V is for Viognier…and a lot more besides

Viognier vines at Veritas Vineyards in Virginia with the Blue Ridge in the background

Whilst contemplating wine I often think how remarkable it is that quite so many white grapes have names that begin with a ‘V’. Some of them may seem a tad obscure, but here is a list of all the ones that sprang to mind – with a few that I looked up:

Verdejo Tinto
Verdello – not the same as Verdelho, in case you were wondering.
Verduzzo (Friulano)
Vernaccia – in fact there are a few of these, all unrelated.
Vien de Nus
Villard Blanc
Villard Noir
Viosinho – sometimes called Veosinho Verdeal for good measure.
and finally the most famous of all – Viognier.

Viognier has had a remarkable journey over the last 24 years. In 1986 the Wine and Spirit Eduaction Trust awarded me a copy of Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes and Vines – I forget what I did to earn it, but the inscription says ‘Higher Certificate Book Prize awarded to Quentin Sadler for having excelled in Wine and Spirit Examinations.’

On page 180 Jancis writes; ‘Quantatively, the Viognier vine hardly deserves a mention in this book…little more than 32 hectares (80 acres) of it are planted anywhere in the world. Almost all of these are in France…

It is hard to find accurate worldwide figures, but contrast the above statement with the fact that by the end of 2007 there were nearly 1,400 hectares planted in Australia, more than 1,100 hectares in California, 700 hectares in Argentina and 270 in Chile – not to mention the 700 or so in France’s Rhône Valley and another 1500 in the Languedoc. This is a grape that has really found a market in the last twenty years or so.

There are also respectable plantings in Italy, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand, North Carolina, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri and Virginia, as well as British Columbia and Ontario, to my certain knowledge – but I am willing to bet there’s some in Bolivia, Mexico, India, China and Israel too.

Let me be very honest, Viognier is a grape that hardly ever fills me with excitement. I will seldom choose to drink one, but sometimes professional curiosity and duty force to me to take the odd sip. So if I praise a Viognier at all, that is quite something. To me it forms part of the unholy trinity of white grapes – Viognier, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio.

I can appreciate their qualities and I do not dislike them all, but they are just generally too lacking in acidity for me to enjoy. What is more this lack of acidity often makes them feel unbalanced, hot and disjointed – but then I really, really like acidity.

Viognier is supposed to be all about the fragrance, the exotic perfume of peach and apricot and their blossoms. It is often described as haunting and seductive, whereas I just usually find it alcoholic, clumsy and bitter.

It seems to be very hard to make a balanced Viognier that displays plenty of varietal character – just like with Gewürztraminer and Pinot Grigio. Those very characteristics will often stamp on any feeling of freshness and balance, whereas an example that goes for freshness will lack the mark of the grape from which it is made. This may well be because the components that create the aromas are terpenes, also found in Muscats and Rieslings, which can also give bitterness – especially if not balanced by acidity.

The problem seems to stem from a belief that the grape has to be picked when super-ripe in order to show the full of array of aromas and flavours. As a consequence the wines can often be oily instead of delicate and leave an unbalanced bitter aftertaste – unless severely chilled.

It may be true from a traditional technical point of view that Viognier should be picked late, but all I know is that the more delicate examples that I have tasted are the ones that more often demonstrate balance and finesse.

The reason why it is traditionally picked late is for the aromas to develop fully. Whereas I think that the lighter, fresher versions that I have tried from outside Europe tend to display a more delicate and attractive fragrance than most European examples. This may be down to yields. In France they pick late and keep yields very low, apparently, whereas I suspect places like Chile uses higher yields – if this is the difference then I much prefer the bigger cropped examples!

Of course it might be even simpler than that. Some of the best Viogniers on my recent trip to Virginia were not only de-stemmed, to remove the tannin-laden bitter stalks, but the jacks were also removed – these are the tiny stems between each grape and they too are full of bitter phenolics.

Recently I have been unable to avoid trying quite a lot of wines made from the Viognier grape.

This was mainly because, as regular readers will know, I was in Virginia and Viognier is a real speciality there. The Virginians seem to enjoy a little alliteration in their wine names, with Virginia Viognier, Virginia Verdejo and my favourite, the almost Dr. Seuss-like Horton Norton.

Here are a few of the Virginian Viogniers that impressed me most:

Map showing Virginian wineries - click for a larger view

2009 Veramar Vineyards Viognier

Figgy, ginger, honeysuckle and stewed apricot nose.
Minerality on the palate, slightly oily with good mouthfeel backed up by just enough clean acidity.
Lovely concentration with real texture in the mouth and long finish – honey and nuts & delicate dried and fresh apricot. A well balanced example – 90/100 points.

