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Viognier vs. Pinot Gris

‘White wine is like pop music,’ I said. I had been drinking for awhile and felt like sharing my unique view of the world with anyone who would listen. ‘Everyone wants to be into the new thing- the next big trend. Everyone wants to produce the next number one single.’

Well, I admit all the wine I tasted hadn’t all ended up in the spittoon. It had gone to my head. Thoughts were flying around my mind like loose objects in your car when you put the brakes on too hard at the traffic lights...

‘Wine really is like pop music.’ I continued. ‘It has trends and fashions, big sales successes. It has MegaStars. Big multinational record companies are a lot like big multinational wine companies. Unique boutique producers are more like your independent artists- with their home studios- and cult followings…’

I am very full of self opinion sometimes… but fun at parties.

Now that I am sitting down to write this article I will try to put my argument more rationally. All wine producers want to make successful popular products. All wineries are trying to find an audience, as are musicians. There is money in picking a trend in the marketplace and producing to meet that demand.

One of the big trends in wine has been the emergence of Sauvignon Blanc in the marketplace. Like a Missy Higgins or Delta Goodrem- singer songwriter, Sauvignon Blanc has become very popular with wine enthusiasts very quickly. It has credibility. Savvy Blanc is all singing and all dancing as far as marketing is concerned and sales are growing at a steady rate as wine drinkers get the taste for dry acidic wine.

Back at the wine tasting, I continued my opinion. ‘I think Viognier will be the next big thing. It’s a sure hit. A sure number 1.’ The crowd of two, the only people interested in what I was saying, shouted me down. ‘No, Viognier is yesterday’s news…Pinot Gris rocks,’ they said.

In the cold light of day maybe they are right. In 2008 the next trendy white wine seems to be Pinot Gris (or Grigio)- the most common white variant of Pinot Noir. The opinion inside the wine industry is Viognier had its chance but didn’t catch on.

The Italians call it Pinot Grigio, the French call it Pinot Gris, and in Australia it’s called either Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, depending on the winemaker’s allegiance. It’s the grey pinot.

It can make wine that’s bone-dry or sugary and sweet. It can look pink or almost clear depending on how it is cleaned up. And it can even be botrytis-affected. Classic characters include honey, fresh butter, pear and straw. The only consistent fact about the variety is that it’s headed to a bottle shop near you.

I asked Matt Rechner, from McLaren Wines producer of the Linchpin & Echidna ranges, why he is releasing an ’06 Pinot Gris.

“I need another variety too compliment what I make. I think McLaren Vale does two things very well, Shiraz and Grenache, I didn’t want to produce another type of red from McLaren Vale.

So, Matt went looking for something different- he found a small patch of Pinot Gris at Lady Bay over looking the sea.

‘It is important for Pinot Gris to be kept cool. Higher sites or cooler climates where the day time temperature doesn’t get too hot.’

Matt reaffirms Pinot Gris/Grigio can produce a variety of styles. ‘At the moment, people in Australia are tending to make them dry. There is more to the variety than that. I don’t want to imitate the Italians and I don’t think we should imitate the French.

We make Australian wines and should be proud of what is uniquely ours.’

I ask Martin Lightfoot if he thinks Sharkira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”, is more like Viognier than Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t know other man”. He just looks at me blankly.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind.Matt bases his Pinot Gris on fruit from the peninsula south of McLaren Vale. Weather conditions cool which give the wine a sharpness and tight feeling in the mouth when I taste his wine. It is definitely made on the crisp clean lines. The wine is almost clear in colour. As for the flavour I use the term hay because the Pinot Gris is a bit like chewing on straw. Don’t deny it we all did that as kids!

Viognier is a little better known than its Pinot competitor with commercial releases beginning in the early 1990’s.

I asked Martin Lightfoot of Hastwell & Lightfoot, and McLaren Vale Vine Improvement Society to enter argument. Martin was one of the earliest proponents of Viognier planting vines in McLaren Vale.

He explains, ‘Viognier 10 years ago was a variety few people had heard of, after all it is from the smallest appellation in France. A small piece of struggling sand & rocky ground on the west bank of the Rhone river below Lyon, called Condrieu.’

I asked Martin why did he plant a variety that few had heard of and nobody was drinking? Sounds risky.

‘At the time we were working with Nick Haselgrove then winemaker for Haselgrove’s and he had worked the 1994 vintage in the southern Rhone & come back hot & excited about the variety. We thought we would go and see what had set his pulse racing. What I remember best was the honeysuckle jumping out of the glass even long before I had got it under my nose. The wine was a whole new experience with dried apricots, peaches, melons & more.’

‘Thinking back to McLaren Vale we reckoned we could match the tough growing conditions pretty easily on a deep gutless sand hill, In ‘99 we had a crop, not big of course but enough to see what happens when Viognier is planted in McLaren Vale and even enough to make a small batch of wine. The fruit was golden and the taste very distinctive.

I still remember the excitement of picking this brand new variety for the region, getting it to the winery, tasting the juice, watching it through fermentation wondering what the end result would be.

As far as I can recall it was a good start, it was distinctive but not the wondrous experience we had in Condrieu. There was clearly work to be done in the vineyard & the winery. And this has proved to be a challenge, not just for us but for everybody working with the variety. Any wine lover who has been out there tasting Viogniers over the past few years will have seen more false starts than winners.

I interrupt by questioning Martin. ‘Mr Lightfoot have these false starts- bad songs if you like- stopped Viognier from becoming the superstar it should be?’

‘I can only comment for our winery, for us we think our 2004 is close to where we want to be and our 2005 even closer. But we would still like to see more of that honey suckle that blew us away 10 years ago in Condrieu.’

You can’t mention Viognier without also noting Yalumba- the family run Barossa wine company that planted the first commercial Viognier plantings in 1980. Yalumba has been the driving force in getting Viognier established in the marketplace. Commuters into Adelaide driving on Goodwood rd were greeted by a strategically placed on the tram under pass ‘VEE-on-YAY!’ the billboard read.

The VEE-on-YAY campaign was an effort to boost the profile of the variety.

They have a vested interest. Yalumba produce no less than 4 releases. Their flagship Virgilius Viognier retails for around $35-40, their Eden Valley range for $20-22, Y-series at about $10, plus a late picked desert wine. Most wine companies would be happy just to have one price point. Yalumba take Viognier seriously enough to differentiate their white wine products and give you the spread.

The other main attraction of Viognier to a winemaker is its ability to be mixed with Shiraz. Yalumba also excels with this style too, with its Hand picked Shiraz/Viognier. What? Adding a white grape into a red wine, I hear you question? Well mixing Viognier into Shiraz produces a wine that has rich ruby colour and a very filling flavour in the mouth. Viognier arguably improves Shiraz by giving it a lifted aroma of fruit and a rounded fruit flavour in the mouth.

One thing is for certain, in the race for the next big thing, Yalumba don’t yet make a Pinot Gris... Whatever happens the shelves are about to get full of 2008 white wine releases and the race to be the new number one single will begin anew.


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