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Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
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Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.

SOME VIOGNIER WINES CURRENTLY AVAILABLE IN NEW ZEALAND


Viognier is an interesting grape,  with a romantic rags to riches history reasonably well documented in the standard reference books.  As a white grape from the northern Rhone Valley,  it is best made and presented in a full-bodied dry white style akin to chardonnay to the north,  or marsanne and roussanne to the south.  It is distinguished from its neighbours by the intensely mock-orange blossom,  custard apple / cherimoya,  citrus and apricots bouquet and palate qualities the fully ripe grape displays.  Such sweetness of character coupled with a full-bodied dry finish makes it an enchanting food wine,  when matched with the right foods.  

Being so characterful (at best) a grape,  it is not however as versatile as chardonnay with food,  nor as populist as the tide of off-dry pinot gris.  Not that good pinot gris can’t have character,  but the market sector it caters to does not value character over sweetness.  So in all this there is a danger that viognier could go off the rails too,  and instead of being a noble variety with distinct flavour presented in a dry format,  it becomes something more wishy-washy,  off-dry and pinot gris-like.  Already some of our under-ripe examples incline this way.  The model for this regrettable trend is the American market,  where much commercial chardonnay is finished to 5 – 7 g/L residual sweetness,  rather than the more appetite-stimulating less than two grams (i.e. unfermentable) which a full-bodied grape can so happily support.  Whether or not this is a counsel of perfection remains to be seen,  for being a sweetly-fruited grape,  3 – 5 g/L residual in viognier can be very seductive.

The temptation to indulge in more residual sweetness will be acute in New Zealand,  for like syrah we are a marginal climate for achieving full varietal expression in viognier.  But by the same token,  we therefore have the potential in the good years to make stunning examples of the variety,  via wines which retain freshness and nervosity and complexity on both bouquet and palate.  The issue is to achieve the depth of character,  and fullness of palate without residual,  to match the great French examples epitomised within the appellation Condrieu,  for they are mostly dry.  In general,  Hawkes Bay is the only place this is likely to be achieved at all reliably.

It is fair to say that thus far,  very few of our wines achieve the depth of fruit character needed to be great.  The difficulty is compounded by the grape usually developing its full varietal expression very late in the  ripening process,  so it is exceedingly hard to achieve flavour magic at reasonable alcohols.  In a marginal climate,  the grapes may stubbornly not develop the desired character,  despite being sugar-ripe.  Leaving them to ripen or raisin further increases alcohol (and sometimes the risk of VA),  without necessarily gaining flavour.  

In New Zealand,  our initial enthusiasm for the variety is such that really quite modestly succesful examples of the grape are being touted as of gold-medal quality.  This is understandable,  we have been through it all as recently as pinot gris,  but it is short-sighted.  The magic of fine viognier is really quite sultry and perfumed and tropical-fruity (even though apricot is not a tropical fruit),  yet retaining freshness from the inherent fruit rather than from added tartaric.  New Zealand and Australia respectively incline to under-ripe,  leafy / floral and raw apricot examples on the one hand,  and broader and canned  apricot / over-ripened ones on the other.  In both cases,  the temptation is to use oak to boost flavour.  Barrel ferment and a little oak is magical with viognier,  but all too often the oaking can be injudicious,  or even counter-productive,  if fine varietal viognier is the goal.  Like pinot noir and syrah,  viognier is easily swamped by new oak.  Warmer-climate wines absorb oak more easily than the cooler ones.

Accordingly,  these reviews take a more conservative approach to marking the Australasian wines than is fashionable.  The exciting conclusion though,  is that just like syrah,  both countries are from time to time going to make great examples of the variety,  and the best will be confusable with some of the best in the northern Rhone Valley

Acknowledgment:  Most of the reviews arise from a viognier tasting assembled and presented (blind) by Raymond Chan.  The tasting was held on 28 November,  at Regional Wines,  Wellington.  I appreciate being able to draw on his notes,  in the italicised portion of each review.  They are augmented by website info,  where available.  A few additional reviews come from other viogniers tasted singly in the last few months.

