| February 28, 2012
While Chardonnay grew in immense popularity from the late 1980′s and through the 1990′s, some consumers are seeking alternatives, or just something to change up the pace. Viognier (pronounced VEE-ohn-yay) may just be just the answer for some wine consumers. The history of Viognier is believed to date back to the Roman empire. One story is Emperor Probus imported the grape into Condrieu (Rhone Valley France) from Croatia in 281 A.D. to replace the destroyed vineyards by Emperor Vespasian. As legend has it, he tore up the Condrieu vineyards after a revolt. Emperor Vespasian believed the revolt was due to over consumption in wine.
However the grape may have landed in Condrieu, their are historical records confirming Viogniers’ growth in the region during the Roman Empire. After the Romans left in the 5th century, the vineyards were essentially abandoned and not farmed again until the 9th century. By the 1960′s Viogniers’ existence dropped significantly down to only 15 acres in Condrieu, with small quantities also found in Chateau Grillet. Viognier interest arose and began to come out of the west bank of the Rhone Valley of France to Australia in the 1970′s. The vast majority of Viognier in Australia is produced in the surrounding Melbourne area and more specifically in Bendigo and the Mornington Peninsula.
An interest was then sparked in the US, and after eight years of the bud stock being held at UC Davis, it was released and in 1985 Joseph Phelps planted 11 acres. Today, Viognier is the most planted white Rhone varietal in the United States and the fourth largest expanding white grape in California. It can also be found in Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri, Arizona, British Columbia, Niagara/Lake Erie regions of Ontario, and is known as being the most well know grape of Virginia.
In the vineyard Viognier thrives in soil types that retain heat such as granite. The vines grow with medium size leaves and small clusters of small deep yellow fruit that often show in a straw gold color. It is fairly difficult to grow as it is susceptible to disease like powdery mildew and yields are unpredictable. Viognier naturally ripens with high sugars and low acid. However, when grown at lower yield’s, and picked physiologically ripe, with proper fruit structure can offer a nice grip and length. The wines that are produced typically express very strong aromatics of peaches, apricots, and violets. The flavor components on the palette are often of stone fruit, honey, and great richness frequently with a nice long finish. These wines are produced to drink young and do not age particular well.
As a result of the lower acids found in the grape, it is commonly blended with other Rhone whites such as Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and occasionally the Burgundian Chardonnay. In some cases winemakers elect ML (malolatic fermentation) to add weight while others may opt for batonnage; a process where the lees are stirred to increase acid levels. Cool stainless steel often works well for fermentation however can inhibit aromas. In Australia, Viognier is often blended in small amounts (typically under 8%) with Shiraz to enhance the floral components on the nose, soften the wine, and co-pigmentation which stabilizes red wines coloring. In France, Cote-Rote AOC permits in red blends up to 20% of Viognier, while the norm is far below that figure. Although this same technic is often used in the US, there are distinctions in labeling from Australia that requires Viognier on the Aussie label due to specific labeling laws.
Viognier is fantastic to drink on a hot summer day on its own, or have on a picnic. The wine pairs especially well with shellfish, seafood, poultry, Mediterranean, Thai, and spicy dishes.
I've worked coffee shop to ultra fine dining in the restaurant business starting when I was 19 years old. Along the way I served many of the finest beverages in the world, while growing a Champagne taste on a beer budget. A born Wolverine, raised/living in Southern California, and educated in Texas. Now, I conduct winery reviews, mixed with photography to help wine travelers plan their trips. I continually wine educate myself through reading, winemaker video interviews, getting in the vineyard, and never stopping to ask questions of others. I hope to learn something from you, and maybe I can share something with you.