Navigate / search

Viognier

Viognier vineyards at Guigal
Viognier vineyards at Guigal

Were it not for a consumer backlash against over oaked Chardonnay and excessively crisp, acidic Sauvignons and the need to find some middle ground between the two, we may well have lost Viognier forever. A few decades ago, hidden away in the Rhone Valley appellation of Condrieu, there were merely a few hectares of this notoriously difficult grape left.

Depressingly low yielding, Viognier requires harvesting at an optimum moment of ripeness, for which the window is pretty short. Picking too early results in a loss of the distinctive perfumes that characterise the wines when well made. Picking too late, or even slightly late, produces an abundance of flabby apricot flavours and an oily texture conducive to drinking no more than a single glass. It should come as no surprise then that all but a brave few saw their economic safety in other varieties.

Various takes on history attribute the arrival of Viognier in the Rhone Valley to the Romans, whose foray into Gaul saw the wider plantation of the vine after travelling from Dalmatia (Croatia) with Emperor Probus in 281AD.

Condrieu is still the reference point for premium Viognier wines, while elsewhere in the Rhone Valley, in Cote Rotie AOC, up to 20% can be blended to add a little perfume to the red fruit and spice of Syrah. Chateau Grillet, a tiny appellation of just three hectares also produces wines exclusively from Viognier, although they don’t quite reach the quality heights of Condrieu.

In Australia there are significant plantings now, with both good and bad examples found across Murray River, McLaren Vale, Geelong, Central Victoria, Mornington Peninsula, Barossa, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills, Heathcote and Canbera. Making sure that Viognier is picked phenolic ripeness can often lead the wines up to a hefty 14% alcohol. The best wines are a wonderful, golden yellow colour.

Viognier planted in California has naturally gone down a storm, some versions taking on cult status as producers and consumers alike search for something that isn’t Chardonnay. Calera is one such producer, their Viognier taking on medium weight with exotic aromas of fruit, perfume and spice. Many producers look to emphasise freshness, rather than richness and as the grape ripens with high sugars and low acidity, fermentation and maturation will usually take place in stainless steal tanks.

In Italy, Tuscany and Piemonte are finding small pockets of success; similarly plantings are increasing throughout Sicily where its full body, low acidity and fruity character are a perfect match for local seafood. Here the grape is known as Ansonica.

The future looks bright for Viognier, despite the difficulty in cultivating it to adequate quality. The demand is there although prices are unlikely to reach bargain levels due to the effort and risks associated with vinificaton. Wine lovers though will more often that not find the wines to be bursting with apricot and peach flavours, exotic nuances of spice and perfume, with a medium to full and textured body with low acidity. More basic examples may lack the complexity, perhaps exuding simple apricot aromas, but may well be worthwhile introduction to the grape.

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio

Two stories perpetuate the origins of this ancient and highly interesting Neapolitan wine. As Lucifer was cast from the kingdom of God he ripped a piece of heaven away with him. As it fell and splashed into the bay of Naples, Jesus caught sight of the commotion and wept in sadness at the loss of one once so good.

Less graphic but equally marketable is the notion that Christ, midway through his ascension to the sky looked down to and  saw the sparkling beauty of Golf di Napoli. Awestruck he began to cry.

Either way, down below, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, divine tears fell and where they landed sprung the fertile vineyards now producing one of the the oldest wines still in circulation, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso and Bianco – Tears of Christ red and white.

Less divine of course is the endlessly different way the Italian DOC system presents its wines. Despite label suggestion to the contrary, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio does not actually possess it’s own DOC, but rather slots neatly into the wider Vesuvio DOC regulations, a red, white, rose, spumante and liquor all protected with slightly different restrictions to the simple Vesuvio wine.

It’s not always been so heavenly. In recent decades these wines have been little more than table wines for Naples’ labyrinth of back street pizzerias. Only now is the area showing signs of being caught up in Italy’s widespread quality renaissance. A renewed focus on quality over quality is showing that local varieties have far more potential than recently realised. Coda di Volpe (locally known as Caprettone), Verdeca, Falanghina and Greco are used in varying degrees for the whites, while the reds are built from Piedirosso and Sciascinoso with a maximum of 20% Aglianico.

While the whites are aromatic and fruity in youth, there is slightly more possibility for serious, age worthy wines amongst the reds. Perhaps due to an historical focus on quantity rather than quality, the fruit rarely lasted as long as barrel age, rendering general consensus for these wines as, best drunk young. Over the last few years however, initiatives in the vineyard and cellar have created the conditions for top wines.

De Falco Vini, located in San Sebastiano al Vesuvio on the north west side of the volcano are one such example. Their Lacryma Christ del Vesuvio Bianco was as it should be. Fresh and aromatic showing intense stone fruits such as melon and peach while well integrated acidity held it together well. The finish was long, balanced and screamed seafood platter.

The entry level Rosso mirrored the white. Fresh and fruity with pronounced cherry and a ripe tannic backbone. Vinified and aged in stainless steel it’s still probably a wine best drunk within 3 or 4 years but nevertheless, balance, harmony and fruit shine through.

It is the single vineyard wine ‘Vigna dell’Angelo’ however where Piedirosso comes into its own. Cultivated at 500m altitude the grapes are handpicked, soft pressed and vilified in temperature controlled steel. Maturtation takes place in barrique for 12 months before a further year is allocated to settle in bottle.

The result is an ethereal nose of proud cherry, forest fruits and lavender against a backdrop of smoke. The palate, ripe and complex, hung bright cherry and raspberry fruit onto a bold structure of sturdy but elegant tannin; amongst the well extracted fruit hid mineral notes and something else just out of reach.

Beyond the smile inducing tale of origin, there is now something exciting happening in the gardens of Vesuvius.

Cotnari Rosé, from Busuioacă de Bohotin

Rose petal, Turkish delight, candied cherry and marzipan. What a rosé this is. Near the Moldovan border, in the Romanian region of Moldavia grows the somewhat obscure Busuioacă de Bohotin, the pink skinned variety behind this silky Cotnari DOC.

Actually, it might not be that obscure. General sentiment has always suggested Busuioacă to be one of the many faces of Muscat; Muscat Rouge de Madere was the top guess, although recent DNA profiling now suggests the more prolific Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains a more likely relative.

The jury is still out on exactly who, what, where and when, but one school of though is a simple colour mutation could explain the the difference in pigment. Regardless of the science, this low production rose (around 12,000 bottles a year) comes form the sunny hills close to the town of Iasi in eastern Romania. Planted at moderately low density at 200 to 300m this wine is fresh, perfumed and complex.

The nose shows distinct Muscat character, the blush colour the only query in an otherwise familiar drill of sweet floral fragrance. Basil, lychee, elderflower and grapefruit all reveal themselves before leading into a sweetish palate of citrus and strawberry. Acidity is good, keeping it fresh as it heads towards a soft, fruity finish of reasonable length.