Yalumba: champions of Viognier

Australian winery Yalumba are an interesting wine company. They are big, but not huge. They manage to behave like a boutique winery, one the one hand, but they also sell inexpensive wines in supermarkets on the other. I guess the obvious parallel would be with Torres in Spain. The wine world needs more wineries like this, spanning different segments of the market.

One of Yalumba’s points of difference is the championing of the Viognier grape variety. This white grape variety almost went extinct back in the 1960s. It’s remarkable to think that when Yalumba planted Australia’s first commercial Viognier vineyard in 1980, there were fewer than 15 hectares of Viognier in Condrieu, in the northern Rhône. A decade earlier there were just 11 hectares. The variety was almost lost to the world.

There’s some interesting history here. Viognier arrived in Australia in 1968 from Montpellier. Three vines were grown in the Nuriootpa Research Station vineyard. Yalumba found these vines and propagated them using tissue culture, before planting them in their Eden Valley vineyard.

Louisa Rose, chief winemaker, Yalumba

The story of Yalumba and Viognier also involves the work of chief winemaker Louisa Rose, who first encountered the variety when she started there in 1992. But her first few attempts to make it were somewhat underwhelming. She treated it like Riesling, picking early, inoculating, fermenting at low temperature. ‘We got wines with no flavour and bitterness from the phenolics,’ she says, over a Zoom call (very ISO). Things changed in the mid 1990s when she started to let the grapes get riper, picking it about the same time as Shiraz. ‘The grapes like to be in the sun.’

Viticulture is typical Barossa style. It’s not a VSP, but a single wire system and the vines aren’t overly vigorous, so they tend to sprawl naturally either side of the fruiting wire providing dappled shade that protects the grapes from sunburn, but also allows them enough light to develop nicely.

In the press there’s no deliberate attempt to allow skin contact, because phenolics can be an issue. This said, phenolics are an important part of Viognier’s flavour spectrum. The juice isn’t clarified and no sulfites are added. Acidification isn’t the rule, but can be used. ‘Viognier is naturally a low acid variety,’ says Rose. She says that if acid is added to levels that would be normal for other white varieties, it would stick out in Viognier. ‘The wines would taste much more acidic than the analysis.’ Ideally, Rose says, Viognier should have refreshing bitterness from the phenolics in the skins. ‘If it doesn’t have a phenolic component, it can become blobby and oily.’

Yalumba now make Viognier with natural yeasts, as they do with most of their wines. Rose says that their confidence in working with natural yeasts has grown as their viticulture has become much lighter handed. ‘We have really biodiverse vineyards,’ she says, noting that they have worked with the Australian Wine Research Institute on characterizing some of the yeasts.

One of their Viogniers is organic. ‘One of the growers decided he wanted to go organic,’ she says. Most are on a sustainable protocol, but this grower enjoyed it and wanted to take it to the next step. ‘When he was certified we thought it would be good to make an organic wine,’ says Rose. He also grows Shiraz for them. Their winemaking fits with organic regulations anyway, so it was easy to get certification for the wine.

Does Viognier age? Because there were only 11 hectares of the variety left in 1970, most people growing and making it have been through a similar journey. ‘We don’t need old vines, we don’t need to age these wines,’ says Rose. ‘But now the vines are old and we have old vintages of Virgilius, we’re finding that they are beautiful. Very few others age Viognier, but these are interesting wines.’

THE WINES

Yalumba Y Series Viognier 2019 South Australia
This is mainly Riverland fruit, but also some Barossa and Adelaide Hills fruit is in the blend. Rich and flavourful with bold pear and apricot flavours. Has a nice spicy bite and great balance. Broad and textured with a touch of honey and spice, and plenty of Viognier character. 90/100 (£8 Majestic, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Co-op)

Yalumba Organic Viognier 2019 South Australia
13.5% alcohol. A delicate expression of Viognier, with interesting aromatics: lively lemony notes with some mandarin and peach. The palate is crisp with lemony acidity under delicate pear fruit. There’s a touch of almond, and also some salinity. 90/100 (£10 Tesco, Waitrose)

Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier 2017 Barossa, Australia
13.5% alcohol. This has a beautiful aromatic nose of apricot and nuts with some orange peel and lemon brightness. The palate has a nice rich texture with good acidity supporting a richly textured, broad base of apricot and pear. There’s just a hint of bitterness that works well in this context. A lovely rich expression of Viognier that captures its varietal character and also turns the volume knob up a little. 92/100 (£15 Amazon, Specialist Cellar, Cambridge Wine Merchants, Fenwick)

Yalumba Virgilius Viognier 2017 Eden Valley, Australia
13.5% alcohol. This is fresh and delicate on the nose with a lovely apricot and lemon character. The palate has real intensity, but it’s youthful and linear with fennel and spice and pear notes as well as some lemony freshness. Subtle pepper and spice on the finish, with well mannered phenolic structure. Shows balance, restraint and precision. Not showing all that it has now, but it could age really well. 93/100 (c. £30 retail)

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