“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





03 August 2017


best of six: after 30 years of experiments, Yalumba's cheapest and most expensive Viogniers beat the rest ... unless otherwise attributed, all photos©Philip White

Viognier: it's not over yet

In the early 'eighties, when Australia still divided its white wines into Riesling, Chablis and Burgundy classes, there was the usual battle around the business as to what would come next. Those rare birds who'd actually tasted a Chardonnay from Chablis or Burgundy seemed to think that'd be the variety to plant. It was hard to find an Australian winemaker who'd ever been to France. Semillon was still sold here as Riesling. In the Hunter, in fact, all three categories, Riesling, Chablis  and Burgundy were all made from Semillon. The difference was made by the sulphur additions: Riesling got the most, Burgundy the least. All Semillon.

The Evans/Croser brigade were loudly touting your actual Chardonnay.

"It'll be the vanilla of Australian wine," Evans preached.

Wolf Blass was perhaps the first famous wino of influence I heard predict that soon we'd be disallowed from abusing these great French and German names because it would "confuse the marketing issue overseas." Fully aware of Australia's export potential way back then, he told me in 1982 that "in the long term the law will prohibit the use of these words anyway."

We were tasting his vision of the future, his Classic Dry White, when he said that. At different times a blend of Sauvignon blanc, real Riesling, Trebbiano, Muscadelle, Crouchen, Sylvaner and Colombard, Wolf was happy to use the varieties at hand, blending to a consistent style.

"In a couple of years, Chardonnay is just a joke," he snorted.

the author with Wolf and his brilliant blender, the unsung John Glaetzer ... photo Johnny 'Guitar' Preece

Meanwhile Yalumba's first highland planting of Chardonnay turned out to be Melon de Bourgogne, which came from Burgundy but was outlawed there two centuries before because of its inferiority.

The Hill Smiths had another card up their sleeve: for some reason they'd decided that the barely-known Viognier would be the go. From the northern Rhône, where it was added to light unripe Shiraz to give it tannin, Viognier was down to about 30 hectares total when Yalumba began to propagate it.

Even then, to me it seemed typically smartarsed rather than clever.

Called Virgilius, the first model of the outfit's "pre-eminent white wine" emerged to great fanfare in 1998, "crafted by a promising young winemaker by the name of Louisa Rose."

Louisa Rose comes through the gate with the usual basket of fruit,  just like that ... usually, when I see Louisa, she's wearing a hardhat, safety glasses, hi-vis vest and steel-capped acid-proof Blunnies ... photo from the Yalumba website 

I think it was 2001 when the first Hill Smith Estate model hit my table with a yellow curry of European carp I'd conjured up our rooted river. That was a delicious and memorable marriage.

Since then, Australia has made shiploads of godawful-to-execrable Viognier, and a few utter beauties.

After a great rush of planting in the wrong places for the wrong reasons by all the wrong people, ill-researched winemaking and misunderstanding in the cellars saw it deservedly fall from favour in the marketplace. The boofheads responsible thought the way out of that was to park it in Shiraz, which was even dumber: most of our Shiraz was already over-ripe and needed no tannin nor any of Viognier's apricot and peach adding extra murk to its jammy gloop.

To think they'd compromise their lifeblood variety, the prolific Shiraz, to dispose of a mistake is a good example of what some of these bastards are silly enough to do. Like habitually. Winemakers are rarely convincing gastronomes. Once they realised their customers didn't like their compromised product, they kept the Viognier component below 15% of the volume and ceased mentioning it on the label. For a few years, it was hard to find barrels of uncorrupted Shiraz on the grey market for blending.

People lied barefaced to me. Unca Philip remembers youse jerks.

With this in mind, I was curious to unscrew Yalumba's lastest gang of ultra-Vi evangelists.

The lowest spend gets you Yalumba Organic South Australia Viognier 2016 ($18; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap). This baby smells a little peachey, perhaps like peach skin, or Ditters dried peach, but not much more than many ripe hot-region Chardonnays do. It's just there with a hint of citrus pith, in a smooth, creamy, safe-and-homely bouquet that reminds me of the cosmetics worn by a lightly-freckled Sunday School teacher I rather admired in my puberty.