2009 Potomac Point Vineyards Viognier Reserve

Deep rich, golden colour.
Lovely aromatics of blossom & juicy white peach.
Good weight balanced by some acidity, a little bitterness shows on the finish, but very good until that point – 88/100 points.

2009 Breaux Vineyards Viognier

Quite pale, with delicate peach & blossom aromas. Some citrus notes too.
High acid and freshness in the mouth with light melon, tinned peach and poached pear.
Lovely delicacy, slight smoky/spice quality, asian pear too.
No oak really let the variety show it’s fresh side – 89/100 points.

The 2008 vintage is available from The Good Wine Shop @ £19.50 a bottle.

2009 Veritas Vineyards Viognier

Delicate nose with white peach and a higher apricot note.
Balanced weight and fatness with a vivid backbone of acidity and freshness.
Integrated and balanced palate with a clean elegant mouthfeel.
Very classy with delicate orchard fruit, lovely texture and a lively finish that is clean and shows delicate and sophisticated oak handling, letting the oak back up the wine, not dominate it in any way – 93/100 points.

2009 Rappahannock Cellars Viognier

Some citrus nose with pithy grapefruit and poached apricot – gently perfumed and subtle notes.
Nicely textured, quite rounded and soft, a little seam of acidity at the core, delicate white peach fruit, some succulence and just a little touch of spice – from the fruit or the oak is hard to tell.
Good balance, the finish is clean and the acidity is only supporting. Very fresh and long with apricot and tangerine on the finish – 92/100 points.

There is a good range of Virginian wines available in the UK through New Horizon Wines, Whole Foods Kensington and The Good Wine Shops in Kew and St Margarets, as well as The Oxford Wine Company and the Hercules Wine Warehouses in Kent.

It isn’t only Viogniers from Virginia that I have enjoyed though, the other day I tried an example from Chile that was a delight:

2010 Yali National Reserve Viognier
Colchagua Valley, Chile

This was light and fresh rather than heavy and flabby. The aromas were exotic and truly floral rather than hinting at blossoms. The palate was light-bodied and fresh with a lively feel and a seam of crisp acidity running all the way through it and leaving the finish clean and fresh.
This would partner all sort of light and spicy foods, as well as being a superb aperitif – 90/100 points.

Available from Majestic @ £7.99 a bottle – from October 2010

Just yesterday I tasted this lovely Viognier as well:

2010 Charles Back Viognier
Paarl, South Africa

Perfumed, rose petal and confectionary nose.
Lovely textured palate, not too exotic, quite fresh, with rich fruit, hinting at the tropical, balanced by fresh acidity.
The finish is clean, fruity and just off crisp – 89/100 points.

Available from Marks & Spencer for £8.99 a bottle – from November 2010.

Perhaps South Africa really suits the take on Viognier that I appreciate as my rethink on the grape started when I tasted one made by my friend Lorna Hughes:

2009 Stonehill Bristle White
Stellenbosch, South Africa

This is a Viognier from Lorna’s own Stonehill vineyard and winery and it is superb. The flavours are subtle and elegant with lovely concentration, a creamy texture and clean balancing acidity – 91/100 points.

Stonehill makes very good wines that are always elegant and understated – some of them are available in the UK here.

I have also hugely enjoyed the balance and freshness of the Viogniers made by the Vidal Estate in Hawkes Bay New Zealand

If more more wine makers are going to start producing Viogniers like these that show the grape’s more delicate side, then I am seriously going to have to reconsider my view of Viognier. Perhaps I don’t dislike it after all, just how some people make it?

If any of you know of any white grape varieties whose name starts with a V and that I missed off the list, please tell me.

11 thoughts on “V is for Viognier…and a lot more besides

  1. Viognier is a weird grape and you are quite right that it is problematic in the extreme, especially for growers. I sometimes think that it’s best use is to be co-fermented with Syrah, as it is more and more. It is naturally high tannin for a white grape – I always remember being told how genetically close to Nebbiolo it is, though without the high acidity.
    My experience in South Africa was that I much preferred the earlier picked examples, where the acidity was still – if slightly – present.
    It seems to me that Viognier has to be planted on the cool edge of where it is viable, so that it can benefit from extended hang time, not pick up too much sugar or lose too much acidity, yet develop those amazing flavours.
    Thank you for this thought provoking post.
    Hope it’s drier and warmer in Spain!

  2. At Horton Vineyards we actually grow 4 of those V grapes. Aren’t Verdejo & Verdelho the same grape, just Portuguese vs Spanish spelling? Not sure.

    Back when Horton brought the Viognier grape to Virginia in 1989, I believe I remember that there were only 200 acres in the world, we planted 10 acres that year.

    Love your blog

    • Great to hear from you! Afraid verdejo and Verdelho are not the same grapes, but excitingly different ones.
      I hope Mr Horton is getting better and look forward to tasting more of you wines sometime.

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