The Best Viognier Wine: Worth the Uncertainty?
Viognier wine is characterized by its strong aromatics. It is a white wine with intense floral notes. It’s a lot like Chardonnay, with lush taste and full body, but the natural aromatics are much more powerful in a Viognier.
Because these aromatics are easily destroyed, it takes a very skilled win maker to master the technique of making a Viogner. Too much exposure to oxygen can damage the wine, so barrel fermentation is a delicate process with this particular variety.
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As you can probably guess by now, the quality of a Viognier wine is highly dependent on climate, viticultural practices, and the winemaking process. This grape requires a long growing season in a warm climate to fully ripen, but it can’t be too hot or the grape will develop a high level of sugar before the aromatics can develop.
It’s a naturally low-yielding variety, which means it’s not as economically viable as other varieties. Combined with its delicate nature and a difficult winemaking process, this particular wine is not as common or affordable as many others.
History of Viognier
Viognier comes from the Northern Rhone valley. It grows well in the Condrieu and Chateau Grillet appellations. Historians don’t yet know exactly where it came from, but they do believe it dates as far back as the Roman Empire.
One story says that Emperor Probus brought Viognier to Condrieu from what is present-day Croatia in 281 AD to replace the vineyards that Emperor Vespasian destroyed. In the legend, Vespasian destroyed the vineyards because he thought the locals were revolting as a result of drinking too much wine.
When the Romans were forced to leave Gaul in the fifth century, the vines were left uncultivated for hundreds of years. Finally revived in the ninth century by remaining locals, it spread to the closest neighbouring appellation, Chateau Grillet.
By the fourteenth century, Viognier was popular in the papal palace at Avignon, where the popularity remained high, at least in Europe, for a few centuries.
By 1970, there were only 15 acres of Viognier vineyards in Condrieu and very little anywhere else in the Rhone Valley. Poor Viognier was nearing extinction after the Phylloxera epidemic destroyed plantings of many grape varieties worldwide.
Not to mention, there weren’t many regions throughout the world that showed any interest in growing the grapes, perhaps due to how difficult it is to cultivate. There were few countries outside of France that had any plantings of Viognier at all.
Luckily, in the 1980s, Viognier experienced a resurgence, and today there are more than 3000 acres of Viognier plantings worldwide. Thanks to wine pioneers Josh Jensen, Joseph Phelps, and Josh Alban, Viognier appeared in the United States in the late 1980s.
How to Make Viognier
Viognier is well known for its powerful aroma, but how does that get imparted? It comes from the region where the grapes were grown, the weather, and the age. Most Viognier wines have a more powerful aroma at a young age, but a few from old vines or a late harvest are suited for ageing.
After three years, a Viognier wine will lose its floral aromas and be a crisp wine that’s flat in the nose. While the aroma and the colour would suggest that Viognier is a sweet wine, they are usually dry. Again, late harvests can sometimes produce a sweet dessert wine.
The grape has low acidity and is sometimes used in blends to soften the characteristics of other grapes, particularly Syrah. It also has a colour-stabilising quality that makes red wines more vibrant in colour, Viognier is always willing to lend its perfumes to other wines.
Grapes should be harvested early in the morning for the clearest juice. While some winemakers allow prolonged contact with the skin, the Viognier skin has a high amount of phenol compounds that make the wine very astringent.
Other winemakers will put the Viognier through a malolactic fermentation process to give it more weight and less acidity. New World Viognier producers stir in lees to increase the smoothness of the wine. Wine left on the lees until bottling, the Viognier undergoes a process similar to that of sparkling wine.
For dessert-style wines, Viognier is picked late in the season, around late October or early November. A common technique for harvesting these grapes is to shake the vine so the overripe grapes drop.
The winemaker will stop fermentation early so that the wine retains its high sugar levels, then chill the wine to ensure that fermentation has stopped and the wine is stable enough to bottle.
The winemaking style largely determines its ability to age. While most Viognier wines hit their peak between one and two years, some may last as long as ten. Condrieu wines are often meant to be enjoyed young while Australian and Californian Viognier can age better.
The Viognier Grape
While Viognier is a difficult grape to grow, can be prone to disease, and has an unpredictable yield, it is also very drought resistant and thrives well in a dry, summer climate. Because it flowers and ripens early, a long, warm (but not hot) growing season is best.
