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Australian Viognier comes of age


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“It’s really slurpy Bob Altman adult naughtiness which rolls on so long you begin to hope the credits won’t come up too soon” – a trio SA Viogniers worth crowing about, plus a sensual and slightly cheeky Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills.

Yalumba South Australia Organic Viognier 2012 $19
13.5% alcohol; screw cap; 80 points
It seems like a lifetime ago that Peter Wall convinced the Hill Smiths to introduce Viognier to Australia, if that’s what happened.  It was actually about 27 years back. The north Rhone variety had nearly disappeared from its homeland: in the 1968 agricultural census it had dwindled to only 14ha around Condrieu.  In the early ’80s we had Len Evans preaching his Chardonnay gospel, encouraging over-plantings of that Champagne and Burgundy stalwart in most of the wrong hot places, while Wolf Blass preached just as loudly against it.

“What’s being done with Chardonnay in this country is paralleled only by the stupidity of the red wine manufacturing in the late ’60s,” he told me in 1982.  “I think the Chardonnay belongs in Champagne.  There’s very few companies that can make good Chardonnay … at the moment every company in every region and every state is trying to bring a Chardonnay out … Chardonnay is just a joke.”

Yalumba was not only uncertain about Chardonnay at that stage – its first plantings turned out to be the very ordinary Melon variety, and were purged – but it also doubted the potential of Sauvignon blanc.  Viognier offered an alternative cushion; one that Yalumba could own.  Many regarded it as windmill-tilting, but they persisted, planting it in the Riverland and Barossa hills, and can now lay claim to a suite of seriously mature vineyards, the best of which are about to get an injection of six new clones which are planted but not yet fruiting. While the public response was sluggish for years, most Ozvionger seemed to peak in a brief flash of wildness about five years ago. Trouble was, many winemakers seemed to think Viognier could still be the next Chardonnay, and blindly repeated the error Wolfie warned against.

It says something that of the three current Yalumba Viogniers, this organic model is the cheapest.  Viognier has an uncanny ability to exude the aroma of the country in which it grows: this prickles and tickles the nose like Murray Valley terra rossa in the summer.  There’s apricot pith, too.  It has just the right amount of the oily, almost slimy texture that marks  the variety when fully ripe, and sort of oozes along until some tidy acid resolves the tail.  I really like Viognier for its artichoke-like tannin, but there’s not a lot of that here.  Why not try it with artichoke anyway, and a cool mild bean stew with pork belly?

Next up the scale is the Eden Valley 2012 version ($25; 14% alcohol; 88 points).  This one’s more complex to sniff: it has a similar prickly/dusty topnote, but with a layer of avocado cream simmering below.  It’s thicker of texture, too, with a little more drying tannin balancing its acidity.  It’s burny in the after-breath, reflecting all those alcohols.  It brings to mind roast parsnips and a big old chook simmered in fresh herbs and white wine until it’s almost falling apart.

The Virgilius Eden Valley Viognier 2010 ($50; 13.5% alcohol; 94++ points) is another thing altogether.  Cooler, as in Chet Baker with fewer alcohols, it’s almost peppery.  Quarry after a blast.  Acrid.  The fruits are a long way down.  I love this smell.  It’s almost brittle in the mouth, but down at the bottom there be fruits that ring my bells in the Cherimoya/Sapodilla/Sapote division. Sorry to appear obscure, but that’s what I think of.  It’s really slurpy Bob Altman adult naughtiness which rolls on so long you begin to hope the credits won’t come up too soon.  Full-bore cassoulet or Alsace choucroute with lashings of black pepper and mustard.

Heirloom Vineyards Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2012 $40
13% alcohol; screw cap; 94++ points
This brand is the new arm of Dandelion Vineyards: it’s their new top shelf.  And top shelf this Pinot is: at once more sensual and supple as much as meaty and fleshy, it looks like a new benchmark for Adelaide Hills Pinot from this side of the glass.  It smells like a peppery borscht, and then it smells like black Iberian ham, and then like dried fig, and then like dates, and then like chinotto … yet always like Pinot.  It’s smooth and elegant, yet generously flavoured and formed; perhaps a little cheeky now, but soon to be purring like a great big black cat thing.  Rather than unlock the confounding tease of a sensory puzzle that is Pinot at its best, this baby simply makes the whole thing more confusing in a splendidly delicious and stylish way.  If it had come from Burgundy, you could add $100 to that price. Very impressive wine indeed.

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