It's the mouth division where I expect a serious change of gear with a swerve away from any Chardonnay. That happens here: the texture is viscous, almost fluffy, and as the acid settles in the tannins become evident, very slightly hot with all those alcohols, and pleasantly, faintly gingery. I mean the fresh root of Zingibur officinale, not that suss powder that comes in a tin.

The aftertaste, the recollection upon swallowing, and the exhalation is all rather pleasant, perhaps with a zephyr of fuschia honey decorating that gingery apricot - it's apricot more than peach - and unction.

I'd be taking my bottle for walkies to Chinatown: Park Lok, T-Chow or Wah Hing have many delights that would take it off your hands and pour it into your gustatories to great cheer and avail.

chubby ripe young Viognier handles chilli well, like this bowl of hot lava at Wah Hing ... the capsaicins in extremely hot chillies work neurologically like monosodium glutamate to enhance other flavours, but principally they exaggerate the vinillins, which I suspect are rife in some Viogniers

Yalumba Y Series South Australia Viognier 2015 ($24; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap) is next up the spend.

"Here at Yalumba we believe that one good wine leads to another," the website says, "and our Y Series was created with that belief in mind."

I seem to recollect, very early in the piece, a huge Yalumba Signature Cellar lunch at which a hundred merchants, hacks and afficionados were presented with Château d'Yquem "Y", that mighty Bordeaux estate's dryish Sauvignon blanc/Semillon blend, to see whether we thought Sauvignon blanc would take off. I think that was the time Michael Hill Smith's cassoulet turned blue with an indigenous, or "wild" winery yeast overnight and he himself suggested that he didn't particularly like Savvy-b as he served an instant canned replacement for the blue beans. So I suppose in procuring the Y name after that - Yalumba was its distributor - one wine did indeed lead to a whole line of them. This series includes a Murray Valley Sauvignon blanc which sells about $140 short of the true "Y" version.

Michael Hill Smith and the author in the Signature Cellar the day the cassoulet turned blue

But this is Viognier in the glass. Rather than stone fruits, this one smells like very ripe Conference pears, perhaps suggesting that in the Riverland at least the apricot stuff really begins to occur somewhere riper than this but before the alcohols reach the fourteen or fifteen or whatever that Organic one really is.

This simple fruitiness is decorated neatly by a top-edge whiff of hemp or burlap in counterpoint to its creamy whiff of jasmine.

The wine's leaner of texture, more slender, and more limestoney than limey: its acid is firm and its perky tannins slightly chalky.  While I'm usually the sort who prefers his wines lower in alcohol than most Ocker winemakers are game to make them, I prefer the stronger Organic to the Y Series in this instance because perhaps (a) it accurately reflects the way the sunbaked hinterland treats these grapes, (b) Viognier dislikes pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and whatnot and/or (c) winemakers fail in every way to accommodate the realities of the actual north Rhône variety this is.

The Murray Mallee is not like Condrieu. Its geology bears no resemblance. Much of the Vio of Condrieu grows in granite, or the coarse gravels and clays granite makes when it  decomposes and weathers.

Limestone is the skeletal remains of critters that lived in oceans which have dried up and gone. Granite is the cooled and crystallised stuff that came molten, oozing up from the hot gooey mess of magma swilling around between the Earth's core and its crust. 

Just for reference, Julian Castagna's remarkable Castagna Beechworth Viognier grows in granite. Here he is in his kitchen.

Yalumba Eden Valley Samuel's Garden Collection Viognier 2015 ($24; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap) also smells more of pear than stone fruit, with that granular aroma of the pear skin which sometimes approaches the peel of canteloupe (actually muskmelon - Cucumis melo var. reticulatus). 

This in turn leads me to that dusty smell of burlap/hemp/hessian, which I suspect has something to with the methoxypyrazines, the natural insecticide which gives Sauvignon blanc and the other Cabernets their tomato leaf/nightshade whiff.

This wine is also musky.

Even in the flavour sector, Sam's Garden's closer to ripe Bosc pear or melon - honeydew this time - than to apricot or peach. That granular stuff's here in the texture, mingling neatly with the schisty old rock tannin.

It's vegan AND vegetarian "friendly," but has no organic certification.