However, once it ripens, acidity falls rapidly, which is why it’s important to harvest Viognier at peak ripeness in early September. It is finicky and susceptible to spring frosts because it flowers so early.
It ripens naturally with high sugar and low acidity, so should be fermented for freshness rather than richness. Richness is a natural byproduct of the correct fermentation process. The vines have medium leaves and clusters of small yellow berries. This results in a beautiful straw coloured wine, much like Chardonnay.
Viognier is known for its aromas more so than its taste, but if you enjoy the creamy rich taste, oak ageing, and hints of vanilla, you’ll love Viognier. If you love Chardonnay, you’ll also love Viognier, but they have some subtle differences.
Viognier is high in stone fruit flavours with intense tropical fruit and floral flavours. You’ll also notice a hint of honey and vanilla, with a lot of creamy texture. Chardonnay, on the other hand, has less floral aromas and more citrus.
Viognier can also be slightly bitter with less minerality. The tangerine fruit you do taste will present itself more like a tangerine creamsicle than an overpowering citrus acidity.
Viognier plantings spread throughout the world in the 1990s, but it wasn’t always that way. It began, and almost died, in France, but now we get to enjoy different varieties from many different regions to the benefit of wine lovers everywhere.
Viognier is the only grape variety permitted in the Rhone appellations of Chateau Grillet and Condrieu. Located on the west bank of the Rhone River, these grapes are carefully grown to produce Viognier wine, unabashed by other varieties.
Everywhere else in France, the Viognier grape is blended with Marsanne, Rolle, Grenache Blanc, and Roussane. It’s sometimes even blended with Chardonnay. Viognier is used at a rate of no more than 5% in these varieties, but some red wine blends in the Cote-Rotie AOC may use up to 20%.
Viognier is planted in areas with soil that is rich in granite because the soil retains heat that helps the grapes thrive.
Since Viognier came to the United States in the 1980s, the plantings have increased significantly in both the United States and Canada. There are more than 2000 acres of Viognier in California alone.
Viognier from California has a higher alcohol content than in other regions, but these Viognier wines have received a lot of attention. Surprisingly, Virginian Viognier has gotten a lot of international attention and Viognier is now Virginia’s signature grape.
It can be found in North Carolina, Georgia, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Michigan, Colorado, Idaho, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Missouri, British Columbia, Ontario, Baja California, and Valle de Guadalupe.
Yalumba is the largest producer of Viognier in Australia. They make a white wine varietal and use it in their Shiraz blends. In Australia, Viognier grows in clay soil and other planting areas include Clare Valley, Nangkita, Murray River, Rutherglen, McLaren Vale, Nagambie Lakes, Geelong, Canberra, Barossa Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide HIlls, South Burnett, Geographe, Tenterfield, Pyrenees, and Yarra Valley.
New Zealand has a small amount of Viognier in Wairarapa and Waiheke Island. It is used as a single varietal in Hawke’s Bay Region and blended with Syrah.
Viognier Food Pairings
Pairing foods with Viognier means being aware of and respecting the very delicate, but powerful, floral notes. Focus on complementing the core flavours of the wine and make sure your foods aren’t too bold or too acidic.
You can pair a fuller-bodied Viognier with chicken, apricots, and almonds over a bed of saffron rice. The aromas in the food will enhance the aromas in the wine and bring forth the creamy rich texture.
Here are some examples of what would go great with a Viognier wine:
- Meats like roasted chicken, pork chops, quail, roast turkey, Teriyaki tofu, tilapia, sesame tempeh, sea bass, halibut, crab, lobster, shrimp, and salmon
- Cheeses like brie, fondue, and gruyere
- Herbs and spices like lemon zest, orange zest, tarragon, marjoram, dill, sage, coriander, ginger, lemongrass, shallot, galangal, garlic, onion, chives, allspice, nutmeg, mace, pink peppercorn, saffron, turmeric, and fennel seeds
- Fruits and vegetables like fennel, leeks, green olives, cauliflower, capers, squash, pumpkin, currants, polenta, cranberries, onions, sesame seeds, bell peppers, passion fruit, orange, apricot, and mango
The best Viognier wines will have a full, heavy mouthfeel with a creamy texture and very aromatic florals. You’ll recognize it different from Chardonnay based on the way it smells like perfume.