VIOGNIER = ALL OTHER WHITE WINES,  BLENDS,  ETC

2005  Ascension Vineyard Viognier Matakana The Apogee
2004  la Baume Viognier Vin de Pays
2005  Bilancia Viognier Hawkes Bay
2004  Grant Burge Viognier Adelaide Hills
2003  Chapoutier Condrieu
2005  Cono Sur Viognier
2005  Coopers Creek Viognier Gisborne
2003  Guigal Condrieu
2004  Millton Viognier Briants Vineyard
2004  Mitchelton Viognier Central Victoria
2005  Odyssey Viognier Hawkes Bay
  2004  Rongopai Viognier Ultimo
2004  Spencer Hill Viognier Coastal Range
2004  Te Mata Viognier Woodthorpe
2005  Trinity Hill Viognier Gimblett Road
2005  TW Estate Viognier
2004  Villa Maria Viognier Omahu Single Vineyard
2004  Witters Viognier
2004  Yalumba Viognier Eden Valley
2003  Yalumba Viognier Virgilius
2004  Zilzie Viognier


2004  Yalumba Viognier Eden Valley   18 +  ()
Eden Valley,  South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $30   [ screwcap;  vines up to 25 years age;  wild yeast fermentation,  50% BF in seasoned French oak,  balance s/s,  BF fraction 9 months LA and batonnage;  no MLF;  www.yalumba.com ]
Brilliant lemon,  a superb colour.  This is the freshest and most vividly viognier bouquet in the tasting, with pure varietal character shining through the superbly clean bouquet.  Winemaker influences are invisible – the grape rules.  Mock orange blossom and apricots both fresh and canned pour from the glass.  Palate simply expands the bouquet,  with both the smells and flavours of the variety,  plus the necessary body.  Oak is superbly subtle,  just firming the wine a little.  The only criticism could be the degree of acid adjustment,  hardening the finish a little much.  New Zealand and Australian wines are very acid,  by world standards,  and it can become tiring.  This Eden Valley label of Yalumba is the most clearly varietal,  reliable,  and affordable Australasian version of viognier you can buy,  at the moment.  If you want to know what the grape tastes like,  in technical near-perfection,  try it.  Cellar a few years only,  less than five.  GK 11/05

2003  Guigal Condrieu   18  ()
Condrieu,  northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13.5%;  $89   [ cork;  c. 2 t/ac from vine age 25 years average;  hot dry season,  crop reduced to 60% normal;  1/3 BF in new oak,  2/3 in s/s;  MLF 100%;  1.2 g/L RS;  www.guigal.com ]
Lemonstraw.  In one sense,  this wine goes to the opposite extreme from the Yalumba Eden Valley.  It is equally as good,  equally as delicious,  but the hand of the winemaker is apparent all through.  The main influence is the secondary malolactic fermentation,  which has added a cream and vanilla custard quality to the great canned-apricots fruit.  The wine is therefore less vibrantly varietal,  but at the same time softer,  richer and longer-flavoured in mouth.  Oak becomes apparent on the later palate,  more noticeable than the Yalumba Eden Valley and coarsening the finish a little.  This wine is fully mature,  and as a consequence of the MLF component,  it will lose freshness from here out – not a cellar wine.  GK 11/05

2005  Cono Sur Viognier   18  ()
Colchagua Valley,  Chile:  13.5%;  $16   [ plastic closure;  2004 most recent on the (slow) website,  for that wine:  mostly machine-picked;  40% matured in s/s with oak staves for 5 months,  60% s/s;   RS 5.2 g/L;  www.conosur.com ]
Lemonstraw.   Bouquet is as clearcut in character as the Argentinean 2005 Lurton Pinot Gris,  and beautifully varietal:  cherimoya,  apricots and custard,  freesia blossom.  Palate is good too,  in the lighter crisp flavoursome style New Zealand and France can achieve with viognier,  not as weighty as Australia,  yet with beautifully-defined ripe fruit,  on the dividing line for 'dry' – very seductive.  Modern Chile is the single greatest threat to our export wine market.  Cellar 2 – 4 years.  VALUE  GK 09/05

