It was 1999. I was earning $11 an hour working at Havelock North Wines & Spirits and I was in my first year of studying wine. I was extremely nerdy about it, never content to be one of those “C’s get degrees” folk. I wanted to ace that course, to soak up as much knowledge as possible and fast. At the time I thought I had a pretty good handle on all the different types of grapes and wine styles that New Zealand could offer, that was until Peter Cowley from Te Mata Estate sauntered in and hoisted a case of their shiny, new viognier onto the counter. Viognier? What the heck was that? After he and the boss conducted the compulsory ‘sit on the smoko room couch, sip the wine and spend an hour gossiping’ session, minions like myself could sample it. I fell in love. Pronounced “Vee-Yon-Yay”, it’s the signature grape of the wine Condrieu in France’s Rhône Valley, yet over the last 20 years it’s found itself a happy place here in New Zealand. I love the way viognier hits that spot between the rich, tropical weight and fruitiness of chardonnay and the lifted, spicy character you find in pinot gris. Good viognier will show apricot kernel, jasmine, citrus oil and baking spices on the nose and have a fresh, luxuriously creamy mouthfeel. Just this week I tasted two that ticked all the boxes for me, one from the Wairarapa and the other from the heart of Hawke’s Bay’s Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District. “For us the joy of Viognier is the intensity of the aromatics that it brings and the generous weight on the palate” says Dominic Smith of Element Wines. “At Element we encourage our viognier to have intense lifted florals. We l0ok for orange blossom, honeyed apricot and tangerine. Texture is also super important to us; the wine should coat the palate with an unctuous/oiliness that leaves a long balanced finish”. Dominic’s biggest challenge growing the stuff in the sun-baked Gimblett Gravels area is small crop loads. “Our crop can vary between 1 and 1.5 kg per plant from one year to the next” he adds. “Plus our daughters tend to want to eat all the fruit at harvest. It’s total sticky goodness”.
Three hours drive south, at Gladstone Estate, winemaker and vineyard manager Craig Fryett has viognier growing in their Dakins Road block. “To us it’s a very expressive variety and when done well it is one of our favourites” he says. “It lends itself to a variety of winemaking techniques including a mix of barrel and stainless steel ferments, wild and inoculated yeasts – so it’s highly versatile”. Existing on the edge of the classical viognier growing climate gives Gladstone’s fruit a nice spine of acidity which ties together what can be an oily, rich and overwhelming variety according to Fryett. “This climate also keeps alcohols under control and the aromas become more expressive in the fresher spectrum (mandarin skin, white peach) whilst still being unmistakably Viognier. The style we aim for is something that screams viognier on the nose but delivers a refined and balanced journey on the palate. Texture, balance, and layers of complexity are key to a good viognier”.
Sadly viognier is a hard sell. People just don’t buy enough of it, so its future here is uncertain. Perhaps it’s the tricky spelling that puts people off attempting to order it in restaurants (showman Frankie Stevens pronounced it “viagna” in front of hundreds of people at an awards night). But I hope that’ll change as we become more educated about this awesome variety.
Gladstone Estate Wairarapa Viognier 2016 $25 (5 stars)
Hands down, this is one of my favourite drinks of the season. Owner-slash-winemaker Christine Kernohan has done it again with this fresh, intensely floral viognier that just screams spiced citrus, jasmine and classic apricot kernel characters in every mouthful. Luxuriously tropical, it also hits that sweet spot of beautifully balanced, zingy acidity that so many viognier’s never seem to achieve. I love it!
Element Gimblett Gravels Viognier 2015 $25 (4 stars)
I LOVE the nose of this wine – it seduced me right from the first sip with its exotic orange zest, jasmine, citrus oil and classic caramelised complexity. It’s my favourite style, all rich, cuddly and luxuriously spicy and ready to morph into a meal in itself. But if you insist on pairing it with some protein, you can’t go past a platter of paper thin prosciutto…
From Northern climes to southern stars, here’s this week’s recommendations…
Mad Dog Bay of Island’s Chardonnay 2014 $24 (3.5 stars)
Northland is New Zealand’s oldest yet youngest wine region. It was the place where Rev. Samuel Marsden first planted grapes back in 1819 and Dalmatian migrants planted the seeds of the modern industry in its gum fields. Chardonnay has a natural home here, especially this creamy, weighty, fleshy style. This is the last opportunity to taste this wine as sadly the vineyard has been pulled out, so enjoy the buttery, nutty, stonefruit and spiciness while you can. Hawaiian pizza, yes!
To buy visit www.fishbonecafe.co.nz
Babich Headwaters Marlborough Albarino 2015 $22.99 (5 stars)
Intoxicating initial aromas of wildflower pollen and sunbaked limestone are followed by an intensely juicy, citrus-forward series of flavours in this local version of a Spanish classic. I love the deliciously chalky layers on the finish and it’s lipsmackingly fresh length of flavour. Organically grown and created with excellent attention to detail – it’s a definite new favourite for me!
Saint Clair Pioneer Block 14 Doctor’s Creek Pinot Noir 2014 $37.90 (4.5 stars)
South west of Blenheim, the soils become infused with clay, making it the perfect place to put pinot in the ground. The result is a highly floral, black tea and cherry-laced pinot noir with real balance and charm. Edged with spice and smoke, there’s delicious complexity at every level here and it’s only getting better as the years progress.