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An Out-Of-Body Experience
Viognier, an exotic alternative to everyday white wine

By Gregory S. Walter

There are some who think that Americans should get past an obsession with Chardonnay and start drinking other white wines, such as Viognier, as a white wine of choice.

Granted, many of the people who put this thought forward have a vested interest — they make Viognier and would like nothing else than to be in the position of not being able to make enough of this wine, made from the white Rhône grape variety of the same name. But having tasted through a number of Viogniers from around the United States recently, I’m beginning to see the light as well.

“At its best, Viognier is an out-of-body experience; an exotic elixir of peaches, wet stones and lychee nuts rolling over your tongue with the weight and texture of crème brulée,” said John Alban of Alban Vineyards in the Edna Valley region of California’s Central Coast. Alban is a pioneer in developing California’s Rhône-styled wines and was the first to make a California Viognier.

Viognier is a difficult and extremely low-yielding vine which is prone to uneven ripening. It tolerates climates from warm to cool, though the fruit develops most character with wide seasonal variations in temperature. Viognier ripens late, with flavor developing only at the very peak of maturity, and there is a narrow window between ripeness and the moment when acidity and aroma plummet. The fragile, thin-skinned fruit is high in extract, sugar and potential alcohol, and is highly aromatic and low in acidity.

Alban adds that at its worst, “Viognier can be so perfumed and endowed with fruit that it can come across as too obvious, too primary — in street terms it would be ‘trashy,’” he said.

The origins of the Viognier grape are not clear, but the vine is thought to have been brought, along with Syrah, from Croatia to the Rhône Valley by the Romans in 281 A.D. Viognier took root in the northern Rhône, primarily in the area that became Condrieu. In modern times, the tiny production of Château Grillet has been the most visible wine produced in Condrieu from Viognier grapes.

New interest in Viognier has spread into other French regions, as well as regions outside of France, including Australia, Chile, Italy and South Africa. In the United States, Viognier is planted mostly in California, but also in Oregon, Virginia, Washington and other states.

The following recommended wines are representative of not only the diversity of wine styles present in Viogniers today, but also the common thread of delicious peach and floral aromatics that seem to run through most of the wines. These styles and flavors bode well for Viognier’s future.

John Alban agrees. “Viognier has tremendous potential in parts of the United States and throughout the world,” he said. “The real challenge to Viognier has been a certain white wine ‘myopia’ that has existed over the last decade. Fortunately this goofy adolescent phase is now passing and with it great white wines are emerging to the forefront.”

JAN/FEB 2005

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Viognier, An Exotic Alternative
Winemaker: Merry Edwards
Winemaker: John Alban
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