2003  Yalumba Viognier Virgilius   17 ½ +  ()
Eden Valley,  South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $49   [ cork;  vines up to 25 years age,  hand-picked;  wild yeast fermentation,  BF 100% in French oak 4% new plus 9 months LA and batonnage,  no MLF;  Virgilius is a selection within the Eden Valley stock,  including most of the new oak fraction;  RS < 2 g/L;  www.yalumba.com ]
Virgilius is Yalumba’s flagship white,  their wine to compete with Penfold’s Yattarna Chardonnay.  This is a big ask for a grape more coquettish than serious.  Virgilius shares the Eden Valley wine’s quite fabulous colour,  a little deeper,  but equally brilliant:  perfect lemon.  But the bouquet simply doesn’t compete with the Eden Valley.  Because this wine is 100% barrel fermented,  varietal definition is down,  being replaced by a quiet and very pure rich white wineyness,  oak-affected but not oaky.  On bouquet alone,  blind,  one might not pick this is as viognier.  Everything comes right on palate,  which shows a richness and viscosity which is sensational,  eclipsing both the Guigal and the Eden Valley.  And here the apricots fruit can be tasted,  for although the wine is softly oakier than the Eden Valley,  it is still subtle.  If this had the bouquet of the Eden Valley wine,  it would be runaway gold medal.  Cellar 1 – 3 years.  GK 11/05

2004  Villa Maria Viognier Omahu Single Vineyard   17 ½  ()
Hawkes Bay,  New Zealand:  14.5%;  $36   [ screwcap;  BF and LA in older French oak,  some batonnage,  20% MLF;  www.villamaria.co.nz ]
There is a slight orange flush on this wine which is suspicious,  and the instant one smells it,  the thought has to be,  ye gods,  this is a viognier fermented on gewurz skins,  or similar.  It is marvellously fruity on bouquet and palate,  and has terrific presence in mouth,  with fresher and more vivid fruit than the top wines.  But the smells and tastes are of gewurz !  Body and weight of fruit are remarkable,  phenolics are scarcely higher than the other top wines,  and oak is less.  It would be clearly gold-medal wine,  if viognier varietal character dominated.  The richness and dryness are stunning,  equivalent to the topmost levels of Alsace wines (if it were gewurz).  How to score,  therefore ?  I have been a bit picky,  and scored it in the viognier class,  so like the Virgilius,  though marvellous wine,  it drops back a bit on varietal expression.   Cellar no more than 3 – 5 years.  Another wine to make the future for Hawkes Bay look ever more interesting,  with its climate matching so closely the character of the northern Rhone Valley.  GK 11/05

2004  Rongopai Viognier Ultimo   17 ½  ()
Gisborne,  New Zealand:  14%;  $35   [ screwcap;  BF in 5-year old French oak,  and 7 months LA and batonnage,  no MLF,  RS < 2 g/L;  first crop;  www.rongopaiwines.co.nz ]
Pale lemon.  On bouquet,  this could be the top wine of the bracket.  It is not big and voluptuous as viognier can sometimes be,  but in its elegant mock orange blossom florals,  and cherimoya and fresh apricots fruit qualities,  it comes close to defining the variety.  Palate does not quite follow through,  leaning off somewhat and a little more acid than is optimal,  but the beauty of the flavour,  the sheen of vibrant fruit reflecting the bouquet,  and all being scarcely affected by oak,  is terrific.  This is the fresh slightly acid New Zealand analogue to the weightier Eden Valley winestyle.  Finish is dry,  making the achievement all the more remarkable.  This is probably Gisborne's greatest achievement so far with viognier (though a selected batch of 2005 Coopers Creek Viognier bottled for Cardmembers looked pretty exciting,  and might pip it at the post).  I hope it is not a case of the first-crop syndrome,  coupled with a great vintage.  It is certainly going to be harder to achieve consistent quality with viognier in Gisborne,  when compared with Hawkes Bay.  Cellar a year or three,  but less than five.  GK 11/05

