"Working by Hand" (Winemaking)

Winemaking: Viognier At-A-Glance
Most common styles
Still; sweet
Winemaker choices and options
Virtually all winemakers keep intervention to a minimum, preferring the resulting wines to be all about the purity of the fruit (low, if any skin contact, malolactic, etc.) Lees stirring is often utilized to enhance texture
Aging
Stainless steel, concrete, large oak vates (foudres), small oak barrels (mostly used, though a few producers espouse new oak)
Aging potential (yes/no). If “yes,” give range
Not really. Still version is best drunk young (1-3 years), though some examples have the ability to age for longer
Presented solo or frequently blended with
Both. Most often it is a mono-variety wine. Viognier can be blended with many other grapes, mostly white Rhône varieties, though there have been occasions when Viognier can sneak into other white wines discreetly. Small amounts of Viognier can enhance ar

Leave the fermenting wine must (grape pulp and solids) in contact with the skins before, during and/or after fermentation.

What it does

It “pops” the fruit character by extracting components from the skins that make the wine opulent and flashy. The downside is that, over time, the wines often brown and oxidize (that is, age) more quickly, and can ultimately seem more like sherry than still wine. 

Comment

Mild skin contact is often practiced with Viognier vinification to enhance its perfumed profile. The challenge in doing so is to mitigate pulling out too much tannin (phenolic) bitterness in the wine. One can get a sense of how much of this skin contact is done by quantifying the bitterness of the wine’s finish. The more bitter the finish, the longer the pre-fermentation skin contact time.

What it does 

Proponents of this practice believe in its three byproducts:  stabilizing Syrah’s pigmentation to preserve a deeper and darker color; having the perfumed nature of the variety “pop” the Syrah’s personality; and, finally, softening the wine’s harder edges.

Comment

A little bit goes a long way. When this is done, it is usually at most 3-5% of Viognier grapes added to the Syrah. Any more is disjointed. Finally, some producers prefer to add recently pressed Viognier skins rather than full grapes to the fermenting Syrah, feeling that it achieves the same results without diluting the wine with white grape juice.

The wood employed for most wine barrels, used for aging or actual fermentation of the wine in the barrel. Barrel decisions include the type of wood, the amount of toast (when the staves of the barrels are bent over an open flame), size (smaller = higher ratio of wood to wine = stronger oak influence) and the age of the barrels. 

What it does:

  • Heavily toasted barrels impart more intense roasted flavors (caramel, molasses, toffee, coffee, and burnt sugar).
  • Oak bestows a waxy, velvety texture and can add a sweet buttercream flavor to the wine. 
  • New oak contributes much more flavor than older, previously used oak. Depending on the wine and the personality of the grape, older wood may be a better choice as it impacts the wine less. 
  • Small (barrique-size) barrel fermentation at warmer temperatures than those in stainless steel, and over shorter increments of time, imparts a richer, smoother texture to the wine than one that not fermented in barrel

Comment: 

Few would dispute that Viognier does not like new oak; new wood generally is a buzzkill all over the variety’s perfume and rich flavors. For those that do employ oak, it is large (foudres and vats), older and distinctly neutral in impact.

Converts wine's malic acid (the sharp acid found in tart green apples) into milder lactic acid (as in sour cream, yogurt, etc.).

What it does: 

Softens the wine's acidic edge, contributes a velvety smooth texture and can add a strong buttered-popcorn flavor. In red wines, it is mandatory for stability’s sake (few exceptions)

Comment: 

Viognier is occasionally put through malolactic fermentation to give the wine more weight and to decrease acidity if excessive (a rare occurrence)

Stirring or agitating the dead yeast cells (lees). During alcoholic fermentation, as the yeast metabolizes the sugar and produces alcohol, dead yeast cells tumble slowly to the bottom of the fermentation vessel, where they can be stirred, aka bâtonnage.

What it does

Adds smooth texture (a rounder “mouthfeel”), additional toasty flavors and an extra dimension of complexity.

Comment

Considered particularly important in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production, for those desiring either pure or blended styles with texture, roundness and creaminess, lees stirring is an important tool. A common practice to add roundness and texture to Viognier and, it’s sometimes argued, maintains and retains the wine’s acidity.

Some grape varieties, most white, are extremely versatile and capable of producing world-class wines in all styles, from bone dry to sparkling to intensely sweet. 

What it does

Targeting a sweetness level for the wine determines its style -- dry, off-dry, medium-sweet or sweet.

Comment

With Viognier, its inherent challenge is its lack of acidity, so making it into an off-dry or sweet wine can be particularly challenging. With this grape’s acidity, balance is key. Acidity provides a counterpoint to sweetness and has a balancing effect upon wines made with any measurable residual sugar. Lack of acid in Viognier often equates to wines tasting almost soapy. In the creation of a dessert-style Viognier, the grapes are picked in late October or early November. Fermentation is ultimately stopped early, using sulfur to allow the wine to retain a high level of residual sugar. The wine is then chilled and put through sterile filtering, to ensure that the wine is stable and will not start fermenting again in the bottle. These wines, originally referred to as “Christmas wines” in France’s Rhône Valley, are relatively rare and quite expensive. Guigal’s Condrieu Luminescence is the world’s most renowned contemporary example.