Viognier (vee-oh-NYAY)

A Los Angeles restaurateur once described viognier this way: “If a good German riesling is like an ice skater (fast, racy, with a cutting edge), and chardonnay is like a middle-heavyweight boxer (punchy, solid, powerful), then viognier would have to be described as a female gymnast—beautiful and perfectly-shaped, with muscle but superb agility and elegance.” Viognier is one of the finest but rarest French white grapes. The grape nearly went extinct in the 1960s until it became fashionable in California and in the Languedoc Roussillon. Today, fewer than 300 acres are planted in the grape’s home, the northern Rhône. Through DNA analysis, it appears that viognier is related to mondeuse blanche and, thus, may be either a half-sibling of syrah or possibly a grandparent of syrah. In the northern Rhône, viognier makes the prestigious wines Condrieu and Château-Grillet (a miniscule appellation, Château Grillet has just one estate, also called Château Grillet. It is now owned by Bordeaux’s Château Latour). A small amount is also planted in among the syrah vines of Côte-Rôtie. These white viognier grapes are harvested, crushed, and fermented along with the syrah grapes giving Côte-Rôtie (which is a red wine after all) a slightly more exotic aroma than it might otherwise have. Viognier is usually a full bodied wine with honeysuckle, apricot, gingerbread, and musky aromas and flavors, with a mesmerizingly lanolinish texture. Like gewürztraminer, its extroverted fruity/floral aromas mean that many drinkers assume it’s a little sweet, even when it’s bone dry. Viognier exploded in popularity in the United States in the 1990s. In half a decade, the number of California producers went from a mere few to more than thirty. By 1998 there were more than a thousand acres of this variety planted in California. But the demand has since ebbed there and plantings are now in decline. One of the reasons may be that few California viogniers have the beauty and purity of Condrieu. In California, viognier often suffers from having too little acidity to give it definition, and the wine is too often oaked to within an inch of its life (not true of Condrieu). Besides France’s Rhône Valley and California (and a few other U.S. states such as Virginia), viognier is also well known in Australia. Among the most exquisite viogniers I’ve ever tasted have been those from the Australian producer Yalumba.


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