Viognier could have been a star. This is the varietal wine style that many years ago, particularly in the 1990s, had an inkling of a possibility of unseating chardonnay as America’s sweetheart, go-to white wine.
Realistically, though, viognier never really had a shot of knocking off our country’s most recognizable and prevalent white wine grape. Viognier is different from chardonnay — markedly different — and did not have the stuff required for widespread appeal. Viognier was maybe a little too Winona Ryder and not enough Julia Roberts — a bit too heady and quirky for mass consumption.
But viognier is a viable choice for people who love white wine that is dry but also feels soft and round, with medium to full body, plus qualities transcending chardonnay’s more expected flavors. Besides viognier’s weighty, textural sensations, it can offer intoxicating floral and succulent fruit aromas — notes of spring flowers plus peaches and apricots, and even the lush fruits of the tropics. Mangoes, for example. You can smell it now, can’t you? In the best examples, streaks of minerality can accompany these dramatic, sensual notes. Expect to also encounter some flavor combinations of peach, apricot, pear, melon or pineapple, often delivered with a soothing creaminess.
Viognier, though more available and visible these days, is still growing relatively slowly around the world.
Despite viognier’s relative sparseness, it is safe to say that it is the most popular white Rhone variety in the United States. But if you consider that the most popular red Rhone variety in the United States is syrah, a grape that just about any wine drinker would recognize at least by name, it might make you wonder why viognier is not more popular. One possible reason is that it is difficult to grow, requiring a long growing season to reach optimal ripeness. It is also especially prone to mildew, due to its thin skin, and produces low yields.
In the northern Rhone Valley’s Cote-Rotie appellation, viognier grows alongside syrah, and the two varieties can be co-fermented to create the famed region’s wine. Up to 20 percent of viognier is allowed to give a boost in the aromatics department, though Cote-Rotie bottlings often contain much less viognier than that. (The same idea, partnering these two grape varieties, is put into practice in Australia, where they refer to syrah as “shiraz.”) Viognier is also blended with other white grape varieties in the Rhone Valley and around the world.
The epitome of 100 percent viognier varietal wine, however, comes from the small northern Rhone Valley appellation of Condrieu, and the even smaller appellation of Chateau-Grillet within Condrieu. Wines from these two “appellation d’origine controlee” (AOC) locations can edge up the price scale. You can expect the lower end of Condrieu offerings to hover around $50 a bottle, but viognier from other parts of the world — including elsewhere in France — is available at more reasonable prices.
The various expressions can be as different as the prices themselves. But whether you are hovering over an Old World Condrieu or a New World version, viognier emits some very expressive aromas.
Viognier is meant to be drunk young and is generally not known for its aging capacity. It often has a soft and round mouthfeel, with relatively low acidity, and an alcohol content that can creep up to 13 percent or often more, especially when grown and vinified in a warmer climate. These grapes love a warm climate, but not too warm — yet another consideration for this difficult-to-grow variety.
Viognier can be a great match for spicy Asian foods and for seafood on the sweeter, richer side, such as crab, lobster and scallops. It even does well with heartier fare, like a pork dish incorporating fruit in the preparation, or a glazed ham. For a viognier-friendly side dish, try sweet potatoes. Serve your viognier with a little chill on it, as you would chardonnay.
Try a few from the Central Coast of California, where Rhone varieties thrive, and then check out versions from Washington, Oregon, Texas or Virginia. For Old World styles, start with the Languedoc-Roussillion region of southern France. Eventually, work your way up to the northern Rhone appellations of Chateau-Grillet and Condrieu, viognier’s pinnacle. Somewhere along the way, you will find the viognier style that you want to return to, even if it doesn’t completely replace chardonnay in your glass.
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