The reason that Viognier has hit the comeback trail isn’t hard to understand. For the past decade, while consumers have largely been ignoring it, the white Rhône variety remained a steadfast obsession among some very serious and talented California winemakers, not to mention a handful of restaurateurs and sommeliers.

The winemakers were determined to master its notorious idiosyncracies, and they never abandoned their idealistic conceptions. That vision went, roughly, like this: As Chardonnay is to Burgundy, so Viognier is to the Rhône. There, in favored spots like Condrieu and Château Grillet, it’s one of the world’s great white wines. California mastered Chardonnay; why couldn’t it master Viognier?

In the 1980s, Viognier came onto the U.S. market in tiny quantities, produced by such wineries as Calera, La Jota, Joseph Phelps, McDowell Valley and Ritchie Creek, all early proponents of Rhône varieties in California. They had hopes that Viognier would be the answer for the “A.B.C.” (“anything but Chardonnay”) consumers.

The thinking was that Viognier would catch on quickly among American wine consumers who were searching for an alternative white wine.

But things didn’t work out that way. Viognier didn’t catch on, and the public turned its fickle attention to other, tried-and-true wines. But in 2003, long after its anticipated takeoff, it’s back.

Today, “people are finally getting a handle on how to produce it,” notes Peter Marks, MW, the wine curator at COPIA, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. In a back-to-the-future scenario, Viognier’s original promise—to be a great white wine in California, if not a carbon copy of Condrieu, then at least in the same league—is at last being fulfilled.

“A flash in the pan.”
The first California Viogniers were victims of their own flamboyant personalities, and of the grape’s inherent viticultural and enological problems.

Ehren Jordan, winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars and proprietor of his own label, Failla, says one reason why Viognier belly-flopped in the 1990s was because “the wines got too fruity. They almost didn’t taste like wine. They were more like soda pop. It was a flash in the pan.” Agrees Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, who is one of California’s original Rhône Rangers, “They tasted like everything!”

It may seem counterintuitive to criticize a California wine for being too fruity, but the wines were indeed over the top. I remember my first Calera Viognier, which was also the first Viognier I’d ever tried. When proprietor-winemaker Josh Jensen siphoned off a barrel sample of the ’89, his first commercial release, and poured me some, it blew my mind.

It was fruit salad in a wineglass. It was candied orange peel, kiwi, apricot, lime, white peach, musky pear, Maraschino cherry, honeysuckle, pineapple, smoke and vanilla, all wrapped in a rich, viscous, creamy liquid with a honeyed finish.

“That’s always been our style. Huge fruit, very big, very rich,” Diana Vita, Calera’s manager, told me when I recalled for her that long-ago wine.

Those early Vigoniers were made in a style that you either loved, hated or just failed to understand.

“The wines were very blowsy,” remembers Wild Horse Winery proprietor Ken Volk, who produces Viognier under his Equus label. “Con- sumers got confused, in the sense of, ‘I tried it, it’s okay, but I’m going back to Chardonnay.’ “

Sommeliers also found selling Viognier a major challenge. “The wines lacked a sense of balance, and they were hard to pair with food,” says Master Sommelier Peter Granoff, who was in charge of wine at San Francisco’s trendy Square One until 1994.

Consumers were “intimidated” by Viognier, explains Kenneth Knox, wine director at Viognier, a restaurant in San Mateo, California where the wine list features no fewer than 15 different bottlings of the variety. The wines were perceived as too expensive for the quality; the word “Viognier” was difficult to pronounce, and the taste was strange.

“If you were only used to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc,” Knox says, “to branch off in [this] direction was hard.”

Even Jensen himself concedes that his Viognier can be “so strong, so exuberant and flamboyant, and so hard to match with anything but the boldest, richest food, like foie gras or lobster, that it’s not something I’m going to drink every day.” At Square One, Granoff used to recommend Viognier with one of Chef Joyce Goldstein’s most intensely flavored entrées, caldo de perro, a Catalan soup with fish, scallops, orange juice, onions and almond-orange aioli—not exactly the kind of fare most people eat at home.

But for winemakers themselves, there were problems with Viognier that went well beyond its tutti-fruity strangeness. The grape poses extraordinarily difficult challenges to grow and vinify. Unlike Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, which both produce viable wines from almost any vintage, Viognier is extremely susceptible to variations in the weather, and requires a razor’s-edge balance of warmth and coolness to develop properly. Jensen couldn’t even release a Viognier from the cool, damp 1988 vintage because the grapes never ripened.

But when the wines come from too hot a region, they can be as flat and—in Jordan’s view—as “uninteresting” as the syrup from a can of supermarket fruit salad. Either way, in order to develop flavors, Viognier grapes must soar to enormously high sugar levels, and that, warns John Falcone, who made the wines at Atlas Peak and now works at Rusack Vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, is a real problem.

“You have to battle all this [potentially] high alcohol,” says Falcone, “which makes it difficult to get balance in the bottle.”

The threat of too much alcohol, often as much as 15 percent, left winemakers with miserable choices: They could halt fermentation so that some residual sugar remained in the wines, which is not a good thing to do with a wine that’s supposed to be dry. They could dilute the wines with water, which would, of course, also thin down the flavors. Or they could dealcoholize the wines with technical gadgets. But “you want a wine that’s as little manipulated as possible,” says Grahm.

