When a red gets a dash of white

It takes a deft hand to enhance shiraz with a civilizing viognier.

Last week in the Sydney Morning Herald Jeni Port wrote: In the 1960s, the Barossa’s Peter Lehmann sometimes blended juice from the white grape muscadelle with his red-blooded shiraz.

He wasn’t making a marketing statement (the addition was not noted on the label and the wine was sold as burgundy); rather, he was probably making a better wine with the grapes he had.

Today, winemakers increasingly add the white grape viognier to their shiraz. At last count, there were more than 30 such blends.

It’s a charming homage, a nod to the great reds of Cote Rotie in the Rhone Valley, where shiraz and viognier have been strange but accommodating bedfellows for generations.

Is it really about making a better wine in this country, or is it opportunistic marketing with more and more makers jumping on board?

Taste some of the wines and there is no sign viognier has improved the appearance, smell or taste, which is surely what it’s meant to be about.

Appearance
Viognier can help stabilize and enhance the colour of shiraz, which can be a problem in cooler climates. When you swirl quality shiraz-viognier in the glass, it has a translucent appearance. The addition of viognier is not unlike tossing a knob of butter in with vegetables; it brings a real glaze or sheen to the wine.

Smell
This is surely viognier’s greatest contribution. Musk, apricot, floral notes, spice and aromatics combine to release a powerful and beautiful perfume. Jus a splash, about five per cent, raises the aroma of shiraz to higher notes. Potent stuff.

Taste
Some say viognier brings a silky texture rather than a discernable taste; others suggest it brings a liveliness to the palate; in the very best examples, it does both.

If viognier is there to improve the breed subtly, why is it being used on some of the biggest, baddest, boldest shirazes in the land, whose colour or aroma do not need enhancing? Frankly, its contribution is negligible in the likes of d’Arenberg’s The Magpie, from McLaren Vale.

Brian Walsh, Yalumba’s chief winemaker, oversees a Barossa shiraz-viognier and one from the cooler, higher Eden Valley.

He says when Yalumba first made the style in 1998, he felt shirazes from warmer areas were growing in alcohol strength as makers strove to maximise flavour. He viewed the result as dull, bland and raisiny in extreme examples.

Shiraz-viognier became a foil to this dead-fruit syndrome, brightening the fruit considerably – something straight out of Peter Lehmann’s winemaking book. So why aren’t all warm-climate shiraz-viogniers benefiting from the addition?

“Adding viognier always does something, but whether it does something positive is the question,” Walsh says. “The key is to make sure you’ve got good viognier. Immature [viognier] is a very average beast.”

Lehmann still makes a shiraz-muscadelle that retails for about $30. Would he consider a shiraz-viognier? “I would, except I’ve never handled the viognier grape in my life,” the veteran says.
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