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Viognier: California’s heartbreak white grape

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Jon Bonné, the wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a nice piece yesterday in his blog, The Cellarist, on the topic of Viognier. He nailed the problems — of excessive ripeness and sweetness, mostly, and sometimes heat. I’d add one further issue that Jon didn’t address: bizarre, added acidity, which can make the texture and especially the finish unpleasantly scoury. My guess is that most California Viognier is acidified, as opposed to the “retained” acidity Jon described.

Jon referenced 2 Viogniers he likes: from Calera and from Cristom. I remember the first Calera Viognier I ever had, which was also the first one Josh Jensen made. (I think it would have been the ‘89 or ‘90.) I was visiting with Josh at the winery, which is way out in the middle of nowhere in the Gavilan Mountains of San Benito County, and we’d worked our way through his Mount Harlan Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays when he said, “Hey, do you wanna try something new?” Of course I did. He siphoned off some wine from a tank and filled my glass with the pale yellow-golden liquid. I sniffed, sipped — and the top of my scalp blew off.

Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. That’s a very rare experience for a wine lover — when you taste something new and unexpected and it’s so thrilling, it feels like your brain is exploding. It happened once with my first Hugel Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris. An awesome thing you never forget.

Anyway, Josh was very pleased with my reaction. I can’t say, though, that I’ve liked every Calera Viognier I’ve had since. There are certainly ones I’ve admired more: Alban’s, in particular, and also Failla’s (is there anything Ehren Jordan can’t do?). Pride Mountain always manages to make these amazingly gigantic Viogniers that somehow retain elegance and balance. How, I don’t know. Minerals? Acidity? Dryness plays a part, which is why I never really cared for Kent Rosenblum’s. Too sweet. Tangent also makes a very nice Viognier (as well as a range of other “alternative” white wines). That winery is owned by the Niven family, of Baileyana in the Edna Valley, and Tangent wines (which come in screwtopped bottles) always are unoaked. That way, you get to taste what the variety really tastes like. Viognier, at its best, is a big, fruity, floral wine, usually with all kinds of tropical fruits, honeysuckle and vanilla, and from Tangent you also get that stony, Edna Valley minerality and high acidity, which (I think, but don’t know for sure) really is natural, not added. I could be wrong.

You usually have to pay a pretty high price for a good Viognier (except for Tangent’s). I’ve found that most all Viogniers below, say, $20 are awful. And unless Viognier is from a cool place, it’s likely to be boring. The worst Viognier I ever had came from Lodi. I’ve had other bad ones from Clarksburg, Paso Robles, Temecula, Yuba County, Contra Costa County and with a “California” appellation, which I have to presume includes Central Valley fruit. If you don’t think they grow Viognier in the Central Valley, you’re wrong. There was more of it (in 2008) in San Joaquin County than in either Napa or Sonoma, almost as much in Madera County as in Monterey, and almost as much in Yolo County as in Santa Barbara. Where do you think all that Central Valley fruit goes?

Jon ended his essay with the question, “Did we really believe it [Viognier] would be the next Chardonnay?” Made me laugh. Yes, we did — “we” being the wine media around 1991. That was the same “we” as predicted that Sangiovese was the next superstar red, and that Super-Tuscans were taking over California. Just shows that you shouldn’t believe everything the wine writers say.

  1. Check out Holly’s Hill Viognier for $18.00….not awful. Grown at 2700 feet in El Dorado.

  2. I may like Viognier more than you do, and thus might have a higher opinion of what it is capable of producing. The problem is that it does not produce those wonderful wines with enough regularity. That is one reason it all but disappeared in its native France just a few decades ago. More than one observer has said that the California success with Viognier in the hands of Phelps and Calera is what led to its renaissance in the northern Rhone. But whether in France or here or down under, etc, when Viognier does not succeed, it fails because it needs to offer too many things all at once, and it does not do that often enough. At that level, it sounds as though we agree.

    Yet, Viognier’s continuing inconsistentcy, to me, is the reason why it failed to achieve an exalted place in California. It is less about whether it grows in the Central Valley or in cool-climates. There are too many failures in wines from both places to encourage either growers or drinkers to get excited about the grape.

    Yet, I see no reason to expect inexpensive Viognier to be anything more than inexpensive Pinot Gris. And if that becomes the yardstick, then bring on the Lange Twins wine or Rosenblum or Miner–all from the Central Valley and all $20 or less.

