I have worked with Syrah most of my career, and one of the remaining unanswered questions: what is the origin of people adding Viognier to Syrah. Most responses correctly explain that adding Viognier to Syrah has its roots in Cote Rotie of the Northern Rhone where they are allowed to add up to 20% Viognier to Syrah (cofermented). Rarely though, do you find an explanation as to why they ever started the practice in Cote Rotie in the first place! That is what I am after for those of us in Sonoma County.
“But Tyler,” you say, “they do it because it adds a floral note to the wine and rounds out the mouthfeel, increasing the complexity and hedonism of the wine.” Of course, but how on earth did they ever discover that? Why would someone add a white variety to a red? Wouldn’t it dilute the color quality?
As it turns out, adding Viognier can actually help the color. This is because most red wine has greater color intensity than it ought to given the concentration of color compounds found in the wine. We know now that colorless compounds called cofactors bind and stack in between colorful compounds called anthocyanins to increase the intensity of the color that meets your eye. And while white grapes are missing anthocyanins, they have plenty of cofactors in their skins which – one could argue – will enhance the color intensity. Pretty cool.
But of course they didn’t know this back when the practice of adding Viognier to Syrah
began. In fact I cannot find solid evidence of when the practice even started but suffice it to say it was prior to codification of the Rhone AOC standards in the first half of the 20th century. Thinking about it as a producer and trying to apply Ockham’s razor, the simplest answer may be that adding Viognier solved a logistical problem.
Every harvest logistical problems present themselves. Sometimes a vineyard may ripen differently than expected, yields are higher or lower, fermenters are full but you still have fruit to add, what is a winemaker to do? How you handle these logistics without compromising the quality of your philosophy is one of the great challenges in winemaking. I would wager that at some point either adding white grapes to reds was a common practice in the history of Rhone wine production and Viognier was thus discovered to improve wine enough to continue even as fashions changed. Or some winemaker had a little Viognier left over, didn’t know what to do with it except throw it in her Syrah fermentor where there was extra space and – bam! – the wine was terrifically different. Or maybe one year they had more Viognier and less Syrah, but earned a better price for their Syrah so they added a little Viognier to the Syrah to meet production demands and some 18th century critic gave them the 18th century equivalent of 100 points. How could they turn back now?
That would be all it would take to strike the curiosity of a winemaker to try it again with a more measured approach. My guess is we winemakers haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. We enjoy fermenting stuff, are fascinated by the transcendence of wine, and want to make a living from the land with a product that delivers much pleasure. So the winemaker adds a little Viognier, loves the result, and tries it again.
What they certainly would have discovered is that while Viognier brings the stereotypical “floral” notes to a Syrah, adds roundness to the mouthfeel, and doesn’t damage the color, it can also enhance the pepper and spice character of the Syrah. That is not something you hear as much, but if you ferment whole cluster (stems included) as we do, you would understand that Viognier stems are a near exact standard for cracked black pepper. We’ve run the tests (including a 40% viognier coferment) and have chewed on Viognier stems. Come by during harvest sometime and we’ll oblige your curiosity. In the meantime if you want a classic example of how Vigonier positively impacts Syrah, try our Kobler Vineyard Syrah 2009, with 10% Viognier it is a beauty inspired by those original crazy winemaking brethren of yesteryear.