Even before I learned how to pronounce it, Viognier intrigued me. I still recall tasting an early vintage from Calera and thinking, “This is unlike any other white wine, something new and distinct to check out.” But this was in the late 1980s and there were not many produced. Joseph Phelps had experimented with it, and in 1986 La Jota made a small batch from its 3 acres.
A recent search reminded me there was not much Viognier made anywhere before 1990. As Jancis Robinson notes: “When I wrote Vines, Grapes & Wines in 1985 (for publication in 1986) I was able to identify records of just 32 ha (80 acres) of it planted in the entire world.” Most of that fell within the Northern Rhône, home to Condrieu, the best known Viognier based wine. In fact, what she reported actually reflected a slight uptick, because Viognier was heading toward extinction in the 60s with only about 15 acres planted worldwide.
The rap against Viognier was that it was prone to diseases and was difficult to grow. When the Rhône varieties were being introduced into California by the so-called “Rhône Rangers,” what they assumed was Roussanne turned out to actually be Viognier. That sort of left Viognier in limbo for a few years when Syrah and other Rhône varieties were gaining momentum on the West Coast.
But today, after a long and often bumpy course, Viognier is gaining acceptance worldwide. It is grown in every wine country and shows up in unlikely places like Virginia and Israel. According to the folks at Tablas Creek, “Viognier as of 2016 accounts for some 40,000 acres worldwide, including more than 20,000 acres in France, and significant plantings in Italy (4,500 acres), and California (3,000). BTW, some of the best background information about Viognier and the other Rhône varieties can be found at the Tablas Creek blog.
Today, with California’s total acreage approaching 5,000, wineries in Paso Robles and Santa Barbara have shown the way. But there’s also some exciting Viognier being grown in the Sierra Foothills, Sonoma and Oregon. It just might be what the new generation of wine drinkers is seeking. Jancis Robinson explained its basic appeal when she wrote that, “because of its extraordinary combination of perfume and body, Viognier could truly be said to be the hedonist's white grape variety.”
Hedonists have two winemakers to thank for never giving up on Viognier. Years ago on his 24th birthday, John Alban was given a glass of Condrieu. He explains, “The next day I researched everything U.C. Davis had on the subject of Condrieu — about 12 sentences. I learned 3 key facts: Viognier is the grape of Condrieu, it ain't cheap, and I'd soon be moving to the Rhône if I wanted to learn much more.” And travel and learn he did. After returning from the Rhône, he began developing his vineyards in Edna Valley. He adds, “At a time when there were fewer than 50 acres of Viognier in the world, I propagated 32.” He also supplied cuttings of Viognier to other winemakers.
In the late 1980s, Leon Sobon’s son returned from Australia with glowing reports of the Rhône varieties. Sobon located Viognier cuttings from Bill Smith of La Jota, who he calls “the Johnny Appleseed of Viognier.” Sobon developed 8 acres in his Amador vineyard and harvested his first Viognier in 1991 After experimenting with the grape and wine, Alban offered his first also in 1991.
Both Sobon and Alban were key figures behind the creation of the Viognier Guild in 1993, which morphed into the Hospice du Rhône event. With 30 vintages now under their belts, these two pioneers can bring us up to speed. So here are their responses to a few questions thrown their way:
ME: Is Viognier a difficult variety to grow as many textbooks suggest?
Leon Sobon: “Yes, Viognier is difficult to cultivate. It is easily sunburned and can progress from under ripe to overripe in 2-3 days. I suspect that the budwood is slightly virused, although I never had it checked. I got the wood from Bill Smith at La Jota, 25-30 years ago. Over the years we have transitioned to careful picking and sorting.”
John Alban: “Ultimately I don't think it is so hard to cultivate much like I don't think Pinot Noir is either. (Roussanne is DIFFICULT). But like Pinot it is so reflective of how and where it's grown that they earn the reputation of finicky when you look at quality and not a harvest. Like Pinot, Viognier is either outstanding to very good, then maybe OK, and after that, worthless. Pinot drops the same way for me. Syrah and Cabernet are a much more gradual quality curve whereas Viognier is a cliff.”
How have you changed your winemaking approach? When to harvest, use of yeasts, barrels, cellar treatment and all that.
Over the years we have transitioned to careful picking and sorting…also to whole cluster pressing, slow fermenting yeasts, cooler fermentation, longer lees contact, and lees stirring.
“I experimented with EVERYTHING: new oak, no oak, amphora, yeast, no addition of yeast, botrytis, you name it! Over the years I have settled into a mix of stainless for my Central Coast bottling, and the Estate bottling is in used oak with a mix of some amphora wine. The Central Coast is inoculated and the Estate is not.”
* * *
Other winemakers echo the view that Viognier is not that difficult, but it is demanding. With experience, winemakers eventually figure out how to dial it in. As Jason Hass of Tablas Creek
Noted recently, “We do still make Viognier as a varietal, at least most years, and I think we’ve really dialed in a style that we love: one in which that luscious stone fruit and white flower character is evident, but balanced by good acidity and minerality, no oak, and relatively low alcohol (under 14%).”
Everyone seems to agree that above all else, determining when to harvest Viognier is the main concern. Kiley Evans, winemaker for 2 Hawk Vineyard in Southern Oregon, emphasizes the narrow window for deciding when to harvest:
“In Burgundy they say that if you wait until your sample is where you want the fruit you’ve waited too long. I have taken that mantra to heart. The trick with Viognier is getting it ripe beyond the bitter almond finish that can be a nuisance in the wine, but not so ripe that it is overly alcoholic/hot and I’ve seen that progression happen in as little as 2-3 days.”
In talking to many of today’s new generation of winemakers, I’ve noticed the most successful ones working with Viognier know how to fine-tune their vineyard practices.
Not long ago, Jonathan Lachs of Cedarville Vineyards had this to say: “We were the first to plant Viognier here in Fair Play, back in 1997. It’s on a north slope, very granitic, rather decomposed, and across a seasonal creek from the rest of our vineyard. We’re at 2500 feet elevation, so all North slopes are more frost prone. We started with bilateral cordons on highway posts and vertical catch wires. We found frost damage caused uneven cluster size and ripening, so we slowly converted the entire block to head trained / cane pruned which brought the clusters back to consistent size, and even ripening. Over time we’ve been picking earlier and earlier.”
Both Alban and Evans offer Viognier in two styles: a stainless steel-fermented version to emphasize the lively fruit, and a barrel fermented, luscious, oak aged version as an ode to Condrieu.
It is also a versatile component in blends as Pine Ridge has shown over the years with its Chenin Blanc-Viognier wine. More recently, Element 79 in El Dorado makes an unusual and exciting blend of Viognier and Syrah, named “Rare Earth.”
However, that winemakers also see Viognier as an entry level wine as well as a Condrieu inspired cellar worthy wine is the big takeaway for me. From the Languedoc, Jean Luc Colombo’s “La Violette” Viognier is excellent for its under $15 price, as is K Vintners Washington State Viognier, as well as Yalumba’s “Y Series” Viognier 2021 from South Australia. And then there’s the North Coast Viognier from Cline Cellars and the Sobon Estate, both excellent values.
And when asked about the current market demand for Viognier, John Alban said, “I know that I am immeasurably skewed by the fact that I was the first American winery and vineyard that actually relied on Viognier to survive: it was more than 75% of my production in the early stages. So for me, Viognier has gone mainstream. Almost all avid wine consumers know it, it's on just about any 'real' wine list, and our direct sales are very strong as well.”
A hedonistic white wine that has gone mainstream. Now that’s newsworthy!