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Viognier Goes Boom

Big and lush or lean and crisp, Viognier can be hard to categorize, but it's even harder to ignore. Wine editor Lettie Teague pays attention to California's best.

If a popular wine requires a pronounceable name, then the prospects for Viognier would seem pretty dim. With so many vowels crowded so close together, Viognier is a lot more challenging to say than Cabernet. Only the savviest oenophiles and the most devoted Francophiles, usually, get the name of this richly textured, extravagantly aromatic Rhône varietal right. Almost everyone else ends up like the customer at Citronelle restaurant in Washington, D.C., who ordered a bottle of Wagner from sommelier Mark Slater, marking perhaps the first time that the German composer has ever been confused with a grape.

And yet Viognier (actually pronounced vee-oh-NYAY) appears to be enjoying a bit of a boom. While it's planted around the world (in France, of course, but also in Australia, Italy—and even the states of Virginia and Oregon), it's been getting a lot of attention in California. More wineries there are adding it to their portfolios, and the number of Golden State acres devoted to the grape has grown from 138 (in 1992) to just over 2,000 (as of 2002). It's now cultivated in Napa, Sonoma, the Central Coast and way down in Santa Barbara. It's even planted in Lodi, a heretofore undistinguished region east of San Francisco known as the home of mass-produced wines.

But the most important development of all may be how top sommeliers have been hailing Viognier as a first-rate companion to food—both the lean, crisp Viogniers and the big, lush varieties, all of which have firm backbones of acidity, rich fruit flavors and exotic aromas of peach, nectarine, apricot, orange peel, honeysuckle and jasmine. In fact, it was from reading wine lists that I first realized California Viognier is (back) in vogue. (There was a short time 10 years ago when Viognier was touted as the next Chardonnay, an idea that owed more to wine marketing than winemaking.) Now Viognier is a restaurant must-have: Belinda Chang, the wine director at San Francisco's Fifth Floor, told me she always has 15 to 20 on her list, while wine director Sam Governale at Atlanta's MidCity Cuisine has 14 on his (outnumbering Pinot Gris and Riesling). On his list at Seablue in Las Vegas, Rajat Parr, the wine director for the Mina restaurant group, calls Viognier "one of the most fashionable grapes in the world"—provocative words in a town of high rollers partial to steak and Cabernet. Parr will soon be pouring Viognier by the glass at all of his four restaurants. "I am the ambassador for Viognier," Parr asserted, though he admitted he could use a few fellow diplomats: "A dozen more people who can promote it, and a dozen more who can make it well."

Although I agree with Parr that the Viognier cause could use some more advocates, especially among retailers, I don't think more Viognier producers are needed. In fact, I'm surprised at how many there already are. These include talented newcomers like Wells Guthrie (Copain Wines), Gary Gibson (Shadow Canyon) and Vanessa Wong (a former Peter Michael winemaker), as well as longtime devotees like John Alban (Alban Vineyards), Bob Foley (Pride Mountain), Bob Lindquist (Qupé) and Morgan Clendenen (who makes four Viogniers under her Cold Heaven label).

Why are so many more Viogniers being made? For Steve Fennell of Voss Vineyards in Napa, the idea came from overseas: "Our sister winery, Yalumba, has been making Viognier successfully in Australia for years, so they wanted us to try making it here." Fennell admitted he'd resisted for years. "I'd heard a lot of bad things about Viognier," he said. People told him it was "hard to grow." And "hard to get ripe."

Those were the qualities that attracted Morgan Clendenen. "I like a challenge," she said. Clendenen, who calls herself "the Queen of Viognier," said she considered the famously fickle Pinot Noir grape "a walk in the park" in comparison. (Her husband, Jim, just happens to be a famous Pinot producer.) So eager is Clendenen for a further challenge, she's just debuted a fifth Viognier, Deux C. She makes it in collaboration with a French superstar, Yves Cuilleron, whose Condrieus (from the Rhône appellation where Viognier became famous) are considered the best in France.

Clendenen wasn't the only winemaker drawn to Viognier's thorny nature. Bob Foley of Napa's Pride Mountain called Viognier a "persnickety" grape: "Just when the fruit gets ripe, the acidity drops away." Robert Brittan, who's been making Viognier at Napa's Stags' Leap Winery for a decade, complained of the grape's "fertility issues" and its "sometimes bitter core." Both men mentioned how hard it was to find the right vineyard site. Grown someplace too warm, Viognier grapes become blowsy and alcoholic; grown someplace too cold, the grapes never get ripe.

Why did these winemakers bother? If it wasn't masochism, it sure wasn't money: Even a great Viognier rarely sells for more than a good Chardonnay. For some producers, like Wells Guthrie, it was just "better than making Chardonnay," while others, like John Alban, took a more exhibitionist stance: "Viognier is a real look-at-me varietal." Jon Engelskirger of Turnbull Wine Cellars channeled Ponce de León. "Viognier," he declared, "is a winemaker's fountain of youth."

Though Engelskirger sounded a touch delirious, I knew what he was trying to say. There is such diversity of flavor to Viognier, not to mention such opulence; its finish can sometimes seem to go on forever.

The crisp, minerally Viogniers tend to come from cool regions like the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Carneros, Napa and Edna Valley. (Some of my favorite Viogniers from these areas are Pride Mountain, Stags' Leap, Peay, Arrowood, Failla and Copain.) The rich, almost tropical Viogniers are produced in warmer regions like Paso Robles and Lodi. (Rosenblum, Garretson and Eberle are of note.) But as befits a fickle grape, geography isn't a guarantee of flavor. One of my favorite bargain Viogniers, made by Praxis, is a crisp, minerally wine made in...Lodi.

This kind of diversity is one reason why I love Viognier so much, though I wonder if this might not also be its biggest hurdle, even more than its unreliable nature or challenging name. With so much variation in texture and flavor, it's hard for casual drinkers to always know what to expect. Will their chosen Viognier be a big, lush wine full of jasmine and honey, or a lean, crisp example that tastes more of citrus and minerals?

And that, I realized, may be the reason why sommeliers like Viognier—not just because it goes well with food, but also because it requires someone to explain it. Maybe that's really why Viognier is doing so much better now than it did a decade ago: There are so many more talented sommeliers around.

Published August 2004
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