2004  Grant Burge Viognier Adelaide Hills   17 ½  ()
Adelaide Hills,  South Australia,  Australia:  13.5%;  $22   [ screwcap;  hand-picked;  some wild yeast,  BF in new and one-year French oak,  10 months LA and batonnage;  www.grantburgewines.com.au ]
Lemon,  deeper than the Virgilius,  a flush of straw.  At this point in the sequence,  the Australian wines become a little broader and more Australian,  with that full-bodied anonymous quality so many Australian whites show,  just starting to appear.  This wine has rich fruit and more oak than the top wines,  the fruit is more broadly apricots and peach / stonefruit,  there is plenty of volume,  but less definition.  Palate is clearly oaky,  but there is still no doubt it is viognier fruit,  with the canned apricot middle palate the best part of the wine.  At the price,  this is a good flavoursome introduction to viognier,  but don't cellar beyond a couple of years.  VALUE  GK 11/05

2005  Bilancia Viognier Hawkes Bay   17  ()
Hawkes Bay,  New Zealand:  14.5%;  $29   [ screwcap; hand-picked, BF in older oak, 5 months LA and some batonnage, no MLF;  www.bilancia.co.nz ]
Lemon.  Making allowance for the premature release,  bouquet is clearly stonefruits including some fresh apricots,  with the oak very subtle.  There is some of the broadness of the Burge,  but not the vibrant varietal quality of the top wines.  Palate has rich fruit,  unusually so for New Zealand,  with the stonefruit, component extended by oak,  but scarcely tasting of it.  Six months from release is very infantile even for viognier,  and this should look a lot more varietal in another six months (when it should be released).  Sweetness is higher than is optimal for premium viognier,  though.  Cellar 3 – 5 years maximum.  GK 11/05

2005  Coopers Creek Viognier Gisborne   17  ()
Gisborne,  New Zealand:  14.5%;  $19   [ screwcap;  hand-harvested,  s/s initial ferment,  finished in barrel,  4 months LA and batonnage in older French oak;  www.cooperscreek.co.nz ]
Palest lemongreen.  Like the Bilancia,  it is infinitely regrettable so many New Zealand wineries are obsessed with releasing wines at an unthinkable 6 months of age (by European standards),  before Christmas,  purely for marketing reasons,  thus short-changing the quality the winemaker has striven for in the wine.  This wine smells infantile,  showing uncoordinated fruit and more fresh oak than is ideal (despite the short exposure to it – this may marry-up in 6 months).  Palate hints at the quality to come,  with fair body,  pale canned apricots flavours,  and attractive nearly dry balance.  It is just much too young to be pleasant drinking,  with estery chewing-gum components still to marry away.  The mark includes an anticipation factor.  Cellar to five years.  GK 11/05

2004  Te Mata Viognier Woodthorpe   16 ½ +  ()
Hawkes Bay,  New Zealand:  14.5%;  $27   [ screwcap;  85 % of wine BF in older French oak,  plus 7 months LA and batonnage;  15% s/s;  no MLF;  RS < 2/L;  earlier review 10/05;  www.temata.co.nz ]
Good lemon,  close to the Burge.  In the blind tasting,  this wine smelt very oaky and a little volatile,  and though the fruit level was good,  against the clearly-defined varietal wines,  this one was harder to come to terms with.  Palate brought up a better ratio of varietal fruit to oak,  with attractive apricot flesh initially,  but as the wine lingers in mouth,  the too-new oak asserts itself again.  It is similar in fruit and oak balance to the Burge,  but being more acid and less plump than the Australian wine,  one notices the oak more.  Cellar to four years.  GK 11/05