    Let’s be sure that we are not writing Viognier’s epitaph. In the slightly altered words of Monte Python, “Its not dead yet”.

  3. The problem with ripening Viognier, I have been told repeatedly, is that it very quickly (within a day or two) goes from being green, acidic and sharp to being hot, flabby and dull. When it’s done exactly right, it’s thrilling, as you note. Some top-rated viogniers from the Northwest: Cayuse, Mark Ryan, Abeja, Rulo, Novelty Hill, Stevens, K Vintners, McCrea, Caterina, Abacela, Bunnell Family, Alexandria Nicole, AlmaTerra, Quady North, Chandler Reach, Seven Hills, Dusted Valley…

  4. Jim Caudill says:

    Bob Blue at Bonterra has consistently done a nice job with Mendocino Viognier, and yes, I used to work with Bob but that doesn’t mean I can’t actually like the wine independent of that relationship (full FTC disclosure). Made from organic grapes for those who care about that (and those that do tend to care a lot). Same can be said for Tangent, which has earned the SIP (Sustainability In Practice) certification (see http://www.sipthegoodlife.org) and put the seal right on the bottle. Two reasons to appreciate the wine. In the Grand Harvest wine competition that just completed, my panel tasted through and appreciated several interesting Viogniers from Virginia. It always reminds me of the old Jerry Seinfeld schtick on “salsa” his notion being that the only reason this condiment became a part of American life was that people just loved saying SALSA…if only Viognier had a more pronounceable name, who knows? As prunes have become sunfruit, maybe there’s more to be said here….

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    Unless Viognier is ripe it doesn’t have much character, but like all early ripening whites, picking it at the right time is difficult if it is grown in a warm location. Most in Cal are too flabby to me. Better to use as a co-ferment w/ Syrah. I’d second the thought of looking in the Northwest for a better Viognier. Looking North is playing out with Syrah as well.
    Another thought, I wonder if Viognier suffers from the Gewurztraminer effect… people afraid to order or try because they can’t pronounce.

  6. Morton, if an easy name were all it took, we would still have Green Hungarian, Grey Riesling, French Colombard and Dan Burger.

  7. Roger Ivy says:

    Peirano Estate Vineyard in Lodi makes
    a very credible and well received Viognier that retails for $12.99/bottle and is very very far from awful.

  8. Anna Marie dos Remedios says:

    I, too , first experienced Viognier with my good friend Josh Jensen. And yes, he set the bar very, very high. He showed up for dinner once with a barrel sample and I was hooked. I even went to Condrieu and was utterly amazed at the difficulty at which they farm their vineyards to produce this single wine. Tasting Josh’s Viognier gave me the desire to make this variety of white wine. I must say, despite the author’s take on Madera County grown Viognier, I’ve made our Idle Hour Viogniers as single vineyard wines from two different Madera vineyards: one with citrus and honeysuckle characters, the other with tropical fruits and minerality. Both wines were native yeast, barrel-fermented in neutral French Oak and dry, not sweet.
    I’ve found that even though the general public are not familiar with the variety, once they try it, they buy it:)

  9. Note to Anne Marie–

    I am familiar with the Simpson Vineyard Viognier from Madera County that is bottled by Miner in the Napa Valley and which has been very successful for years now. Can you comment on the whether that vineyard and yours are on typical flat terrain with deep soil or are up a bit and on lesser fertile soils?

    Does Idle Hour Viognier reach the Bay Area, and if so, where would it be available?

  10. Steve – You need to try Cold Heaven from Morgan Clendenen. Her tasting room is in Buellton, but the grapes come from all the best vineyards in Santa Maria and Santa Ynez. I think it’s one of the best balanced Viogniers I’ve ever had – beautiful fruit and crisp acidity. http://www.coldheavencellars.com/

  11. After reading the review of Jon Bonne article by Steve, I must confess that I am very confused. Our winery Christopher Creek has produced Gold Medal, Best of Class Viogniers since 1999 in a style that does not resemble what I just read. If we focus on the French versions which are typically produced in neutral oak without malolactic fermentation (like Chardonnay),and use this as reference point then departures are creative thoughts of artisitic winemakers…sometimes good and sometimes bad!! Viognier is a wine that is meant to be drunk young, dry and fruity. Adding Chardonnay, Oak, or secondary fermentation really does not add to the quality or pleasure of great glass of Viognier.

  12. Derek Chase says:

    Porter Creek “Timbervine” is the best and most consistent year in and year out!

