Voluptuous Viognier Revisited

Monday, 22 October, 2018
Graham Howe
Flourishing in the new world, fashionable Viognier has undergone a renaissance in recent decades.

Viognier (Vee-yon-yay) make up less than 1% of the national vineyard in South Africa but some eighty Cape producers make a single varietal version – while others blend it with Shiraz in the Rhône mode. The voluptuous variety pops up more and more frequently in tasting line-ups in the Cape winelands – and on menus where this aromatic, perfumed grape makes a versatile food partner. It may be a tongue-twister for consumers but it comes in all versions from unwooded to wooded and dry to sweet.

Viognier has come back from the brink after declining to less than fourteen hectares in 1968 in its home of Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet, growing in popularity from Australia and Argentina to California, Chile and the Cape. In April, I tasted a line-up of Viognier at Yalumba (est 1849), one of the oldest family wineries in the Eden Valley, where it is the hero white variety.  Yalumba offers a signature tasting of its six site expressions of Viognier – in a proprietary wine glass specially designed to show this grape.  The Yalumba nursery is the largest in Australia and produces one million cuttings per annum – including six clones of Viognier propagated from cuttings imported from France.

After visiting Condreau and Côte Rôtie in the early 1970s, the chief viticulturist at Yalumba initiated the first commercial plantings of Viognier in Australia here in 1980. At Yalumba they describe Viognier as “a sensory experience full of nuances of flavour – seductive, luscious and complex – a veritable flavour bomb of exotic musk, rose petal, apricot, white peach, ginger and citrus blossom … and a rich and unctuous texture”. Yalumba is one of the most influential producers of Viognier in the world today, from its flagship, The Virgilius Viognier (R500) to organic, site and botrytis versions. 

I enjoyed more voluptuous Viognier at Cape Wine 2018 over a tasting with Dave Jefferson, the Sonoma-based co-owner of Silk Bush Mountain Vineyards (est 2000) in the Breedekloof. A major grower of 100 tons of red grapes for Guardian Peak, Rickety Bridge, KWV’s Mentor and Flagstone – Bruce Jack reckons their high-altitude Pinotage (the source of Flagstone’s acclaimed Writer’s Block) is one of the finest vineyards for the variety.  Jefferson showed me three vintages of Silkbush’s superb unwooded Viognier made by their winemaker Anton Roos and bottled under their own label – a Double Gold Michelangelo in 2016 - which also goes into Flagstone’s Word of Mouth Viognier.  

Sourced from a single vineyard, Silkbush (named after the indigenous sybasboom), this unwooded Viognier expresses the high-lying granite terroir – showing fresh floral peach aromas, lovely melon, ripe peach and pear flavours, luscious and leesy mid-palate texture, and crisp acidity. At a dinner hosted by Accolade Wines at Cape Wine 2018, I also enjoyed Flagstone’s Word of Mouth Viognier – a spicy, wooded version with lovely peach blossom, stone fruit and mineral character. The Flagstone Writer’s Block Pinotage – rated 4,5 stars in Platter’s 2018 SA Wine Guide – made from 100% fruit grown in a single vineyard at Silk Bush – was rich and concentrated like Silkbush’s own bottling.

At recent tastings on the wine circuit I’ve enjoyed excellent Viognier made by inter alia Idiom (a spicy, wooded version with classic apricot, ripe melon, ginger, orange blossom and litchi character); Glen Carlou The Curator’s Collection (an older oaked style of usual spicy peaches and cream version); Kleinood Tamboerskloof (a delicate old wooded peach pip spin); Saronsberg (Dewaldt Heyns makes a peach of a wine, a restrained version with a complex combo of new oak and wild yeast); Lynx’s best-selling Viognier and Oldenburg maiden Viognier (rated four stars by Platter). Six Viogniers are rated 4,5 stars (no 5 stars) in Platter’s SA Wine Guide 2018 – Eagles’ Nest, Richard Hilton, Ridgeback, Spier, Wildehurst and The Foundry (winner of the first and only five star rating for Viognier for its 2014 vintage in Platter’s 2016) and Wildehurst. The new terroir of Viognier spreads far and wide – from Breedekloof and Constantia to Elgin, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Robertson, Swartland and Tulbagh.

I spotted sixteen different expressions of Viognier at Wine Concepts, ranging from R88 (veteran winemaker Newald Marais of Kranskop makes a sublime, lightly oaked Viognier and an aromatic botrytis version) to R400 (Richard Hilton’s 4,5 star The Emperor Probus Viognier). Owner Mike Duggan says Viognier sells well as an alternate white variety – and justifies the shelf space.  The Emperor Viognier tells the story of Marcus Aurelius who sailed up the Rhône in 281 Ad – and brought cuttings of Viognier to the Gauls.  Viognier thrives in the limestone soils of Côte Rôtie.

According to wine-searcher, “Thick-skinned Viognier grapes have naturally low acidity and require a great deal of sunshine to ripen properly – and plenty of sugar tends to push the fermentation towards a high alcohol level, since it is widely held that much of a Viognier wine's hallmark aromatics are products of the ferment progressing beyond 13 percent abv. At the same time, if there is too much heat the grapes can yield overblown, hotly alcoholic wine that lacks the fresh, steely, apricot zing that is part of the variety's appeal ... most expressions of Viognier are made using stainless steel.” (www.wine-searcher.com/grape-535-viognier).

Viognier has come a long way since Charles Back first brought the grape into the Cape in the 1990s after discovering the famous cultivar of the Condrieu. Back once told me what he likes about Viognier is that, “It can stand up to warmth and local conditions. I like its flavour and texture - Viognier elevates the fruit and soften tannins in blends.” When Fairview released its maiden Viognier in 1998, it won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition - and was hailed as a new-world benchmark by the likes of Jancis Robinson. In recent years, Back has made single Viognier for Fairview and Spice Route - and blended Viognier into Goat Roti red blend, Shiraz and  Pinotage.

Although South Africa only accounts for 4% of global plantings of Viognier today – compared to the three wine countries with the most plantings – namely, France (50%), the USA (22%) and Australia (8%) – this niche variety adds an exotic element to the diversity and mix of our national vineyard.  One of the world’s rarest and most sought-after white wines has come back from the brink. Yay for Viognier (phonetically pronounced Vee-yon-yay) – whether on its own or co-fermented with Syrah.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.