2005  Ascension Vineyard Viognier Matakana The Apogee   16 ½  ()
Matakana,  New Zealand:  13%;  $35   [ screwcap;  BF in older French oak;  www.ascensionvineyard.co.nz ]
Pale lemongreen.  Bouquet is light,  clean,  centred on oak more than varietal fruit,  but with a hint of pale stone fruits.  Palate likewise is tending anonymous,  slightly more aromatic than un-oaked chardonnay,  the same suggestion of stonefruit,  very clean and well balanced,  nearly dry,  creamy MLF richness,  the oak not so apparent on palate,  attractive,  but not very varietal.  Some reminders of pinot gris.  Will cellar for several years,  in its subtle style.  The mildness and lower alcohol than many viogniers make this a great food wine,  quite European.  GK 11/05

2005  Odyssey Viognier Hawkes Bay   16 ½  ()
Hawkes Bay,  New Zealand:  13.5%;  $29   [ cork;  BF in one-year French oak,  MLF 100%,  RS 2 g/L;  www.odysseywines.co.nz ]
Lemon.  This is another wine suffering grievously from premature release.  Bouquet is still estery and jujube,  unfocussed,  vaguely heading in the direction of stonefruits.  Palate is interesting,  modestly raw stonefruit,  a little stalky,  perhaps some MLF introducing a custard thought (confirmed later),   light oak.  This will be looking much better in 6 – 12 months.  The oak handling is particularly good,  so it should be a good food wine.  Cellar to a maximum of five years.  GK 11/05

2004  Zilzie Viognier   16 +  ()
NW Victoria,  Australia:  13.9%;  $18   [ screwcap;  some BF in French oak;  not much info on HTML part of website;  www.zilziewines.com ]
Elegant lemon.  Still a little bottling sulphur,  on light canned peach and canned apricot,  varietal as far as it goes,  but not dramatically so.  Oak is more subtle than earlier offerings under this label,  but the acid / phenolic balance is tending awkward,  in the Australian adjusted style,  in this case introducing an almost tinny quality to the finish.  Fair-enough introductory viognier,  to cellar a year or so.  Lacks finesse though,  so hard to drink much of.  GK 11/05

2005  Trinity Hill Viognier Gimblett Road   16  ()
Gimblett Gravels,  Hawkes Bay,  New Zealand:  14%;  $29   [ screwcap;  hand-harvested,  part BF in older French oak and 3 months LA,  part s/s fermentation,  RS 3 g/L;  www.trinityhillwines.com ]
A slightly yellow lemon,  as if oak-influenced.  This wine is something like the Mitchelton,  a lot of character,  but too much of it spurious.  Oak and estery VA at this infantile stage of premature release are uppermost,  but one can smell stonefruits behind.  Palate shows better fruit and is pretty well dry.  If this wine had been released when it was more integrated and ready for tasting,  it would have shown more harmoniously,  and rated better.  Not a subtle take on viognier,  but it is coarsely varietal.  Cellar to four years.  GK 11/05

2004  Spencer Hill Viognier Coastal Range   16  ()
Nelson,  New Zealand:  13.5%;  $33   [ cork; hand-harvested, fermented with new French oak, limited oak ageing; 2 g/L RS;  www.spencerhillwine.com ]
Colour has more straw in it than the average,  more like the Villa wine.  Bouquet is dramatically different from all the other wines,  in a way which divided tasters.  I was attracted to the acacia-florals quality,  bespeaking a kind of lees-autolysis component.  Flavours on palate showed stonefruits,  but acid was higher than the average,  and there is a leafy / stalky streak,  as of a climate cooler than optimal for the variety.  An interesting wine,  and different,  but not really on the viognier wagon,  so my score is probably too generous.  Cellar to three years.  GK 11/05

2003  Chapoutier Condrieu   15  ()
Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13.5%;  $68   [ cork;  hand-harvested,  wild yeast fermentation,  part matured in oak,  part in vat;  100% MLF;  www.chapoutier.com ]
Colour is straw with a flush of gold,  and bouquet has that tell-tale bottled quinces character of light oxidation.  One can only try and reconstruct the wine,  hoping this bottle isn’t representative of the batch.  In contrast to the new world wines,  the wine style is softer,  more complex,  more winemaker and artefact-influenced,  including a biscuitty / creamy MLF component.   Consequently,  total acid is less,  and the finish softer.  Good bottles should be more like the Guigal,  but less oaky.  Probably not a cellar wine,  even in good bottles.  GK 11/05

