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A Dab of Viognier

A dose of white grapes gives a lift to rich Shiraz

Harvey Steiman
Posted: September 12, 2005

More and more Australian winemakers are using a little Viognier to give Shiraz a new look. Some of these wines are among the best the country makes.

At Torbreck, winemaker David Powell uses about 3 percent Viognier with old-vine Shiraz in RunRig, his top-of-the-line $200-plus bottling that I have rated as high as 98 points. At d'Arenberg, Chester Osborne sneaks roughly 5 percent Viognier into Laughing Magpie, giving the wine a brighter, livelier profile than his other Shiraz wines. Petaluma uses about the same amount in its Adelaide Hills Shiraz. So does Ben Riggs in his Mr. Riggs bottling.

These wines, and about a dozen others like them, all rated outstanding (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) in the past year. The vintners are using Viognier because it gives the wines a livelier balance, so they stand out in a sea of big, rich Shiraz.

The French use the white grape Viognier with Syrah (the Old World name for Shiraz) in Côte-Rôtie, which produces some of the most celebrated Syrah-based wines in France. The legal limit there is 20 percent, but most producers just use what's been interplanted in their vineyards, usually from 1 to 5 percent.

In Australia Viognier is seldom interplanted. Sometimes it's a separate row in the same vineyard, but as long as it's less than 5 percent of the wine (and it usually is) it can even come from another region and the label doesn't have to specify the source or even the presence of Viognier.

One winery that has been experimenting seriously along these lines is Green Point in Yarra Valley. Matt Steel recently joined Green Point, the table wine label for Domaine Chandon Australia, to focus on still wines. He had been making the wines at Yarra Ridge until Beringer Blass (now Foster's Wine Estates) closed the winery last year.

Green Point already bottles one of the best Shirazes in Yarra Valley, a cool-climate region better known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. When I visited the winery recently, Steel showed me some experimental 2005 wines using differing levels of Viognier.

The 100 percent Shiraz was a lively, tart style with distinctive blueberry flavors. The same Shiraz co-fermented with 12.5 percent Viognier grapes had a distinctive peach and spice character and rounder mouthfeel. The Shiraz co-fermented with 4 percent Viognier skins (not the whole grapes) was very tannic and had an unexpected mango flavor. (Although most Côte-Rôtie producers use whole berries, some co-ferment with just the skins.)

"We think the Viognier helps fix the color of the Shiraz, especially in a cooler climate like ours," said Steel. "It also starts the polymerization of the tannins if you give the fermentation enough oxygen." Translation: that's why the 12.5 percent Viognier seemed rounder and smoother than the straight Shiraz. In a final bottling, Steel expects to throttle back the Viognier content so the flavors don't stick out as much but the wine still benefits from the other aspects.

Viognier has a strong spicy-stone fruit character and can easily take over a blend. The trick is to use just enough to get the texture and aromatic effects without overdoing it. At d'Arenberg, Osborne co-ferments 5 percent Viognier with some of the Shiraz to get the effects of co-fermentation, then adjusts the blend. "I keep adding Viognier until I can taste it," says Osborne. "If the Viognier seems to be taking over, we add more Shiraz."

Osborne positions Laughing Magpie as the middle tier of his Shiraz hierarchy. Footbolt, at $18, is fruity and easy-going. Magpie, at $35, has vibrant acidity and much more depth, but it's also approachable. Dead Arm is at the top at $65, in a dense, ageworthy style. The Footbolt and Dead Arm don't contain Viognier.

"Using Viognier is a good way to distinguish this wine from the Footbolt and the Dead Arm," says Osborne.

Despite the success of these wines and others, some Australian winemakers and critics absolutely hate the notion of using Viognier with Shiraz. One winemaker visibly shuddered when I asked him about it. Some newspaper wine critics have inveighed against it.

In the end it's a matter of personal preference. Just as some people recoil at the slightest whiff of oak in a wine, some don't like the extra spiciness and aromatics from the non-red-fruit spectrum that Viognier brings to the party.

For the rest of us, a dab of Viognier in Shiraz turns the wine in a different direction than it would have gone without it. Shiraz dominates the landscape for red varieties in Australia. There are so many of them that inevitably a certain sameness can creep into any given range of Shiraz. This new twist creates new wines and adds a new layer to the category. I like it.

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