  13. Fred, I disagree that adding oak doesn’t add to Viognier’s quality. It’s a big, rich, viscous wine that can handle some wood, provided the underlying fruit is in balance.

  14. Goddess, I’m going to find it when I’m in Santa Barbara next week. Thanks.

  15. Steve,

    Nice blog. My take on viognier is that most of the time, it’s ‘flabby’ and better suited as a dessert wine . . .

    Others have certainly mentioned ones to peruse, so I will not do so . . .

    But I do believe that if there was better balance in these wines – perhaps a touch of perceived sweetness with better acid – consumers would dig them more – AND more importantly they would match better with foods . . .

    Just my take – for what it’s worth . . .

    By the way, are you going to roam beyond WOPN this week?!?!?!?

    Cheers!

  16. Larry, I’ll be doing the usual stuff at WOPN, then heading to Santa Ynez for a few days.

  17. Steve, as you know we source our Viognier from two Madera County sources; one sandy flatland and one rocky foothills. Viognier (from any venue) to exhibit the tropical or ripe pear aromas must be physiologically mature which, more often than not, skews the pH and TA so as to require some sort of acidulation. Such a ripeness can result in a dry version with excessive alcohol or an arested alcohol with some RS. The blending agent of choice seems to be H2O with a Tartaric cocktail which gives the unpleasant “adjusted” sensation you describe.
    We choose to acidulate, pH adjust and alcohol asuage using the whole cluster pressed white juice from the “very disloyal” Valdiguie grape.

  18. Around a decade back, I had a chance to sit down and taste with grand old man Georges Vernay at his winery in Condrieu. He was just back from a gathering of Viognier producers in California, and his comments regarding the grape as grown there were less than kind.

    The main criticisms: lack of concentration and flabbiness. He said something to the effect that, unlike the slopes of Condrieu, the vines had the ability to grow and bear like a weed in California, but would never make great wine until the winemakers learned to sacrifice yield in favor of character.

  19. t.vierra says:

    steve, the link to ehren’s failla is mistakenly linked to albanvineyards.com.

  20. Thanks, t., I corrected the Failla link.

  21. Saddleback Cellars Viognier is pretty good (and only $23), has gone great with fettucine alfredo, sandwiches and turkey dinner! follow me on twitter @tastenapa :)

  22. Maybe the best use of Viognier is as a blending grape. I can’t think of many $12 Cali wines more able to please a crowd than Pine Ridge’s combo of Chenin Blanc (80%) and Viognier.

    And in Australia, Yalumba makes a very nice inexpensive “Y” Viognier. For more apricot-y richness, d’Arenberg’s The Hermit Crab melds Viognier and Marsanne.

  23. Not all Lodi Viognier is awful. Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi makes a good one that retails for $12 out of its tasting room. Unfortunately, that’s the only place where you can get it. So take a trip out here!

  24. Seems like there are two clones of Viognier. One is the more floral version that seems to favor Gewurtz more. The one we like best is the one with peaches and pears with less floral component and a more viscous mouthfeel. No oak – that’s for the Oak and Butter Crowd who can only “enjoy” Chardonnay. We like Viognier because it defines “not Chard” and because it is a teaching wine in our tasting room. Some people have had it and some not. It allows us to reach for a benchmark even if we sell out the wine before it gets noticed.

  25. I disagree with the notion that Paso Robles makes bad Viognier – there are too many microclimates and soils even in the eastern area – for a generalization.
    Sculpterra’s Paul Frankel makes a great Viognier by doing both an early and a later pick to achieve that balance of a good V. I’ve just bottled my first V from his early pick. We’ll be comparing them in early May at our home winemaking club meeting.
    Only the brave will make Viognier.

  26. I fell in love with Viognier 10 years ago and even made one in Washington from a late ripening site (picked end of October) with no residual sugar and no acidification. My probelm too though with most Viognier is too high alcohol and too much residual sugar (especially in Washington). My favorite domestic Viognier is the 2007 Cold Heaven “Le Bon Climat”. Absolutely beautiful, balanced, dry, and lovely natural acidity. I have so much respect for the owner and winemaker Morgan Clendenen. Maybe there is hope.

  27. I don’t get to taste Morgan’s wines. Perhaps she’ll invite me one of these days!

  28. Freemark Abbey consistently (and quietly) makes a stellar Viognier-the way it should be made. Brian Kosi is a master with that grape.

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