The Beauty of Viognier

(Originally published April 2003)

There's no doubt that Hanes has rediscovered his bona fide love of white wine. While of late there's been more Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Grüner Veltliner sloshing down his gullet, with springtime beckoning it is time for Hanes to extol the virtues of another beautiful varietal. Yes, it can only be Viognier.

The story is that Viognier [vee-oh-NYAY] was brought to France by the Romans over 2,000 years ago. It eventually found its spiritual home in the Northern Rhône Valley appellation of Condrieu, where it is the sole grape varietal grown. While its quality thrived there, its popularity waned to the point where by 1965 only 20 acres of the grape were planted (the Condrieu appellation allows for almost 500 acres to be planted within its boundaries). Thankfully, a resurgence in the wine's quality, reputation and price have saved the grape from near extinction and by 2000 Condrieu had nearly 267 acres planted to Viognier.

In the Northern Rhône, Condrieu also thrives in the appellation Château Grillet. The messed up thing about this tiny appellation (covering only around 10 acres) is that it is one of two French appellations possessed by a single owner (a monopole, or monopoly). This owner's name? You guessed it! Château Grillet! Also in the Northern Rhône, Viognier is blended in small amounts (up to 20% allowed by law) into the Syrah wines of the appellation Côte-Rôtie, thus adding fragrance to the nose and mildly softening the overall wine.

In the Southern Rhône, Viognier is not a major grape. But it is used to make some varietal Côtes-du-Rhône blanc which can be very nice. Viognier has also found a home across the Languedoc and Roussillon regions. While on the whole less expensive than Viognier from the Rhône, quality can be hit or miss and it will probably take some experimentation to find a few consistent winners.

But just what is it that makes Viognier so desirable and worth the price of admission? It's yummy, dammit!

The first thing you'll notice about the wine is the pungent nose. With a quality Viognier, highly perfumed aromas should abound. The largest component of the bouquet should be the florality. Scents of violets, orange blossoms, honeysuckle and acacia can burst out of your glass. In a close second place you should find orange/tangerine citrus, stone and mixed tropical fruit. The degree of spiciness depends on the region where it's grown and many sundry winemaking decisions.

In the mouth it's usually more of the above. At times the floral touches can get overcome by the richness of the apricot, pear, peach, pineapple, mango or guava fruit. Depending on what kind and how much oak, if any, is used for aging, the wine can develop a creamy vanilla thing too. A touch of honey flavor is not unheard of, nor is a certain measure of hay or cut grass.

No matter the flavors, another attractive aspect of Viognier is the mouth feel. Depending on how the wine is vinified, it may run the gamut from light to full-bodied. But it mostly will have a rich, soft feel with a slightly waxy or oily texture. Viognier is naturally low in acidity, contributing to its round corners and supple viscosity. Because it naturally makes for a high alcohol wine (often around 14-15%), it can feel "hot" in the mouth, a sensation that may seem similar to a sharp acidic bite. But it's the booze content and not acidity that creates these burning sensations. Regardless, a fine Viognier should possess a dry finish with little residual sweetness.

Viognier's tendency towards richness has its pros and cons. One pro is its versatility -- beyond dry table wines, it can make for a pretty good dessert-quality wine, using its inherently concentrated flavors and feels to make a scrumptious after dinner nectar of the gods. Dessert-level Condrieu is a growing category and there are a few dessert-level Viogniers made by those intrepid Aussies as well.

One con is that the grape is prone to many problems in the vineyard. It is susceptible to rot and powdery mildew, meaning that many grape bunches can get easily ruined before harvesting. Viognier also produces low yields, meaning there probably wasn't too much to begin with, rot or no rot. And it needs a dry, cooler climate to grow in and to reach maximal ripeness (measuring sugar content, between 22 and 25 brix) for flavor intensity, a hard and sometimes contrary combination to manufacture. These factors unfortunately contribute to the overall high price and relatively extreme vintage variation of Viognier.

Given the oh-so-many wonders of Viognier, it is no surprise that many wine regions outside of France want to get in on the act. Here in the United States the grape is grown all across California as well as in Virginia, Washington, Oregon, New York and Texas among others. As noted, Australia has proven a hotbed for Viognier, both dry and dessert levels. Also elbowing in on the act are South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Italy and regions in Spain such as Jumilla. While during a lot of the 1980's and 1990's Viognier was considered to be "the next great thing" it hasn't really taken the world by storm as expected. But it remains a solid niche player and should see steady incremental growth for the foreseeable future.

As these new regions play around with the grape, both in terms of vineyard location and climate, experiments are also being done in blending Viognier with other grape varietals. The most popular blends so far seem to be with Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc, although other grapes are being tried too. These blends can freshen up the Viognier, using the acidity in the second grape to provide firmness. Or small amounts of Viognier can "prettify" another more stodgy or one-dimensional wine.

Most Viognier is not made to be aged. But the stuff can be so good who could keep their hands off it long enough anyway? So, if you're chowing down on some spicy Asian food, Mexican food, grilled fish, broiled chicken or fruits and cheeses for dessert, throw away the spit bucket and slurp you some Viognier. It's so classy, it could even make Hanes seem debonair!