Oct 20, 2020
Saved from the brink of extinction just 50 years ago, Viognier
(pronounced vee-ohn-yay), is a white grape that's native to the
Northern Rhône in France – mainly the areas of Condrieu and Ampuis.
The grape produces effusive wines with a strong aromatic character
-- peaches, apricots, flowers, herbs, and ginger are common -- and
when made well it has a medium body with a touch of acidity and a
pleasant bitterness. This week we continue the grape mini-series
(maxi series now?) by exploring this comeback kid and the pleasure
it can bring when in the right hands.
Viognier's parentage is a bit ambiguous, but it is related to
Mondeuse Blanche, which makes it either a half sibling or
grandparent of Syrah (as MC Ice points out, we could definitely
make a word problem out of this – it’s a brain twister to think
about, but possible!). The grape is also tied to Freisa and may be
related to Nebbiolo, both which are native to the Piedmont region
of northwestern Italy.
Viognier was once grown pretty widely in the northern Rhône but
the combination of the phylloxera outbreak in the mid- and
late-19th century, followed by WWI, the Depression, and WWII drove
a lot of growers to cities and left vineyards abandoned. By 1965,
only about 30 acres (12 hectares) of Viognier vines remained in
France, and the variety was nearly extinct.
In the mid-1980s, interest started to grow both in France and
from winegrowers in Australia and California. Growing interest lead
to more plantings and today the grape is grown in Condrieu, Chateau
Grillet, and Côte Rôtie in the Northern Rhône, all over the
southern Rhône for blends, the Languedoc in southern France, as
well as in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, South
Africa, Israel, Japan, Switzerland, and Spain.
Climate and Vineyard
- Viognier needs a long, warm growing season to fully ripen, but
not so hot it develops excessive levels of sugar before its
aromatic notes can develop. Viognier must get ripe to allow flavor
to develop and that happens late, often after sugars develop.
- Viognier is a small thick-skinned berry with good resistance to
rot. It does well on acidic, granite soils. Older vines – more than
30 or 50 years old are best for the grape.
- There are at least two clones of Viognier. The older, original
one from Condrieu is highly aromatic and tight clustered. The other
is healthier, higher yielding and looks and tastes different
according to some. This clone, likely made at the University of
Montpellier, is widespread in Australia.
Winemaking begins in the vineyard – picking decision is
- Pick too early and the grape has no flavor, and makes a flat
wine. Pick too late the wine is flabby and oily. Must be ripe but
not overripe, with lower yields.
- Although it is likely best to make the wine in stainless or
neutral oak with perhaps some skin contact for a few hours before
fermenting, the barrel fermentations, malolactic fermentations, and
aging on lees can squash the unique flavor and scent of
Flavors and Styles
- Viognier is like peach, apricot, clementine, honeysuckle,
chamomile, jasmine, thyme, pine, spice, ginger, crème fraiche, and
honey with a full body and can be oily, or sometimes a bit bitter.
It is low in acidity. When aged in oak it tastes like vanilla bean
and with malolactic fermentation it is creamy and custard-like. It
is almost always high in alcohol, with 14.5% ABV being common. The
best Viognier from France often doesn’t age, and even loses aromas
after a few years in the bottle. Some of the styles from Australia
and the US, which have been aged in oak, last a few more years.
- The grape is often bottled as a single variety but can be
blended with Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc.
- We didn’t mention this in the show, but the wine can be off-dry
or even late harvest and sweet. Condrieu and Château-Grillet
produce sweet wines in warmer years.
Northern Rhône: Viognier is grown as single
variety in Rhône appellations Condrieu and Château Grillet on right
(west) bank of Rhône River. In Côte Rôtie, winemakers can include
up to 20% of Viognier though most growers add no more than 5%.
- Includes seven communes along 14 miles, and makes wines that
are usually dry, delicious young, and very aromatic wit structure.
The area includes steep hillside vineyards, that face
south-southeast to maximize morning sun, not hot evening sun. The
soils are granite with a deep sandy topsoil called arzelle. This
soil makes the best wine. Yields must be low, and picking must be
after the grape has full aromatics.
- Top producers: Guigal, Rostaing, Delas, Pierre Gaillard,
Vernay, Francois Villard
- This appellation is owned by one producer, it is a monopole. It
is just 7.6 acres/3.08 ha on granite soil with mica – making the
wines higher in acid. Vines are 80+ years old and although the area
seems ideal, there have been problems with wine quality. Recently
the owner of Château Latour of Bordeaux acquired the monopole;
there’s hope for restoration of its former glory.
- We did a whole podcast on this area, but north of Condrieu is
Côte Rôtie, a Syrah appellation
that can include up to 20% Viognier in the wine (in reality it’s
more like 5%). Viognier helps darken the color of the Syrah in
co-pigmentation but it takes up valuable real estate so it’s not
used as much as it could be.
Other French areas: The southern Rhône, where it is blended, the
Languedoc and Ardeche, where it makes serviceable Vins de Pays
varietal or blended wines.
Other Europe: Switzerland, Austria, Italy
- Yalumba was the pioneer producer in South Australia’s Eden
Valley in 1979. The Virgilius is their top wine (aged in oak).
- McLaren Vale, Barossa, Adelaide Hills, Heathcote, Geelong,
Central Victoria, and more grow the grape, which is a challenge to
growers because it stays flavorless for much of the growing season
and then transforms into something delicious – patience is a
- One of the best uses for Viognier in Australia is its blends
- Clonakilla (Canberra), Yering Station (Yarra), Torbreck
- Viognier came in 1980s to California when John Alban (Alban
Vineyards in Edna Valley), Josh Jensen of Calera (Central Coast),
and Joseph Phelps (Napa), brought it into the United States in
small quantities. The plantings and interest grew as a group of
producers dedicated to growing Rhône varieties, called the Rhône
Rangers, grew in numbers and popularity. Today California has more
than 3,000 acres of Viognier.
- Yields are high compared to France, the wines can often be
overblown if grown in too-hot weather but the greatest examples are
full-bodied and rich.
- Top Producers: Tablas Creek, Crux, Qupé, Alban, Calera,
- Viognier is a signature grape of Virginia because the thick
skins of the grape work well in the humidity and the diurnals of
the mountains mean Viognier can ripen but maintain acidity over a
long growing season. The typical VA Viognier has great fruit,
slight bitterness, medium body and good acidity.
- Top producers: Barboursville, King Family, Horton
- Other US: Oregon, Washington (we mention ABEJA), Texas
- Around the World: New Zealand, South Africa, South America
(Argentina has a lot, Chile some – all young plantings)
Food: The wine is great with dishes that have
rosemary, thyme, saffron, and creamy sauces.
Expect to spend more than $50 a bottle for good Viognier (we had
the 2017 version of the Guigal below. It was US$50).
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