Are you looking for the next big thing in the world of white wine? Move over riesling, piss off pinot gris: the underdog varietal sweeping in under the radar is none other than viognier (vee-own-yay). This is manna from heaven to Barossa’s Kaesler Wines winemaker Stephen Dew, a major fan of the grape.
“Viognier is probably my most favourite white wine of all,” Steve says, “it’s sort of code-named around the winery as Steve’s Lovechild, mainly because I probably spend a little bit too much time with it but also because nobody else particularly liked it, especially in the early days.”
An unusual variety for Australia this grape is well adapted for the Barossa climate, with South Australia producing some highly sought after world-class viognier. Not bad for a grape that was nearly wiped out of existence in the 1960s – but what is viognier?
Viognier, a history
The origins of viognier are somewhat obscure – it is speculated that the Romans brought it into Europe. Particularly grown in France’s Rhone Valley, it is a distinct appellation of the Condrieu region and is a grape suited to a warm growing season. Steve is lucky to be swilling it at all, as it was nearly all but wiped out in the 1960s with under 30 hectares remaining at one point. Not dissimilar a situation to South Australia’s red grape vine pull scheme in the late 1980s. Lucky for Steve (and the rest of the world) viognier made a well-deserved come back during the era of the world’s chardonnay love affair.
“I really like that it has got a lot of texture to it. The wine has a lot of layers in it – it’s not just acid and fruit,” says Steve. The Kaesler viognier vines were planted in 2000, making them just shy of 20 years old.
“2005 was the first vintage that we made of it and that was a pretty robust wine. We didn’t have any wine barrels for it so it went straight into brandy barrels so it was way over oaked. Very much overripe as well – but it still had the great viognier characters.”
Classically vibrant, viognier has dominant flavours of stone fruits, perfume, rose petal and citrus. Floral, with an oily texture that is low in acidity. Think medium of body and high in alcohol. Ageing in oak lends a creaminess and vanilla profile to the wine, a trait Steve is particularly fond of – now they’ve got the right barrels for it.
“Our [Kaesler viognier] has got lots of creaminess about it because it partially goes through malolactic fermentation (a process which results in the buttery/creamy textures). Its oak fermented as well so you get a lot of those oak characters coming into it and a little bit of those oak tannins in there as well.”
Particularly suited to the area, the varietal is grown in warmer climates. In Australia, the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills are the better known and suited growing regions. It’s also grown in the United States and a few regions in Italy and South Africa. The Kaesler viognier vines are in loam soil (rich sand and silt) over clay, situated close to the winery.
“We’ve got two sites for it, the major planting is straight outside the winery doors which the guys on the tour take the people past and then there is a second site across the road. It’s very close to us – I tend to walk through the viognier if I’m on the phone.” Steve says, laughing. “I don’t know why maybe it gives me more zen? It works, it calms me down. Particularly in vintage when it’s a bit stressful.”
It’s a wine that pairs excellently with food, especially with spices and game birds, according to Steve. “It lends itself to duck dishes – something a bit spicier and flavoursome. You can also have it with pork or cheddar cheese: it’s got enough flavour so that’s the main thing. It’s not just a chicken and fish wine.”
Whatever you do, don’t over chill your viognier – it kills the gorgeous flavours. “It should be cool but probably around the 12-degree mark, a little bit like chardonnay in that respect. If you get it too cold, it will suppress all the flavours. Get it too hot – like any other wine – the alcohol will always shine out. But optimum drinking for me has it hitting the table at 9 degrees – by the time you start to consume it, it’ll be 12 degrees and will be perfect.”
If you’re a perpetual red drinker, this might be the white wine to change the crimson tide. “It’s the red man’s white drink is what I like to call it. Because it’s just a bit more robust of a white wine,” Steve says, sipping on a glass of his favourite vintage (2016).
“I think it is a little bit more of a thinking person’s wine because it does tend to change a lot in the glass – from the first mouthful to the last, it will actually change in characters. I enjoy that in a red wine which is why I like it in a white.”
Where can you get your hands on a bottle?
If this description has piqued your interest (and your thirst), you should make a trip out for a tasting at Kaesler Wines Barossa Valley cellar door. If you fancy making an afternoon of it, you can book an Old Vine tour and see the viognier vines first hand. You can also buy Kaesler viognier online – for $22. You can cellar for up to 10 years, but it’s definitely a wine that you can drink young and fresh. With a nose of peach and honeysuckle, apricot and background notes of new oak, you won’t be disappointed. Plus, you’ll make Steve’s day.
“Summer weather is just ideal for it. We’re still getting cooler nights, but mid-afternoon sitting in the shade after a hard day’s work? What more could you ask for.”