Louisa Rose has always been a bit of a white wine specialist. We first met 20 years ago when she presented an extraordinary tasting of Pewsey Vale Rieslings under screwcap, the wines dating all the way back to 1971. SInce then she has also carved out a reputation as one of the southern hemisphere’s greatest exponents of the Viognier variety, with a range of Viogniers in her portfolio spanning the approachable ‘Y Series’ to the range-topping ‘Virgilius’. During the lockdown period of 2020 Louisa and Jessica Hill-Smith, sixth generation of Yalumba’s founding family, hosted a Zoom tasting of their Viognier wines, on which this report is based.
Viognier is of course the great grape of the Rhône Valley, where it makes single varietal wines in the north under the Condrieu and Château Grillet appellations, and is a blending component in many white wines across the region. It came relatively late to the southern hemisphere, and early attempts from there and the Languedoc often seemed to me to be too blowsy and alcoholic. As vines aged and perhaps winemaking changed, there are more and more convincing examples, certainly including those from Yalumba.
Louisa began with a quick overview of what to expect from the 2020 wines, explaining that after a very dry winter setting low crops, followed by the fires that swept across the south east of Australia around Christmas time, the cool period that followed led to very high quality and their vineyards experienced no smoke taint.
Yalumba’s Viognier Story
In 1980 Yalumba was the first to plant Viognier in Australia as a commercial crop, though some vines had been planted in 1978 with cuttings coming from Montpellier. Louisa says “We took a while to understand this strange variety,” as they began making it like Riesling, with earlier picking and using laboratory yeasts. They learned that Viognier had to be left to ripen longer than Riesling, almost until at the same time as Shiraz, and that if you could do so “the flavour seemed to develop overnight.” Viognier likes the sun, and Louisa says it is only ready to be picked when the berries start to shrivel. “If I go into a vineyard and the grapes are bright green and plump I know they won’t have any flavour.”
Using wild yeast for fermentation, which they do across their Viognier range, made a huge difference, adding something from the biological life of the vineyard, “with all the bugs and spiders and caterpillars.” Wild yeast experiments in 1993 were conclusive, and they decided to work with them soon after.
Vognier is a variety that can have low acidity, but rather than add acid, Louisa uses the phenolics from the skins of the grapes as they pass through the press, which “adds a lovely bitterness and some tannin.” That helps to do the job of acid, and avoids the need for too much adjustment. So they do not fine the wine to remove the phenolic elements, especially for the Virgilius which has a noteably (and pleasantly) bitter bite. “Because we don’t add any sulphur,” she explains,”the juice is dark brown but that’s the larger phenolics which have oxidised. If you wait, they fall out, and clear, bright juice comes out of the tank.”
An organic Viognier has been in their portfolio since the 1990s, but all of the wines are made with minimal intervention to an extent, including wild yeast ferments, minimal sulphur and minimal fining. Virgilius is Yalumba’s flagship white wine. It does not come from a single vineyard, but is a barrel selection, though Louisa says that does normally turn out to be barrels from their oldest vineyards. With components kept separately in barrel for around 10 months before the decision of what will make the Virgilius cut, she says “I’m looking for stronger wines with more tertiary characters, not looking for the flash ‘look at me’ barrels.” She also believes that people who like Virgilius tend to be people who prefer red wines generally: “Look at the Total Acidity and PH figures for Virgilius and you would say ‘this is a red wine’.”
Yalumba also adds some Viognier to some of its Shiraz wines, in the style of Côte-Rotie in the Rhône Valley. “But we’re not looking for apricot character,” she says, “It was a relief when the law changed a decade ago when you had to use a minimum of 5% Viognier if you wanted to mention it on the label of Shiraz, which was too much.”
Louisa sees no need to age any of the Viogniers as they drink beautifully on release, but adds that they do make for interesting wines with some age. “Virgilius has been under screwcap since 2003, and doesn’t get brown or fat; it stays very fresh,” she says. Finally on serving and enjoying her Viogners, her favourite food combination is with Morrocan tagine – though I note that wine and food writer Fiona Beckett swears by korma.