Article By: Sandy Block, MW
It has sprinted from total obscurity to underground popularity to mass wine community hysteria to virtually zero visibility anywhere, a complete round trip that's taken less than a decade. Overzealous producers intent on rushing to market ahead of the curve with wine's 'Next Hot Thing' killed it before many Americans even learned how to pronounce the name properly (vee-own-yay). During this super nova phase, when you couldn't open a wine publication without seeing it hyped as the Great Wine you could not really find yet, Viognier's fame was seemingly ubiquitous. Some predicted it had the potential to dethrone Chardonnay. One problem with this overheated scenario was that anyone trying to produce a wine that actually tastes good can't just plant the vine anywhere it will vaguely ripen. This is a variety that is extremely finicky as to the growing conditions that insure balanced flavors, which makes site selection all-important. Where it's too hot the vines need to be harvested before the grape can develop much flavor. In addition, it needs time to sink roots. Viognier made from immature vines usually lacks flesh. Finally, although Viognier's vineyard yields are unpredictable, it can't be over cropped as there's a direct correlation between tonnage and quality. If this all makes it sound closer in spirit to Pinot Noir than to most white varieties, it is. So most of the Viognier that's vanished, or is likely to soon, did not actually taste very good because it wasn't grown or made properly. In spite of the industry's early '9Os strategy of planting more Viognier virtually everywhere, rushing it onto shelves and wine lists and pumping the PR machine full of superlatives, most American consumers proved not to be malleable. They bought once and then took a pass.
Actually, Viognier is not really dead, it's just gone undercover for a while. To clarify: few restaurants or retailers today need miscellaneous Viognier to help them fill a category so they tend not to buy it. On the other hand, there are still small quantities of delicious Viognier being produced that are highly sought after. As producers who made the wine simply because they sensed it was going to catch on yank it from their portfolios, and as the true aficionados rededicate to quality, we're left with the paradox that some of the more interesting white wines nobody knows about today are actually made with Viognier. There just aren't many. And most of these better bottles aren't moderately priced because it's hard to extract quality from the grape unless you harvest it at yields low enough to concentrate the intriguing aromatics that attracted admirers to it initially.
With this all in mind we set out to discover if there were any great Viognier values in the market today, wines that reflect the grape's unrivalled potential for seductive perfume and oozing creamy textures. Many of the wines we tasted blind were one dimensional mediocrities, or worse, quirky eccentrics with weird burnt flavors, the products of vines planted in the all wrong places that are just waiting to be budded over to Pinot Gris or whatever other variety is projected to keep growing in popularity. But there were also some gems: real wines of character that deserve recognition and promotion. Four recommended wines out of a large group may not be encouraging but these were all wonderful and unique. Four very different wines, with the common elements of very intriguing aromas, lovely fruit and the avoidance of bitterness or excessive alcohol. The interesting thing about the variety is that even among the best producers there's no consensus on how it should taste or even how it should be made. Whole cluster pressing, expensive as it is to conduct, seems to be the preferred technique of juice extraction, and many of the top wines are made without malolactic fermentation to preserve freshness. Wood has to be used judiciously but, as is the case with The Innocent, it can really enhance the grape's varietal character. The key is that there's no Viognier formula that will work everywhere. Each lot, and probably each harvest, has to be handled differently. So to those who handle it carefully, Viognier is still very much alive and worthy of promoting even to customers who are initially reluctant because of disappointing previous experiences with the grape. It just can't be purchased indiscriminately. As usual, these are listed in ascending order of preference.
Fairview Coastal Region, South Africa, 2OO6. This deliciously creamy wine shows off the subtle understated side of the grape quite well. The aromas are low key orange and fig scented fruit and the follow through on the palate is also stylishly moderate, with peach and mild citrus accents. It's barrel fermented but without any of the coarse tannins or toast overlay that sometimes dominate Viogniers produced in a more delicate mode. Produced by Charles Back, one of the Cape's most celebrated winemakers, this is a wine with personality that can appeal to a European palate because it is not in any sense excessive. Enjoy its considerable charms with poached or broiled scallops. $16
Miner "Simpson Vineyard" California, 2OO5. Produced from vines grown in California's Central Valley, this wine from the famed Miner Vineyards is a marvel of balance and fragrant sensuality: floral, pear like and vegetal, with apricot and tangerine peel accents. It's even better on the palate, with a round soft weighty texture and flavors that mix banana, orange and anise. This reflects one of Viognier's strong suits: its ability to present a wide range of distinctive flavor essences in one sip. When done right, as it is here, the effect is intoxicating. The finish is also classic, with an edgy bitter spice presence that lingers and resonates. A clean, concentrated Viognier that never sees oak, this would be an ideal match for herb-accented roasted monkfish or swordfish. $21
Bridlewood Winery "Estate Reserve" Central Coast, 2OO4. This is a Viognier of a different color, literally. Deep straw, with burnished gold highlights, its exotic aromas are brimming with wildflowers, honey and buttery tropical fruit. Golden raisins are the dominant flavor and the texture is ultra-rich, but it's all balanced with a touch of spicy phenolics and more than adequate acidity. This is as about as lush and exotic as the grape gets. A "wow" wine if you like this style, as I, perhaps more so than the rest of the panel of tasters, did. Blended with 15% Marsanne and Chardonnay, this is a full bodied Viognier that flaunts its charms. For food matches I would not hesitate to go with fish, chicken or even pork that has a fruit sauce or accompaniment. One note of caution: it's not a wine to buy and forget about. Fully mature and delightful now, it probably does not have the staying power to last much past the end of summer. $19
The Innocent Victoria, Australia, 2OO6. This is what great Viognier is all about: flesh and pleasure. There's nothing innocent tasting here. The nose is absolutely classic: a seamless blend of orange blossom, apple and honey enticing enough in its perfume to make you dizzy. Smooth and lush, with a hint of sweetness and intense orange, almond-like, mango flavor threads, this wine swept the blind tasting going away. It's amazing how quickly the Aussies have mastered so many of these interesting niche varietals. Produced at the hitherto unknown to me Shinas Estate Wines in the warm climate Mildura region of northwestern Victoria, it is barrel aged in French cooperage but the effect is New World all the way. $25