In the 1980s, a group of California winemakers started looking to the Rhône Valley for inspiration; Napa Valley had a firm reputation as Cabernet land, so it seemed natural that other parts of the state might look for grapes to call their own. The winemakers really dug what the French had done with Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and the rest; today, Syrah has been the big success, and its companions are also becoming more common as single-variety wines.
But what about some white Rhône Valley grapes? Viognier, for example – where’s the Viognier?
You can’t fault the Californians for being cautious with Viognier. It’s a difficult grape to grow, prone to several vine diseases, with an oily texture and low acidity. At the time, it was also a bit neglected in its homeland, and plantings in Condrieu, its most famous French home, were shrinking. But there, as in California, Australia, Washington, and elsewhere, it has finally turned the corner. Plantings in California have tripled in the past decade, and in France they’re up 500% since the 80s. Other Rhône whites like Marsanne, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc are on the rise, too, but Viognier has so far been the most successful as a solo, varietal wine, rather than in blends.
Winemakers have figured out how to get the best out of the grape. But what about winedrinkers? ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) members may appreciate it. While Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc have been taking shelf space from Chardonnay, they tend toward a light crisp character. If you miss the roundness and weight of Chardonnay, but prefer fruit and floral aromas to the buttery, caramelly, sweet lashings of oak that mar many Chardonnays, Viognier may be for you.
The popularity of Asian influenced, spicier cuisine lends itself to Viognier as well – another situation where Chardonnay’s oak can bring out bitter flavors. Viognier does well with curries, stir-fries, fruit salsas, and the like.
Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not just the Rhône specialists who are making Viognier; only half of the producers recommended below are known for Syrah and the like. Calera is famous for Pinot Noir, Miner for Cabernet, and Iron Horse for sparkling wines. Whatever other wines they have in their portfolio, the following are worth checking out (and drinking young; Viognier is rarely made for aging):
Jade Mountain Paras Vineyard Viognier 2005, Napa County While there are some flowers on the nose, the rich, round palate is more about fruit: Meyer lemon, pineapple, and peach. Very powerful, and just skirting the edge of oiliness. ($32)
Garretson ‘The Saother’ Viognier 2005, Paso Robles From another Rhône Ranger, but a different style from the Jade Mountain. Acidity is more apparent, giving lift and crispness; the fruits are corresponding less rich, leaning toward lemon, nectarine, and peach, with a light spice and nut touch and some underlying minerality. ($20)
Qupé Ibarra-Young Vineyard Viognier 2006, Central Coast Another lighter style, owing to cool vineyard location and a cooler-than-normal vintage. Refreshing acidity, and a good balance of honysuckle and orange blossom touches versus the mandarin and mango fruit. ($28)
Arrowood Saralee Vineyard Viognier 2005, Russian River Valley Another big, round wine, with some oak-aging, like a cross between an Alsatian Gewurz and a Cali Chardonnay. There’s vanilla and a clove-like spice, but the grape’s fruit balances that with apricot, lychee, and nectarine notes. Full-bodied and rich, but finishes cleanly. ($28)
Miner Family Simpson Vineyard Viognier 2006 Smooth tropical fruit – pineapple, mango – offset by a touch of honeysuckle. Very silky and full, with a clean finish.
Iron Horse ‘T-Bar-T’ Viognier 2006, Alexander Valley Most of the Viognier grown in the ‘T-Bar-T’ vineyard goes into a blend, but the best lots end up here. Shows great concentration of flavors, with lots of honey and flowers up front and white peach, apricot, and nectarine coming through later. ($25)
Calera Viognier 2005, Mt. Harlan A superbly elegant, aromatic take, with minerality, floral touches, peach and apricot notes, plus a touch of macadamia nut. ($30)
Cold Heaven: Surprise! Morgan Clendenen’s winery actually specializes in Viognier as the bulk of their production. They make three single-vineyard wines:
Vogelzang 2006, Santa Ynez Valley Fairly full, with lots of tropical fruit and floral notes, plus a refreshing lift on the finish. ($20)
Sanford & Benedict 2006, Santa Barbara County Leans toward mineral, spice, and nut aromas, with complementary notes of pear, quince, and apricot. Full-bodied, with a softer finish. ($30)
Le Bon Climat 2006, Santa Barbara County A bewildering amount of fruit, ranging from guava to mango to peach. There’s a little floral touch in there as well, and just enough structure and acidity to keep it from going over-the-top. ($30)
Clendenen also makes a Santa Rita Hills bottling, and collaborate with Condrieu’s top star, Yves Cuilleron on two blends, one using grapes from both regions (Deux C Viognier) and one using grapes from the Sanford & Benedict vineyard (Domaine des Deux Mondes, Saints & Sinners).