Viognier. It’s hard to pronounce and tough to figure out. Right? Well, no, it’s easy to pronounce [vee-yo-nyay] and fairly easy to figure out versions coming from the New World. Much of the confusion stems from our reluctance to learn about things we can’t pronounce. But seriously, one of the hurdles to understanding Viognier has been the fact that there are few Old Word examples to learn from.
Condrieu is an appellation in the northern Rhone famous for it’s Viognier, as is Chateau-Grillet, France’s smallest appellation and the only one dedicated to a single chateau. While each of these regions has a long history, the wines have always been rare and not inexpensive; and thus, few people have much experience with dry Viognier and in turn, there had been little interest in exploring the potential of the variety.
All that changed when Viognier hit the U.S. market. Not only did the peachy palate profile appeal to consumers, so did the price when the wines were produced in more forgiving regions.
Viognier is a relatively recent arrival to the U.S. with vineyard plantings popping up in the late 1980s. Interestingly, Roussanne was being planted in many of the same regions at the same time. As it turns out, much of what was planted as Roussanne was in fact an alternate clone of Viognier.
Viognier has found some success throughout the west coast, though in California both the Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles regions have shown the most promise. In these hot dry areas, disease issues (to which Viognier is quite susceptible) are kept to a minimum, while Viognier’s drought resistance is taken full advantage of.
The resultant grapes tend to be very ripe, packed with peach and honeysuckle aromas, but at the same time packing quite an alcoholic punch. Producers in Oregon have been hot on the heels of California’s, betting that their cooler climate can allow for perfumed wines with less alcohol and perhaps some more natural acidity than many of the examples coming from these warmer climates.
If there is one aspect of Viognier grapes that has caused angst amongst producers, it’s getting the polyphenol levels right in the wine. The skins of Viognier tend to be high in these phenols, which can add to the appealing oily texture of these wines when the skins are allowed to macerate in the juice. The downside happens to be some bitterness that can be produced from excessive phenol concentrations in wines.
What is the best level is a question that each winemaker and consumer needs to answer for him or herself. Thresholds for sensing bitterness and palate preferences being what they are, this is a question best left unanswered – though worth pointing out since many Viognier reviews make mention of this fact in one way or another.
While Viognier is known for its peach and floral aromas, these tend to be rather fleeting. The aromatic compounds behind these aromas and in particular the terpenes that lend Viognier (along with Riesling and Muscat grapes) its floral tones tend to be short-lived, making the vast majority of Viognier designed for immediate consumption.
Consumers should be aware of this. Viogniers are virtually all crafted with early consumption in mind, so go out and grab yourself one. These are fascinating wines, aromatic and rich; but admittedly they are not for everyone. Are they for you? Only one way to find out!