For a grape variety that fell so badly out of fashion by the 1960s that it nearly disappeared entirely, Viognier is looking decidedly chipper. Not only are modern Viognier wines the most expensive white table wines in France, but its vines have proliferated across the New World.
At its lowest ebb, there were a mere 12 hectares of the grape left in Condrieu, the sub-region of the Rhone that Viognier calls home; Condrieu now has close to 150 hectares , and Viognier vines flourish in Spain, California, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. It’s hardly about to knock Chardonnay off its perch, but close to 7000 tonnes of it were crushed in Oz this year.
While Yalumba’s Louisa Rose is rightly credited as the grape’s patron saint in Australia, the gospel has other long-term adherents. Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg Wines, a man of many enthusiasms, was an early adopter in McLaren Vale. Indeed Osborn admits that he preached the possibilities of Viognier with such fervour in the 1990s that the acreage planted by his growers quickly exceeded the entire area of Viognier vines in Condrieu at the time, all before he’d made any wine with it.
As in its French homeland, the majority of d’Arenberg’s Viognier is dedicated to the making of dry white table wine, albeit in the form of a blend, the Hermit Crab Viognier Rousanne. But the frequent visitation to the Vale of botrytis mould, the so-called “noble rot”, also allows the making of a Viognier-based dessert wine, The Noble Mud Pie.
The 2015 d’Arenberg Noble Mud Pie Viognier Arneis, which took third place in the latest Hot 100 Wines, is, as you would expect, a very sweet wine: the action of botrytis is to dehydrate the berries, concentrating sugar and flavour, and the Baume can, and does, reach stratospheric levels, in this case upward of 300 grams per litre of sugar in the finished wine.
d’Arenberg’s Chester Osborn (photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)
With a distinctive apricot nose, and peach and pear flavours on the palate as a dry wine, the Viognier’s fruit really comes out to play in the sticky version; the Hot 100 judges talked of a “ridiculously complex and fragrant nose” and “a whole basket of fruits drenched in summer honey” on the palate. At the same time, they said the wine was “light on its feet”, an attribute which Osborn says comes from not letting the wine get too viscous or alcoholic.
“Sometimes botrytis wines get really thick,” Osborn says. “I’d rather have the acidity balancing the sweetness, rather than the alcohol.”
The Mud Pie’s alcohol is a modest eight per cent, a factor he says is partly determined by the inability of fermenting yeasts to cope with the high sugar levels. Of the four d’Arenberg stickies, the Mud Pie is the most mutable, with small proportions of other botrytis-affected grapes blended in according to the season. “It depends on what gets botrytis at the time and maybe what’s left on the vine,” Osborn says. Dance partners have included Semillon, Rousanne and Marsanne; in 2015 it was the turn of Arneis.
Osborn says botrytis appears in the vineyard with a reliable regularity: “There are more years that work than not — three in four years work, I think.”
But it is finicky work: as well as needing to stay longer on the vines, each small parcel of botrytised grapes receives very gentle handling, in contrast to the more gung-ho approach that prevailed 25 years ago.
“It’s pressed about 11 times, up to a very low pressure; that’s the way you get as much juice out as possible, but you don’t get the tannins,” Osborn says. “You end up with a much less colourful, less tannic and more age-worthy wine.”
The Mud Pie name, if you were wondering, is a reference to Osborn’s affection for making mud pies in the sandpit as a child. As a winemaker, he points out, he’s essentially still doing the same thing.
“The same ingredients — soil, water and sun — that make mud pies also make grapes.”
Me? I’ll take the one in the bottle.
2015 The Noble Mud Pie