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Viognier: California's Exotic, Rare White Wine
Wine merchants are increasingly tantalizing their customers with domestic wines sporting unfamiliar names. Not content with the "chocolate" and "vanilla" of wine production -- Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay -- as well as other classic varietals, such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, some wineries are turning to Old World varietals like Sangiovese and Nebbiolo from Italy and Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault from the Rhone Valley for red wines, and other Rhone varietals such as Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne for white wines.
If you haven't yet come across many wines with these names, it's due to the fact that production is still comparatively tiny. On the other hand, you may have been exposed to one or more of them without knowing it when enjoying a bottle labeled with a fanciful proprietary name, such as Bonny Doon's Clos de Gilroy (made from Grenache), Old Telegram (Mourvedre), Le Cigare Volant (Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah) and Le Sophiste (Rousanne and Marsanne), or Qupe's Bien Nacido Cuvee (half Chardonnay, half Viognier) or one of Jim Clendenen's "Il Podere dell'Olivos" line of wines, such as Arioso Bianco (one third each Pinot Bianco, Moscato di Canelli and Ribolla Gialla).
Of the white Rhone varietals, Viognier (pronounced "VEE-ohn-yay") is the most "widely" planted, with about 300 acres in California. While Viognier grows particularly well in warmer micro-climates, it can be found in all the wine-growing regions of California, from Mendocino County in the north to Temecula in the South Coast, including some very promising vineyards in the Sierra foothills. While only a small number of wineries dabbled in this most exotic of all white table wines in the early '90s, today Viognier is made by more than 20 wineries in California, plus a couple in Colorado and one in Virginia. Growers have also planted modest amounts of Viognier in thirteen other states, including Oregon, Arizona, New York, North Carolina and Texas, where commercial bottlings are contemplated in the near future.
Viognier's Aromas and Flavors
For those who haven't experienced Viognier, the first glass is quite a revelation. First and foremost there is the wine's heady perfume -- a melange consisting of all or some of the following: honeysuckle, citrus blossoms, oriental lychee nuts, very ripe white melon, freshly picked peaches and apricots, and ripe pears just after they've been peeled -- that immediately gets your attention. According to Craig Williams, winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Viognier contains floral compounds (called terpens) that are also found in Muscat and Riesling. So, think of the most wonderfully aromatic Muscat or Riesling you've ever encountered, then concentrate and double that perfume and you have Viognier.
Your nose tells you the wine will be sweet -- like a Muscat -- but your palate is surprised to encounter a dry nectar offering flavors that resemble a mixture of ripe pears, lemon-lime citrus, almonds, spice, peaches and apricots, sometimes with a honied nuance. Lush and viscous on the palate with more body than most Chardonnays, the wine's aftertaste is not at all cloying, but fresh and vibrant, impelling you to take another sip.
With all the exotic descriptions of Viognier's perfume and flavors, it's reasonable to ask whether the wine works well with food. It's just these extroverted elements that make Viognier an excellent complement to Mediterranean cuisine, particularly shellfish, seafood and poultry dishes.
For example, at a Square One luncheon a while back focusing on Mediterranean cuisine and Rhone-style wines, chef-owner Joyce Goldstein paired Viognier with "Caldo de perro," a Catalan soup with rockfish, monkfish, scallops, orange juice, onions, grilled bread and almond orange aioli. It was a scrumptious combination that needed only a bit more spicy hotness to make it perfect, as Goldstein herself remarked.
On a simpler scale, Viognier is a perfect match for crabcakes and spicy stir-fry.
Besides being exotic and delicious, Viognier is a wine that doesn't require much aging to develop complexity and full aromatics. Within two years from the vintage date, the wine is generally as good as it's going to get. This is great news for folks who want to take an excitingly different wine home from the store for consumption that night with dinner.
At this point in the development of New World Viognier winemaking, wineries are still trying to figure out the most appropriate method of production to obtain the best results. This was quite apparent in a recent Vintners Club blind tasting of 12 Viogniers from all over California, plus one from Virginia. The quality of the wines was comparatively uneven, with some efforts showing too much oak, while others exhibited grassy, vegetal aromas more commonly found in Sauvignon Blanc. The best wines were, however, on a par with Viogniers from France, where the wine is often labeled "Condrieu," the name of the tiny region where most of French Viognier grapes are grown.
The message from this tasting is that Viognier shouldn't be made like Chardonnay -- it can't survive barrel fermentation and aging in 100 percent new oak, but does need some older, neutral oak to bring out its perfume early and to round out the texture. Cool stainless steel fermentation works well, but tends to inhibit the aromas.
