Winemaker Derek Rohlffs checking in to share some funky facts about one of the under-appreciated grape varieties in my Funky Town White Blend [thanks to Professional Friends of Wine].
Viognier seemed literally an endangered variety only a few years ago, but seems to be recovering worldwide in both popularity and acreage. Less than 35 acres remained planted in all of France, its homeland, in the late 1960s.
The viognier vine is one of the few white grape varieties that seems to prefer warmer weather, within a relatively narrow range of sesonal average temperatures of between 62° and 66° F. Its newest realm, California, has 2,001 acres as of 2002 (although a considerable portion is not yet mature enough to bear a commercial crop) and there are also relatively new plantings in Australia and Brazil, as well as other U.S. plantings in Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.
The major drawback of the viognier grape is that it is a very shy producer; among white varieties in France, it likely has the stingiest yields of any. Viognier is also somewhat difficult to grow. Although drought tolerant, it sometimes seems almost eager to become infected with powdery mildew, especially under damp conditions or in humid climates and rots easily, but resists Botrytis somewhat.
Like many other varietals, viognier must be harvested at its peak of maturity in order to display its unique aroma and flavor character. The grape’s tendency to develop high sugar but low acid can result in wines with neutral, merely vinous flavors and high alcohol.
These cultivation difficulties combined with producer desires to capitalize on the grape’s somewhat rarity can make many Viognier wines relatively expensive.
Viognier is the only grape used for the Northern Rhône appellations Condrieu and Château-Grillet (one of France’s smallest appellation contrôlée, with less than ten acres and only one owner). Viognier is also sometimes used to add fragrance and to soften and lighten the syrah in Côte Rotie, where regulations allow up to 15% white grapes with the stipulation they are co-fermented with the reds.1 Plantings of viognier in France have expanded in recent years from the Rhône (1830 acres), to the Languedoc (3440 ac.) to smaller plantings in Roussillon (212 ac.) and Provence (272 ac.).
Probably the main attraction of Viognier is its potentially powerful, rich, and complex aroma that often seems like overripe apricots mixed with orange blossoms or acacia. With as distinctive and sweet an aroma-flavor profile as Gewürztraminer, Viognier is nevertheless usually made in a dry style and seems to appeal more to the typical Chardonnay drinker. The distinctive Viognier perfume holds up even when blended with a large portion of other grapes. The fruit usually has very deep color, but is somewhat low in acidity. As California wineries experiment with Viognier-Chardonnays, Viognier-Chenin Blancs, and Viognier-Colombards, this may be the grape’s ultimate destiny, as a blender.
Both Chardonnay and Viognier share tropical fruit flavors and a creamy mouthfeel. Even with little or no wood aging, Viognier can be as full-bodied as an oaky Chardonnay, but has much more distinctive fruit character. It also has a typically deep golden color, as well as rich and intense flavor.
*Typical Viognier Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.
Floral: orange blossom, acacia, violet, honey
Malolactic: butter, cream
Fruit: apricot, mango, pineapple, guava, kiwi, tangerine
Oak (light): vanilla, sweet wood
Spice: anise, mint
Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast
Herbal: mown hay, tobacco
Mouthfeel: creamy, rich, full, viscous
Alcohol: heat, burning
Viognier alcohol easily gets out-of-hand, so some vintners leave a touch of residual sugar to mask the heat. The combination of heady aromas and sweet-hot flavors may be overbearing to some palates. Even for those who favor Viognier’s brash personality, a little can go a long way and a single glass may satiate one’s wine thirst. There are also occasional late-harvest and dessert versions made that can be as headily-intriguing as the finest Sauternes.
Because the prime appeal of Viognier is its fresh and striking aroma, it is a wine that should be consumed young in most instances. The exception is Château Grillet, where the grapes are harvested early and the wine kept in oak for several months prior to bottling; this wine has a reputation for aging up to two decades.
As to food matches, Viognier works well with dishes that might normally call for Gewürztraminer. Spicy dishes, such as spicy oriental stir-frys and even curry, especially Thai-style which is made with coconut milk, may be accompanied and complemented by Viognier. Also fruit salsas, atop grilled fish or chicken, can be miraculously tasty with Viognier.
If you made it this far, I hope you learned a thing or two about Viognier!
Cheers and thanks for your interest in my Funky Town White Blend!