Getting to know Viognier
One of the most aromatically distinctive white wine grapes, Viognier’s perfumed scents range from flint and stone, to tropical fruits, honeysuckle, and other succulent floral aromas.
Do you know how to say Vee-own-yay ?
In our July/August issue you’ll see how with its variety of microclimates, the Pacific Northwest is well suited for making different styles of wine from the Viognier grape.
By Jennifer Cossey
Now that you can say it…can you guess the Slam Dunk Viognier pairing?
Legend has it Viognier derives its name from the Latin saying, “Via Gehennae,” which loosely translates to “road to Hell.” If Pinot Noir is the heartbreak grape, then Viognier is the first kiss—hard to forget, and an impossible experience to duplicate after the first taste.
Viognier is a challenging grape to grow, in part because it must be allowed to get very ripe before it opens up into the fullest allure of its aromas and flavors. This, plus a propensity for slow ripening, low and unpredictable yields, susceptibility to mildew, and attractiveness to vineyard predators such as birds and deer, can make it a vineyard trial by fire, proverbially speaking. This may account for why as late as 1968 there were only about 30 acres of it left in the world.
And yet since then, Viognier has been resurgent, making a home in the hearts of masochistic winemakers the world over. With its variety of microclimates, the Pacific Northwest is well suited for making different styles of wine from the grape. And when made well, Northwest Viogniers can be great.
One of the most aromatically distinctive white wine grapes, Viognier’s perfumed scents range from flint and stone, to tropical fruits, honeysuckle, and other succulent floral aromas, depending on where the grapes were grown and how the wine was made. It is a dark yellow-skinned grape that produces wines of rich golden hues that are naturally low in acid and often of higher alcohol than other whites. Depending on how it is fermented and treated, Viognier varies in color from a lightly tinted, Riesling-like brightness, to the rich and golden hues often found in Chardonnay or Gewürztraminer.
Viognier differs in style, from slightly sweet to dry. Classically, Viognier is fermented and aged in either 100% stainless steel tanks or a blend of older—so-called, neutral—oak barrels and steel in order to preserve the essence of the fruit. Since Viognier is naturally low in acids, it is rarely put through a full secondary fermentation—called malolactic fermentation, or “ML” for short, it’s the process that drives malic acid out of the wine, creating a softer mouthfeel (think buttery Chardonnay).
Winemakers who employ ML can risk creating Viognier that is flabby and finishes short. However, this matter has become a controversial subject among lovers and producers of the wine. Many winemakers are starting to let their Viognier go through partial or complete ML to achieve a greater fullness and richer texture in their final product. They are proving that, if done right, it can have a dramatic and beautiful outcome.
Viognier comes from the northern part of the Rhône Valley in southern France. This region is also home to Syrah. Both grapes thrive here, thanks to a continental climate that provides the warmth they need for ripening.
Like the Rhône, Washington’s Columbia Valley, Idaho’s Snake River Valley, and the southern portion of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley appellations also have continental climates. But even in the cooler climates of the Pacific Northwest, intrepid winemakers are finding success with Viognier.