If there is a downside to California-grown Viognier, in addition to uneven quality, it is price. Eight of the 12 wines in the Vintners Club tasting were priced at more than $20, reflecting the tiny yield from Viognier vineyards in 1994 and 1995, as well as the inexorable law of supply and demand. There were, however, a couple of bargain-priced wines in the upper rankings, which demonstrate that good Viognier doesn't have to be outrageously expensive.
1995 Calera Viognier, Mount Harlan (San Benito County) ($30)
Quintessential Viognier, this wine would be right at home in the Rhone Valley of France. Wonderfully aromatic, complex nose of ripe peaches and apricots, set off with mild toast and roasted grain scents. Smooth and unctuous in the mouth, offering lots of ripe apricot-peach fruit and fine acidity. The good mouthfeel gets better sip after sip.
1995 Cline Cellars Viognier, Estate Vineyard, Contra Costa County ($18)
Distinctive, attractive aromas of quince, minerals, smoke, tropical fruit, ultra-ripe peaches, plus a fair amount of oak, which becomes nicely integrated over time. On the palate, the wine is pleasantly juicy and rich with good acidity, tasting of delicious apricot, peach and quince fruit; the flavors have excellent depth and concentration. Barrel fermentation and five months aging on the lees (sur lie) contributed a silky smooth mouthfeel and fine structure. Distinquishable from the Calera, but equally Rhone like. Excellent value.
1995 Alban Vineyards Viognier, Estate Vineyard, Edna Valley ($28)
Fresh, appealing scents of ripe apricots, white peaches, orange rind and lemon blossoms, which are replicated on the palate, accompanied by a slight note of honey and a hint of garden herbs. A delicious, moderately complex wine with good depth and concentration of flavors.
1995 R.H. Phillips Vineyard Viognier, EXP Estate, Dunnigan Hills ($12)
Blended with five percent Chardonnay, the nose of this wine offers fresh, fragrant aromas of ripe peaches, apricots, lemon zest, bananas and lemon blossoms. Round and fleshy on the palate in the manner of good Viognier, the wine's flavors focus on ripe, peachy fruit accented by tangerine notes. Nicely varietal and a very good value.
1994 Kendall-Jackson Viognier, Grand Reserve, California ($25)
Smoky scents define the nose, which also shows shy peach fruit, floral notes and a bit of honey. As the wine aired, the smokiness dissipated somewhat. Not particularly varietal, the flavors are more grassy than fruity; barely adequate acidity. K-J has done better with this varietal in the past.
1995 Horton Vineyards Viognier, Orange County, Virginia ($20)
Deep, slightly candied scents of peaches, honey, grapefruit and wildflowers, which start off subtly and get bigger over time. Balanced and moderately unctuous in the mouth, the wine offers tasty peach fruit framed by good acidity. A nice wine, but not as exciting as those that ranked higher.
1995 Signorello Vineyards Viognier, Napa Valley (Estate) ($30)
The darkest wine in the flight, the Signorello Viognier was unfiltered and underwent 100 percent malolactic fermentation, which resulted in a smooth, rich, silky mouthfeel. Quite fragrant, offering floral scents mingled with honey-tinged pears and lemon citrus. The deep, powerful flavors replicate the nose and would stand up nicely to rich, spicy cuisine.
1995 Callaway Vineyard Viognier, Temecula ($15)
The nose brought the wine down for many tasters, as it more resembles a very grassy Sauvignon Blanc than Viognier, with aroma elements of bacon rind, aggressive asparagus and pineapple. On the palate, the sweet, peach-like fruit seems one dimensional.
1995 Ojai Vineyard Viognier, Roll Ranch Vineyard (Ojai Valley), California ($20)
Intriguing nose of hazelnuts, roasted grain, honeysuckle, banana, peaches and a host of tropical fruits. The nicely concentrated flavors replicate the nose; adequate acidity and a hint of sweetness. Still quite young; needs more time to develop.
1994 Joseph Phelps Viognier, Vin du Mistral, Napa Valley ($27)
This producer's Viognier has done better in prior tastings. Some tasters noted an "off" character in the nose -- probably from a bad bottle; others found peach and honeysuckle scents. Flavors match the nose.
1995 Andrew Murray Viognier, Estate Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($25)
This brand new producer is devoted entirely to Rhone varietals, grown in the highest-elevation vineyard in Santa Barbara County. Still very young, this Viognier now displays muted scents of honeysuckle, orange peel and tropical fruit. On the palate, there is a creamy-vanilla note that leads to a pleasant viscosity and a slightly toasty, vanilla-tinged finish. Only 600 bottles of this unfined and unfiltered wine were produced.
The last-place wine came from a corked bottle, and was thus not representative of the true character of the wine. It would serve no purpose to identify the producer in this circumstance.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.