Tuesday, February 4, 2020

V is for Viognier

American wine drinkers are fickle. That much we know. Why is another question. In some circles, "natural wine," whatever that means, is the latest shiny wine object. Before natural wine, imbibers were enraptured (and maybe still are) with Prosecco and before that, rose wines.

Prosecco and rose haven't gone away. Sales just started to drop and the luster began to dull, as wine consumers waited impatiently for the next hot wine trend. 

A trend that comes to mind is "V is for Viognier."  In the late 1980s and in to the early 1990s, the fruity white wine was all the buzz in California. Many wineries in California and elsewhere were looking for an alternative to Chardonnay, a search that has never really been successful, although Sauvignon Blanc has shown a lot of promise.

While the exact origin of Viognier (Vee-own-yay) is unknown, it is believed that the grape has been in France for millennia. Viognier's place in the world vineyard is much more recent. Since the 1990s, interest in Viognier, produced in a handful of U.S. states, has picked up and the wine has gained popularity in places like South Africa and Australia.   

If you had to guess what other grape is Viognier related to, would it be Nebbiolo? The results of DNA profiling claim that Viognier and Nebbiolo are distant cousins. Nebbiolo, of course, is one of Italy's noble red grapes, responsible for the Piedmontese wines Barolo and Barbaresco. 

 Vernay Condrieu Vineyards

Viognier in the Rhone  
Viognier is at home in the northern Rhone Valley of France in the small zone of Condrieu. True to French wine fashion the name Condrieu implies both information and confusion: Condrieu is both an appellation and a wine. The appellation lies just south of the red wine Cote Rotie, with a total of less than 500 acres, spread over seven communes. Today, the planted acreage is about half that. The wine is made only from Viognier. 

The steep terraced vineyards, rooted in granite soils, spread along a bend in the Rhone River, are south-facing slopes rising up in stair-step terraces, a practice that maximizes growing conditions, but making vineyard work hard and sometimes dangerous. Viognier  vines are shy bearing and prone to disease, and that translates to high prices for Condrieu: The average is $50, although a few sell for $200.00 a bottle.

Vineyard orientation and granite soils are key to the success of the Viognier grape in the northern Rhone. (Which reminds me of an odd feature (among others) of the French appellation system, the granting of AOC status to a climat, or estate such as Chateau-Grillet. The single estate is a tiny enclave inside the Condrieu appellation. Chateau-Grillet (AOC 1936) is made solely from Viognier, grown in a bowl-shaped vineyard totaling about 10 acres. Chateau-Grillet is one of the smallest appellations in the French AOC system. Another distinction is Grillet's unusual 750 ml brown bottle, which until recently was still 700 ml. The current vintage for Chateau-Grillet is 2015, selling on Wine Searcher for $300.00.

Chateau Grillet Chateau Grillet Rhone Valley Wine
Chateau-Grillet is what the French call a monopole, or a vineyard owned by one company or family. From the late 18th century to 2011, Chateau-Grillet was owned by the Neyret-Gachet family and is now the property of the owner of Ch. Latour. Other tiny monopoles are Romanee Conti and La Tache, part of the Burgundian estate Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.)

If you've read this far you are probably wondering why when Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet are expensive and in short supply, you should care. Read on.

American Viognier 
Viognier has had a spotty history in the United States, although there has been a mini-resurgence in recent years. California claims the most planted acreage in the country (about 2,600 acres in 2018), with Washington and Oregon showing increased interest, followed by small plantings in Virginia and Colorado.

Viognier is finicky in the vineyard and under the best conditions, not a big producer. So, you have to love Viognier, or believe that Viognier will persuade Chardonnay drinkers to switch sides. Still the number of wineries with an interest in Viognier is going up, albeit slowly. And today, U.S. Viognier sells for about half the price of Condrieu.

Viognier in Australia
Getting Viognier flavor-ripe is a problem in Australia, as it is everywhere. Sugars may be high, but physiological ripeness is lacking. Yet, that hasn't stopped one winery from specializing in Viognier. Yalumba, in the Barossa Valley of South Australia, has no fewer than eight different bottlings of Viognier, with Virgilius the best and most expensive. Yalumba's entry-level Viognier is $20 with Virgilius priced at $50, when you can find it. Winemaker Louisa Rose and her team get all of Viognier's peachy-apricot goodness from the grape into every bottle of Yalumba Viognier.

Tasting Viognier
Viognier, especially as it is expressed in Condrieu, is a perfumed blend of peach, tangerine and honey; not sweet, just very fruity. Chateau-Grillet is less heady, longer aged, but more expensive, than Condrieu. 

Image result for free Viognier grape photos
Ripe Viognier
"Sweet" is not a descriptor that is usually associated with smell, but we have come to make that association by smelling such common products as white sugar and honey.  For the uninitiated, the first smell of Viognier means "sweet." Although Viognier is made in a sweet style, such as Yalumba's FSW8B Botrytis Viognier, the best Condrieu and varietal Viogniers are dry.

What strikes me about Viognier is how similar it is to other aromatic whites with similar characteristics, like Spain's Albarino, California Chenin Blanc and a UC-Davis crossing called Symphony: a coupling of Grenache Gris and the aromatic, almost in-your-face, Muscat of Alexandria. Except for Albarino, which is lighter in weight and more delicately flavored than Viognier, the others in this fruity group never achieved success.

Viognier and Food
Young Viognier has an affinity for aromatic herbs like those that coat a disc of fresh goat cheese. Viognier's peachy flavors and lush texture make it a good choice with dishes in a fruit-based sauce, such as Chicken ala Orange, Turkey in a mango sauce, pork with apricots and shrimp. Viognier is also good with Indian dishes, creamy sauces and shellfish, especially lobster.

Buying Viognier 
Viognier is not seen in local wine shops as commonly as say, Sauvignon Blanc. But here are a few Viogniers the adventurous wine shopper should look for.
France: Guigal, Delas Freres, Rostaing, Chapoutier, Jaboulet. And if your budget allows and you can find them, try Georges Vernay and Chateau-Grillet.
California: Kunde, Calera, Alban, Jade Mountain, Arrowood
Washington: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Cayuse, McCrea Cellars, Maryhill
Oregon: Christom, Penner-Ash
Australia: Yalumba, d'Arenberg, Tahbilk, Penfolds, Yeringberg
Virginia: If you happen to be in Virginia or Washington D.C., look for Horton Vineyards Viognier. I haven't tasted it, but the wine gets good reviews.  


Next Blog: Wines of Southern France 

Comments?  Suggestions?  Email me at boydvino707@gmail.com

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