Viognier: California’s heartbreak white grape
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.