I'd slurp it with Richard Olney's gorgeous estouffade printanière, a spring vegetable and bean stew from his Provence The Beautiful Cookbook. 

Yalumba The Virgilius Eden Valley Viognier 2015 ($45; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap) does not boast organic certification, but is "vegan friendly," which makes me wonder what those folk think while they send all the skrillions of happy little yeasts responsible for this "wild ferment" into their pious gizzards.

I'm pretty sure they're not the blue ones in the cassoulet. The yeasts, I mean.

The wine has a fine, white peach and burlap fragrance, clean, fleshy and yes, again, it's a little Sunday School teacherish, maybe more big city backsliding Baptist than Mallee Methodist. It's nowhere near as simply peachy or apricottish, but much more complex and polished in an elegant, silk-and-satin manner. Its floral note is along the lines of that rich white flesh of the magnolia petal, and there's that citrus again, like the white pith of ripe limes.

After a day's oxygen. it grows pear, too: in this case the exquisite Norman Passe-Crassane, which is half quince.
you don't need any of this in proper Viognier 

The flavours are reserved and very fine; delicate yet confident and unswerving. 

No Chardonnay tastes or smells like this. And yes, once again the winemakers are at last, tentatively, letting some of the variety's trademark tannins remain unfiltered and unfined in this glorious, stimulating confection.

So. A Viognier, moreso a Virgilius perhaps, that has sufficient balance, finesse and poise to require no spicy, pickled or smoked food.

I could think of nothing more appropriate than Flathead fillets grilled simple and quick and dribbled with lemon. And if you're keen to place it in its Barossa homeland, spread that fish on crusty Fechner's Apex bread with plenty of butter. And oh alright, yes. You may grind some pepper. 

Yalumba FSW 8B Wrattonbully Botrytis Viognier 2015 ($29 375ml, 11% alcohol; screw cap) is from the Limestone Coast, which may explain the calcereous whiff in the Y wine - maybe they took some grapes from this vineyard too before the autumn mists brought the fungal infections. But then again the limestone of the coast named for it spreads right up into the Murray Valley for hundreds of kilometres: it's the same old seabed, so my blend suspicion may be fantasy.

Give the Viognier some botrytis and you sure get peach, and more obviously that unique smell of dried apricots soaking in water to make a tart or an apricot struselkuchen. It's glorious. Heady. Swoony. But more to do with your actual botrytis than Viognier. You can make Semillon or Sauvignon blanc smell like this if your Botrytis cinerea mould strike is clean and pure.

The advantage of those grapes over this one, especially in a cool spot, is they offer more acidity and you get a finer, more precise and appetising balance with this same degree of luscious sugar. This is no Sauternes or Barsac.

What to drink it with? Very dark, bitter orange chocolate for starters. And I'd pour it chilled. 

Yalumba Eden Valley V de Vie Viognier ($64; 375ml, 40% alcohol; cork) is distilled in a copper pot. It's lovely clean spirit. It smells like a Gewurztraminer eau-de-vie I fell for, or from, in Kaiserberg, Alsace. It has hints of marzipan, orris root and poire william. It's not at all hot to sniff, but dangerously spongy with an illusion of cushioning safety, like a feather mattress. In fact it smells like marshmallow, thinking of bounce.

If you don't get some bounce from the bouquet, you can sure get some from swallowing it. It's so inoffensive and secure and almost motherly that there's a danger you could have too much rather quickly after the first few sips deaden your sensories like the nepenthe that assuaged the grief of the gods. Sure, the afterbreath is hot - as you'd expect at this octane rating - but the whole exercise is all a bit too easy unless you know your way around fine distillate.

Not usually afraid of clean spurruts, I nevertheless find this more interesting with a dribble of rain in it. It suddenly releases a neat citrus topnote which rings a lot more bells. 
There's a tiny pear called the Paradise. I once poached some in a blend of sauternes and Pinot, with garlic cloves, the other cloves, hot chillies and cherry tomatoes. It made a delightful hot and sweet, piquant and comforting set of see-sawing comparisons with sour cream. The trick is to emulate that dish, flambé it in this spirit, then eat it with this mighty V half-and-half with the botrytis wine, broken with a dash of rainwater.

Just don't blame me

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