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State of the grape: Viognier

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My young colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Andrew Hoover, recently found himself quoted in an article in the Richmond [VA] Times-Dispatch on the topic of Viognier.

Andrew led a breakout tasting session at the Virginia Wine Summit. Here’s what he said about the variety and wine:

“The study revealed that Virginia’s Viogniers strike a balance between those of France and California. Most of Virginia’s Viogniers don’t have the flamboyant fruit, high levels of alcohol and voluptuous body that often characterize California’s offerings. Instead, Virginia’s Viogniers reveal their exotic fruit character more subtly, making it compatible with more dishes. I think the audience will recognize the distinct personality of Virginia’s Viogniers and see how they have one foot in the Old World and one foot in the New World.”

This is a greatly articulate statement; Andrew is a natural-born communicator and I hope one of these days he’ll write a book! He has described California Viognier exactly correctly: high alcohol, voluptuous body, flamboyant fruit. But are these its virtues, or its vices?

The answer is both. Whenever you have a wine like that, it had better be balanced in order to avoid blowsiness. Funny word, that: it’s not even in my Webster’s New World Dictionary. I found this definition online: blowsy, adj. (esp. of a woman) untidy in appearance; slovenly or sluttish. Setting aside the sexist implications (which are annoying), I’ll fasten on the word “slutty” to describe what happens when Viognier goes over the top.

To begin with, it’s too much of everything. We all love the fruitiness of California wine, but something has to limit it at the boundaries, or the wine becomes a runaway fruit train. I once saw a fruit delivery truck on the freeway that had spilled its entire load onto the road: mounds of peaches, pears, melons, kumquats, grapes and oranges, mashed and oozing juice. You could smell it hundreds of feet away on that hot summer day. That’s bad Viognier, a fault compounded by residual sugar. Andrew referred to high alcohol: that is a tendency of Viognier, one that vintners sometimes “resolve” by stopping the fermentation while the wine still has dissolved sugar. This has been my main criticism of blowsy Viognier: it has the taste of a simple candy bar. And if you pile new oak on it, well, all you end up with is an oaky candy bar.

I remember the first California Viognier I ever had. It was a Calera, and was siphoned off from the barrel for me by Josh Jensen. (I think it was the first Viognier he’d made.) Josh handed the glass to me with the proud grin of a new dad, and watched as I smelled and sipped. I have never forgotten the impression that wine made on me: the top of my head exploded. Seriously. (You don’t forget a thing like that!) The wine was so amazingly rich, so unctuous, yet so balanced in acidity and minerality that it was one of the most complete, wholesome wine experiences I’ve ever had. (That was more than 20 years ago. At around the same time someone gave me some Zind-Humbrecht Vendange Tardive Grand Cru Gewurz. I don’t remember the vintage, but that wine similarly blew me away.)

Some recent California Viogniers I’ve given high scores to have been Arrowood 2009 Saralee’s Vineyard (95 points), Failla 2010 Alban Vineyard (93 points) and Jaffurs 2011 (92 points). These all possess Viognier’s flamboyance, yet exhibit precision and control. Any of them could substitute for a rich Chardonnay. And yet, I really haven’t had a California Viognier in years that did to me what that Calera did, so long ago. Maybe it was just the shock of discovery that made it so special–to realize that California could produce something so exotic. Maybe Josh’s joy rubbed off on me, too (which is yet another reason to take a skeptical view of wines you taste at the winery with the winemaker). Whatever it was, and as much as I like a good California Viognier, it has a ways to go before I can give it my unstinting praise.

  1. Actually, there’s a fairly common term amongst the Rhone-heads that were/are always in attendance at HdR and RR for the type of Viogniers you call “slutty”….and that is a DollyParton Viognier. Even MarcelGuigal has used that term in several of his HdR presentations…with a sorta sheepish grin.
    I’ve sorta followed Josh’s Viogniers from the very start, when he first presented it at the Taste of Vail, where they had the first Viognier panel at any wine event in the USofA, and where his first Viognier was annointed with the DP sobriquet. And pretty much every one since then. The first ones were very much DP Viogniers. But his style w/ Viognier has evolved over the yrs and he’s making them nowadays in a much more balanced/restrained/elegant style…but still speaking loud & clear of Viognier…but much more terrior-driven, I would say.
    Viognier is a wonderful grape with (usually) powerful/distinctive aromatics. But, much like GWT or MuscatAlexandria or Isabelle, the intense aromatics can be too much over-the-top for some wine folks, who prefer more subtle/restrained/elegant aromatics like Chard or GreyRiesling.
    There are times when you want a good DP Viognier, there are times you want a more restrained Calera Viognier…or a Horton or a Vernay. There’s room for them all.
    Not that I’d really know, though. I mostly drink NapaVlly Cabernets.
    Tom

  2. I’ve had more than my share of nauseatingly perfumed and flabby Condrieu and Chateau Grillet.
    That profile is, in no way, limited to CA

  3. Mark Lingenfelder says:

    Steve- Very well stated, butI think that you’ve got both the spelling and the meaning of “blowsy” wrong. The correct spelling is “blousy”. It is derived from “blouse”- a full loose fitting garmet. The verb blouse means “to puff out out in a drooping fullness” and the adjective blousy describes an item which has been subjected to this treatment-an apt description of many new world Viogniers as you quite a clearly point out.

  4. Dear Mark L., Wow, thanks for sharing that. I thought I was a good speller! Regardless of whether it’s blowsy or blousy, both definitions fit.

  5. Barnaby Hughes says:

    Steve, I also tasted my first California Viognier at Calera and was similarly blown away. It opened my senses to the marvels of Viognier, which remains one of my favorite white wines.

  6. GrapesRGreat says:

    The first time I had Darioush Viognier, I absolutely fell in love. It was so juicy and full bodied, but IMO also well balanced, from the perspective that I could drink a ton of it and not get fatigued like most wines that could be described as “over the top.” I don’t know if you have had or reviewed this wine before, but I think it is the best wine Darioush makes.

    If nothing else, their tasting room would lead anybody to describe them as over the top.

  7. Viognier is a tricky grape to make into a balanced wine. Its hard to resist waiting for the aromatics to develop before harvesting, only to find the resulting wine heavy, hot and slightly bitter. Fining trials w/ PVPP for example, seem to take more of the positive aromatics out rather than reducing the bitterness. Over-cropping and/or harvesting before the grapes get that ripe gives a wine that tastes and smells like grapefruit rind. A strategy that has worked for me is to harvest +- 2/3 of the total when the grapes are past the under-ripe grapefruit stage but not fully developed aromatically. Then allow the last 1/3 to ripen fully and develop the incredible aromatics. Blend the late-harvest lot into the base lot to create a balanced wine with a crisp, refreshing mouthfeel AND the honeysuckle-stonefruit aromatics that we all love about the cultivar.

  8. jon campbell says:

    I saw a lot of viognier still hanging on the vines while walking through vineyards this october….tells me a lot about what consumers and wineries think of California Viognier

    It was going to be the next “IT” white and it was planted profusely and the demand never materialized to justify the plantings

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