Great Viognier wines are also low in acid and citrus flavours but high in stone fruit, tropical fruit, and floral flavours. You may also notice hints of honey, vanilla, and mint.
Jean-Luc Colombo 2017 Amour de Dieu
This Viognier from Condrieu has an aroma of peach, caramel, toast, and vanilla with honey and orange cream flavours on the palate. It’s silky and rich with pleasing bitters. The beautiful golden colour is a trademark of good Viognier, and this one will age nicely for up to ten years.
E. Guigal 2017 La Doriane
Another classic out of Condrieu is this Voignier perfumed with peach, honey, and orange blossom. It has a bold weight with a hint of tangerine. The taste of vanilla lingers in the finish and this is another bottle that will age well for up to ten years.
Anaba 2018 Landa Vineyard Late Harvest Viognier
This Viognier wine from the Sonoma Valley is a thick, rich dessert wine, well balanced and with a golden honey colour. These grapes were kept on the vine for a long season. It tastes of brioche and apricot with intriguing texture and a complex structure.
Boekenoogen 2017 Bell Ranch Vineyard Viognier
The minerality starts in the nose here and is compellingly stony. It’s from the Carmel Valley and features aromas of the crisp honeydew rind. It tastes of chiselled stone, white melon, and key lime.
On average, Viognier wines are slightly more expensive per bottle than something that is produced in more volume. You’ll pay about $5 or $10 more per bottle of Viognier than you will a Riesling or Chardonnay.
Don’t let that deter you. You can still find affordable bottles of Viognier in most places. Some Viognier wines cost as little as $10 a bottle while excellent quality vintages will cost up to $100.
Just like any other wine, don’t judge a wine by its price. Great Viognier can be found anywhere, and you’ll likely pay less than $20 or $30 for it. Read the label for flavours you enjoy in a wine and keep trying bottles until you find one you like.
Viognier is often complicated and misunderstood. Not many people know much about it, and even those who do don’t always have the skill required to make it well. Here are some frequently asked questions for you to learn more.
It is pronounced vee-awn-YAY. While the origin of the word isn’t exactly known, it comes from France and Croatia. It could be a bastardization of the most common namesake, Vienne, which is a city in France and used to be a major Roman outpost.
It could also draw its name from the way the Romans pronounce via Gehennae, which means the “Road of the Valley of Hell.” Either of these theories could make sense because of the belief that Viognier dates back to the days of the Roman Empire.
Viognier and Chardonnay are very similar. They are weighted similarly, have similar flavours, and both originated in France. Both are equally stony with a creamy rich texture and full body. They also both have roughly equal amounts of alcohol.
However, Viognier features more tropical fruit, slightly more bitterness, and less acidity. It contains much more honey flavour, as well. In fact, despite the fact that Viognier has only slightly less citrus fruit flavours, you’ll notice that these citrus flavours are much smoother and less tart.
Viognier is primarily dry but can be sweet if harvested late. While some sweet dessert wines are made, the majority of the Viognier produced is dry.
This comparison would make sense because Viognier is crisp and refreshing, but it’s much creamier than Sauvignon Blanc and has a much more aromatic perfume. It also tastes much sweet than it actually is because of its floral aromas.
Viognier is much drier than Riesling, but many Riesling lovers are converted due to the fact that Viognier tastes sweeter than it is, thanks to the perfume aromas of florals and fruits. Viognier has a fuller body than Riesling and has a heavier mouthfeel, but you can make the transition easily from Riesling to Viognier and back.
Viognier is not a very well known wine, but it should be. While production volumes are low compared to other wines produced in bulk, it’s well worth the extra money you might pay to give it a try.
While not a sweet wine, Viognier does still appeal to those who like sweet wines because of its floral and fruit aromas. It appeals to Chardonnay lovers because of the similar texture, and it appeals to Riesling lovers because it tastes sweeter than it is.
It’s a versatile wine that pairs well with many different flavour profiles, so it’s an incredibly food-friendly wine as long as you pair it with dishes that enhance rather than detract from the wine’s flavour.
Luckily for us, the resurgence of Viognier is still going strong, with many acres of plantings on at least five different continents. While not popular, it is accessible to almost everyone, and worth a taste for sure.
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