2004  Mitchelton Viognier Central Victoria   14 ½  ()
Victoria,  Australia:  14.5%;  $24   [ screwcap;  90% BF in 4 year-old oak,  plus 6 months LA;  www.mitchelton.com.au ]
Lemonstraw.  As is all too often the case with this winery,  all one can smell to first impression is oak.  Worse,  all one can taste first-up is oak,  giving a wine that is boring,  but technically sound – like so many Australian whites.  With a lot of searching on the palate,  there is stonefruit in there,  and it is ripe with good richness.  A pity the oak-habituated winemakers pretty well wreck it – and curiously the website specifically mentions care “to ensure oak impact is limited”.  Not worth cellaring.  GK 11/05

2005  TW Estate Viognier   14 ½  ()
Gisborne,  New Zealand:  13.6%;  $21   [ screwcap;  TW is Tietjen & Witters,  two noted Gisborne growers now with their own wine;  BF in third-year French oak,  plus 8 weeks LA & batonnage,  RS 3.5 g/L;  www.twwines.co.nz ]
Lemongreen.  This wine opens unattractively,  with a pepperminty smell like raw American oak chips plus vanilla ice cream.  No varietal character is detectable on bouquet.  Palate is harsh on oak phenolics,  but behind that a fair quantity of vaguely varietal stonefruit can be seen,  pleasantly fleshed out on trace residual.  Plain wine,  the fruit character lost in the oak.  Not worth cellaring.  GK 11/05

2004  Millton Viognier Briants Vineyard   14  ()
Gisborne,  New Zealand:  13%;  $24   [ screwcap;  BF in French oak and 6 months LA and batonnage;  not organic;  www.millton.co.nz ]
Pale lemon.  This wine is shrouded in a light reductive fog,  with hints of old wet sacks and armpit,  so on bouquet one can’t tell what it is made from.  Decanting from jug to jug is needed.  Thus aerated,  palate is better,  for these are relatively simple sulphurs,  not mercaptans,  and here one can see tart varietal under-ripe fruit in fair quantity,  raw apricots,  but more acid than is desirable.  Residual sweetness balances the acid,  but is inappropriate to quality viognier,  if it is to stand proudly apart from all the anonymous off-dry pinot gris around.  Not worth cellaring.  GK 11/05

2004  Witters Viognier   14  ()
Gisborne,  New Zealand:  12.5%;  $23   [ screwcap;  hand-picked;  website not accessible;  www.waiohika.co.nz ]
Elegant lemon.  Initially opened,  a sulphur-ridden bouquet with both SO2 and potentially reductive components.  With a lot of air,  breathes to a plain,  slightly aromatic dry white,  scarcely varietal.  Perhaps in some seasons the variety could achieve the flavours of physiological maturity at such a low Brix (if the given alcohol accurately reflects that),  but it is unlikely.  Palate is too phenolic,  but hints of the variety can be seen in a nearly-dry and quite rich wine.  Given the season,  a lost opportunity,  it would seem.  Not worth cellaring.  GK 11/05

2004  la Baume Viognier Vin de Pays   11 ½  (-)
Languedoc,  France:  13.5%;  $17   [ screwcap ]
Lemon.  Time-travel wine,  French white wine saturated with reduced sulphurs down to the mercaptan level of complexity and horridness,  unpleasant.  Surprisingly,  there is a good weight of varietal fruit underneath,  so this is a wine to practise repeated pouring from jug to jug over as great a height as one can manage.  Thus treated it would score reasonably,  but how much pre-treatment can one make excuses for ?  It is hard enough to get one jug in a restaurant,  let alone two.  In these reviews I differentiate between those wines requiring a swirl or two,  and five minutes in the glass,  and those with more engrained faults.  As an aside,  it is astonishing to read the reviews of this wine in British supermarket wine columns,  where insensitivity to reduced sulphurs is legend.  GK 11/05