Why Unpopularity Suits California’s Viognier

While it's not often sought after, Viognier's obscurity might be what saved this mountain-grown grape, as it's only winemakers who truly love it that continue to produce it.
Photo by Penny de Los Santos

Now that lean, nervy California white wines like Albariño and Vermentino are on the upswing, it may seem odd that one of the thickest, most floral varieties could be poised for popularity, too. Viognier is about as cool as cargo shorts, but it has found terroir that suits it well in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Viognier (Vee-OHN-yay) had a moment in the 1990s, when hundreds of California wineries marketed it. But then? “It went the way of Syrah,” says Charlie Jones, vineyard manager and president of Lava Cap Winery in El Dorado County. “Viognier was going to be the next great variety, but it just never got traction.”

Thriving in Obscurity

Ironically, Viognier’s retreat to obscurity may have saved it: It’s mainly just winemakers who really love Viognier who continue to produce it. Two of those were Susan Marks and Jonathan Lachs of Cedarville Vineyard, which sits 2,700 feet above sea level in the Fair Play district of El Dorado. Cedarville has only one acre to work with, and it made 210 cases of the 2016 vintage. Lachs thinks that’s a good thing. “Once you get beyond a small, artisanal volume, it starts tasting more and more like Chardonnay,” he says.

Grounded in Granite

At Le Mulet Rouge in the Fiddletown district of Amador County, Tracy Hart harvests Viognier from a rocky, terraced slope with reddish decomposed granite. The soil’s lack of fertility brings out a little tangerine, white peach and a creamy texture.

Jones has a background in geology. “It’s hard for me to say exactly how the soil interacts with the fruit, but you do get a pronounced minerality from the granitic soils with the Rhône varietals. Our Viognier has finesse and layers.”

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Bottles to Try

Lava Cap 2016 Viognier (El Dorado), $28. 93 points. Far from simply fruity, this is a complex and sophisticated wine that shows how distinctive the grape variety can be. It relies on savory, minerally flavors that have wonderful subtlety and reserve. With each sip it settles a little deeper on the palate, lingering for a long finish buoyed by underlying acidity. Cellar Selection.

 Cedarville 2016 Estate Bottled Viognier (El Dorado), $23, 92 points. In the opulent, concentrated school of thought this wonderful luxurious-tasting wine is shaped by very ripe fruit flavors and generous helpings of suave oak. Flavors run from marzipan to honeysuckle and poached pears, and a nicely viscous texture fills the mouth and helps the finish linger.

Le Mulet Rouge 2016 Estate Viognier (Fiddletown), $23, 92 points. Concentrated and rich in flavor and creamy in texture, this wine has a big profile without seeming overtly fruity or oaky. The mouthfeel is lush, broad and quietly powerful, while subtle pear and marzipan flavors coat the palate and linger on the finish. It makes a grand impression and is “meaty” enough to serve with poultry or even beef. Winemaker Tracy Hart used no oak or stainless steel, fermenting and aging the wine in food-grade polyethylene FlexTanks.

Miraflores 2015 Estate Viognier (El Dorado), $24, 92 points. Far from simply fruity, this is a complex and sophisticated wine that shows how distinctive the grape variety can be. It relies on savory, minerally flavors that have a wonderful subtlety and reserve. With each sip it settles a littlle deeper on the palate, lingering for a long finish buoyed by underlying acidity.

1850 Wine Cellars 2015 Viognier (Calaveras County), $24, 91 points. This wine pairs toasty, buttery, fresh bread aromas with ripe fig, cream and almond flavors. It’s medium to full bodied, rich and viscous, keeping the luxurious flavors flowing over the palate and the toasted bread and almond notes echoing on the finish.

Published on April 9, 2018
Topics: Wine and Ratings, Wine Basics
About the Author
Jim Gordon
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Jim Gordon has been covering the wine industry as an editor and reporter for more than 30 years. In 2006 he became editor of Wines & Vines, the media company for North American winemakers and grape growers. He directs the editorial content of Wines & Vines in the monthly print magazine, digital and social media. Gordon is also a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and past director of the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. He was editor in chief for two books by publisher Dorling Kindersley of London: Opus Vino, and 1000 Great Everyday Wines. Gordon was managing editor of Wine Spectator for 12 years, and editor in chief of Wine Country Living magazine for four, during which time he helped create Wine Country Living TV for NBC station KNTV in San Jose. He lives in Napa, California. Email: jgordon@wineenthusiast.net.




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