For all these reasons, many winemakers threw their hands up and retired from the Viognier game. When Falcone was called upon to replant the vineyards at Rusack, he says, “we opted to go to Sauvignon Blanc instead of Viognier.” And so discouraged did Grahm become with “grotesquely overdone” Viogniers that even this arch-Rhôniste stopped making the varietal altogether, except for a sweet dessert wine he calls Viognier Doux

Austin Hope, winemaker at Treana Winery Andrew Murray, of Andrew Murray Vineyards Josh Jensen, proprietor and winemaker of Calera Wine Co. John Alban, proprietor of Alban Vineyard.

Figuring It Out
With growth in consumption unrealized, Viognier production plateaued in the 1990s. In 1995, only 705 tons were crushed in the entire state. Viognier was number 15 on the list of white wines in California, on a par with Green Hungarian.

But look at 2002’s crush: Last year saw more than 9,500 tons crushed, and also higher prices for the grapes, especially those from cooler coastal regions, where the variety grows best. Viognier grapes now command a higher price in Monterey than any other white grape besides Chardonnay; it actually exceeded Chardonnay last year in price per ton in Santa Barbara County. In Sonoma, Viognier is far and away the most expensive white grape to buy.

Some flash in the pan. What happened?

“After a lot of trial and error, we’re finally figuring it out,” says Austin Hope, the winemaker at Treana Winery in Paso Robles. He buys his Viognier grapes from the Caymus-owned Mer Soleil vineyard, in the chilly Santa Lucia Highlands, where a high of 80 degrees during the growing season constitutes a heat wave.

The Mer Soleil vineyard is “very cold, absolutely perfect to develop full maturity for the grapes,” Hope says. With such a low daytime high temperature, the grapes typically aren’t even picked until November, long after most other varieties are in tanks or barrels. That long hang time allows the fruity flavors to develop to their fullest, without the problem of massive sugar levels and the burning alcohol they can bring. And with average nighttime temperatures falling to the mid-40s, Hope says that he gets “a tremendous amount of acidity.” Those fresh, young malic acids balance the wine’s exotic lushness, and can be so vibrant that malolactic fermentation is needed.

John Alban, proprietor of Alban Vineyard, is satisfied with how far Viognier has come. “Thanks to sommeliers, passionate wine buyers and the press,” he says, “Viognier is finally becoming a category of wine that is important on wine lists and in wine shops.”
Even among competing winemakers, Alban is the acknowledged Viognier master in California. Alban Vineyard is in the Edna Valley, an A.V.A. on the Central Coast that is just about as cold as the Mer Soleil vineyard. Alban is convinced that the key to making a ripe but balanced Viognier is to grow the grapes in a cool region.

“One of the biggest decisions we made was focusing on Edna Valley,” he says. Earlier efforts to make Viognier in warmer, inland parts of San Luis Obispo County weren’t successful. “We felt if we went to a cooler place, we wouldn’t have as high alcohol, and that has proven to be true.”

Growing Viognier in a cool climate seems to moderate its over-the-top tendencies, while still maintaining the fruity flavors that are the variety’s hallmark. As Jordan, who makes a Failla Viognier with grapes purchased from Alban’s vineyard, notes, “That site is so unique and cool, you get physiological maturity [in the grapes] before they’re 30 degrees brix.”
Alban also uses Viognier clones that streamline flavors and yeasts that minimize fruity constituents. As a result, he says, “we don’t develop that superintense fruitiness.” Jordan finds that barrel fermentation and sur lies aging also help craft a more balanced, rounded wine. As for the issue of new versus older oak, opinions are divided. Hope uses up to 40 percent new French oak because, he says, “the wines are big and lush, and with a wine of that size, new wood is definitely in order.” But Jordan believes “Viognier doesn’t tolerate new wood very well.” At Calera, Jensen uses “the oldest barrels we have.”

Moving Viognier to California’s coolest locations has been the number-one factor in improving the wines. Coastal versions lose nothing of Viognier’s richness, yet keep alcohol to manageable levels while maintaining the acidity required to keep them fresh and vibrant without being cloying. In fact, if you look at the list of Wine Enthusiast’s 12 top-scoring Viogniers last year, six were from the Central Coast, one from the Russian River Valley, three from cooler spots in Napa Valley, and one from 2,100 feet up in the Sonoma mountains. Calera’s is still the fruitiest of our top dozen, probably because of the hot daytime temperatures on Mount Harlan, but it continues to be a benchmark for that style.
By contrast, most of the Viogniers that came from warmer locations such as Lodi, Paso Robles and the warmer parts of Sonoma County suffer from a flat, insipid quality that only accentuates the varietal’s syrupy fruitiness.

The other factor that has improved Viognier has been diligence on the winemaker’s part. Correct clones, keeping yields low, the right amount of oak barrel fermentation and aging as well as sur lies aging, and, sometimes, a little judicious blending with Marsanne or Roussanne, all have improved the wines immeasurably. Some people even blend in a little Sauvignon Blanc, which further boosts acidity and adds mint or citrus nuances.
Today, there are least 71 different Viogniers produced in California, and while the wines have yet to hold a candle to Chardonnay in terms of popularity—and most likely never will—they’re enjoying the sort of popularity they never did before. “My opinion as to why consumers are finally discovering these wines,” says John Hardman, the executive director of the Rhône Rangers, “is that there are more in the marketplace, and they are very attractive wines.”

With such a stellar roster of new and improved Viogniers from which to choose, consumers are warming up to the variety, though Viognier is still a difficult wine to get people to try, admits Knox.

Down in South Florida, “Viognier is certainly a hand-sell item, even now,” says Eric Hemer, a Master Sommelier who’s with Southern Wine and Spirits of Florida, an area distributor. “Relatively few customers are familiar with it. But they’re receptive to it as an interesting alternative to Chardonnay, and most people really like it once they taste it.”

Published on June 1, 2003

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