When winemakers from two different regions get together, sometimes the results push the cutting edge. They can, if they are serious about it, introduce ideas that are new and different and make the wine world just a bit more interesting.
In the areas of the world that I cover, for example, the arrival of Drouhin in Oregon in 1988 not only gave the Willamette Valley a stamp of legitimacy in the eyes of skeptical sommeliers, retailers and consumers, but brought a different approach to making Pinot Noir that has influenced growers and winemakers there. In Washington, Dr. Ernst Loosen’s joint venture with Chateau Ste. Michelle, called Eroica, demonstrated just how distinctive Washington Riesling can get.
Michel Chapoutier’s Australian connections are not quite on that scale, but some outstanding and fascinatingly different wines have come out of the Northern Rhône producer’s work there. Best known for his superb Syrah-based Hermitage wines, Chapoutier has turned his attention to Australian Shiraz, which is what they call the same grape there. Northern hemisphere spring is autumn in the southern hemisphere, which allows him to dabble in Oz just as many Aussie winemakers travel the world as "flying winemaker" consultants to European and American wineries.
The quantities in question are relatively small. The biggest volume wine, Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier, now pushes 5,000 cases. A single-vineyard wine from the same company, called Lieu-Dit Malakoff, comes in at just over 1,000 cases, and in most vintages I have preferred it significantly. Those wines come from the western end of central Victoria, a relatively cool climate for Shiraz. Chapoutier chose it over South Australia because it felt more like home for him. And indeed the wines have more backbone, a bit less alcohol and more peppery and minerally character than most Aussie Shiraz.
Chapoutier also has a joint venture going with Ron and Elva Laughton of Jasper Hill. They have planted and farmed biodynamically a 1.2-acre vineyard not far from the Laughtons’ property in Heathcote, also in Central Victoria. They make Shiraz-based wine together under the label Cambrien, after the soil type in Heathcote.
Recently, a sample bottle of a new wine arrived from the folks at Terlato, Chapoutier’s American partner in the Down Under venture. As a wine importer in Chicago, Terlato has some of the biggest names on the international scene (including the Australian winery Two Hands and an Italian fella named Gaja) and owns some big wineries in California. With a production of 136 six-bottle cases, this new Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Lieu Dit Malakoff Viognier 2009 isn’t exactly going to storm the market. But it is not like any other Australian Viognier I have tasted.
In Australia, Viognier is pretty much a niche wine. Only a couple of producers put significant effort into it. Yalumba always comes up with several excellent bottlings. And d’Arenberg does some good ones. But mostly, it turns up at a 3 percent to 5 percent level in dozens of Shiraz-based wines that aim for more brightness and refinement. I like a lot of those wines. As it does in Côte-Rôtie, the white Viognier adds an extra dimension to the red grape.
On its own the white grape Viognier often makes fat, round and polished wines, relatively high in alcohol, usually approaching 15 percent. In Côte-Rôtie it actually tends to broaden the palate in a red wine blend. This new wine comes from 5 acres of Viognier planted in the Malakoff vineyard, in the Australian region called Pyrenees, exactly for that purpose. But what impresses me about it is how refined and elegant it is. It has a strong streak of minerality against gorgeous floral, pear and apricot aromatics. The alcohol level is listed on the label at 13 percent. The acidity is prominent enough to make it mouthwatering, and six months of aging in neutral oak make it feel subtle.
Those are not words I usually apply to Viognier. As a small-production wine, it won’t be easy to find, but if you do stumble across a bottle, try it. More important, maybe one of these bottles will influence other Aussies to aim for this style. It could be a winner.
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