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Everyone loves a good comeback story, especially when they are as dramatic, poignant and empowering as the tale of the successful rebirth of viognier.
This intensely fragrant and explosively flavourful white wine grape was seriously endangered when the Hill-Smith family, which owns Yalumba winery, planted Australia’s first commercial vineyard of viognier in 1980. At that time there were reportedly fewer than 15 hectacres of viognier vines planted in the northern Rhône.
Spoiler alert: Yalumba is now the world’s leading producers of viognier. But the legendary return of Viognier wouldn’t be much of a story had it turned out to be an overnight sensation. You may recall from plotting story lines in junior high school, rising action requires our protagonist to resolve problems and take steps to achieve a goal.
Those viognier vines thrived in Yalumba’s Eden Valley vineyard, but the fruit and resulting wines never had much personality. The wines lacked the rich and inviting peachy, apricot and floral character conveyed by the best examples made in Condrieu, a village in the northern Rhône considered to be viognier’s homeland.
Winemaker Louisa Rose took a different approach when she started at Yalumba in 1992. Instead of picking the grapes early and fermenting the juice the way that riesling was made, she let them hang later into the season. “You want the berries to look like teardrops,” she explains. That’s when they’re ready to deliver those convincing viognier flavours.
It’s not only the rich and beguiling flavours that capture consumers’ attention. It’s a weight and texture that is comparable to chardonnay. A top-quality viognier is like a robust chardonnay with more aroma and flavour. Like chardonnay, it’s often promoted as a white wine for people who favour reds.
Yalumba produces a range of viogniers each year from vineyards located in Eden Valley in the Barossa as well as Riverland and Wrattonbully. The Y Series Viognier is the largest production and enjoys good distribution in Canadian markets. It sells for $15 to $21 per bottle in various markets across Canada. The smaller batch Organic Viognier, $20 per bottle when available, is another terrific introduction to the expressive style.
Viognier’s fortunes have soared around the world. More than 5,000 hectares are cultivated in its native France and there are producers in the United States, South Africa and many other countries working with the grape. Well-made and affordable examples can be found at most wine shops. The grape is also used to add complexity and character to red wines made with the syrah or shiraz grape. Due to increasing interest, it recently just nudged into the top 50 ranking of most widely planted wine grapes in the world. Not bad for a variety that Canadian wine lovers had never heard of 50 years ago.