Phew – wine #100 is in my rear view mirror and there’s nothing but open road ahead. I know I made a list of things to do moving forward, but it’s all feeling something of a blur at the moment as I dig into this next wine, the Yalumba Virgilius Eden Valley Viognier 2008
The last Australian wine I reviewed was the Piccadilly Chardonnay which was not exactly the most typical wine from the Riesling champion Grosset, but today’s wine is perfectly typical, because while there are nearly 400 Australian Viognier producers according to Vinodiversity, Yalumba both pioneered the grape in Australia and has brought it to very high level of quality.
Yalumba is the oldest family owned winery in Australia. It was founded in 1849 by Samuel Smith, an English migrant and brewer. (No, apparently not that Samuel Smith.) The story of the company mirrors the Australian wine industry as a whole, from fortified wines and spirits, through to the rise of local table wine, and now with a range of wines from entry level up to icon wines and single vineyard expressions of terroir. However, the company has grown beyond just producing wine. They run a cooperage, which is something of an impressive undertaking. They import the staves, but do the toasting and barrel making on site, which not only allows them control of the precise toast, but also the size of barrel. They run a nursery, which I’ll talk about in a minute. Robert and Sam Hill Smith, owners of Yalumba, also run Negociants Australia and Samuel Smith & Son Wine Merchants.
Normally I’d list all the wines from a producer, but Yalumba is really all over the place (in a good way) so some highlights will have to do. At the top of their range of reds (in terms of reputation – not sure about price) sit Octavius, a Barossa Shiraz that takes its name from being matured in special 100 litre barrels called octaves, and the Signature, a Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz blend. In addition they have a range of single vineyard wines, organic wines, wines from Wrattonbully, entry level wines, a sparkler, some fortifieds, and even a Viognier Eau de Vie.
That brings me nicely to two of the reasons I like Yalumba – their Viognier and their nursery. Viognier is a white grape associated with the Rhône Valley of France. It prefers warm climates and needs a fair amount of heat to fully ripen, though can be prone to powdery mildew. It produces wines that can be full bodied and aromatic with high alcohol, though sometimes with an oily texture and / or lacking in acidity. Apricot and white peach are the classic tasting notes, though I have also found comparisons to the aroma of Fruit Loops cereal to be particularly apt. It is used to produce varietal wines in the Condrieu and Château Grillet appellations of the Northern Rhône and is grown throughout Australia, Argentina, Chile, California, and a few other places within the USA. As well as varietal wines, it often finds blending partners in the other white wines of the Rhône, such as Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Rolle, though not as a component of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In addition, it is one of the few white grapes that is co-fermented with red grapes, in this case classically Syrah in the Northern Rhône appellations of Côte-Rôtie, but more recently in many parts of the New World. The co-fermentation aids in fixing colour as well as lending Viognier aromatics to the Syrah.
However, this classic grape was largely unknown Down Under until the early 1980s when Yalumba pioneered the first commercial plantings in Australia through their nursery. Established in 1975, the nursery provides a wide range of grafted rootstock – you might be able to do a century of varietals based just on the vines they cultivate. In addition to bringing interesting new varieties into Australia, they also have been key in making available specific clones of better know varieties, such as specific Burgundian clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Rather than just have a varietal Viognier as one wine of their many, Yalumba has championed the grape and produces an entry level version, a mid-range, an organic and this icon version, in addition to the aforementioned Eau de Vie. The result of work by Yalumba’s Chief Winemaker and world Viognier leader, Louisa Rose, Virgilius was launched with the 1998 vintage, nearly two decades after the first plantings, as the Yalumba premier white wine. Grapes are hand picked, whole bunched pressed directly into French barriques fermented with indigenous yeast. It’s then left on lees, with regular stirrring, for the next 11 months. Individual barrels are then selected for this wine.
Before I describe this wine, a quick word about the region, Eden Valley. I used to think of it as a subregion of Barossa, but of course it’s a region on its own. In fact it is roughly similar in size to neighbouring Barossa, though not as widely under vine and both cooler and generally and at a higher altitude. The soils are varied, from sandy and clay loams to areas of sandy schists, and the aspect varies greatly from hillside to hillside. It’s best known for Chardonnay and Riesling, though cooler climate versions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are certainly evident, and many alternative varieties are thriving. Henschke is arguably the most iconic producer, though Yalumba certainly gives it a run for its money.
Finally, this wine in the glass, but first a note – this wine needs some time out of the refrigerator. I initially poured it while it was still very cold and it was too austere, lacking in body and typicity. So if you’re going to have this, make sure it is at an appropriate temperature. These notes are from when it had warmed up slightly.
In the glass, this wine was clear and bright, a pale lemon green colour with thick slow legs. On the nose it was clean and developing with medium plus intensity. There were notes of peach, oak, mandarin, and lime leaf. On the palate it was dry, with medium acidity, medium plus body, medium alcohol, and medium plus flavour intensity. It was full of stone fruit, Nashi pear, lime, and bruised apple – lots of fruit. However, there was complexity as well with notes of white pepper, a hint of sawn wood and some ginger. It had a medium plus length.
This was a very good quality wine. It didn’t suffer from the overly oily texture or lack of acidity that can be a problem for Viognier, and carried both ripe fruit and interesting secondary characters. Despite the good availability of Viognier around here, I tend not to drink much of it as I’m often at a loss as to a good pairing. However, I’d be happy to open up a bottle of this whenever possible and make up the food accompaniment as I went along.