz resulting in a wine that’s a unique tasting experience.
France - Viognier is mostly associated with the Rhône Valley’s Condrieu region. The only AOC wine permitted in the region is a white wine made entirely from Viognier. Yields are small, and production is limited, with only 30,000 cases produced each year, so rarity is part of what makes these wines sought-after. Condrieu Viognier is characterised by peach, dried fruit and white flowers.
International: North America, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Israel.