The History of Viognier
The origin of the Viognier grape is relatively unknown. It is thought to be an ancient grape–possibly originating in Dalmatia (present day Croatia) and then brought to Rhône by the Romans. Historical records do confirm the existence of Viognier in this area during the Roman Empire.
One popular story goes, that the Roman emperor Probus brought the vine to Rhone in 281 AD. According to the story, Probus imported Viognier in order to replace the vineyards destroyed by Emperor Vespasian. Evidently, Vespasian destroyed the Condrieu vineyards after the locals revolted–a revolt which he said was caused by drinking too much of the native wine. Interestingly, Probus was bestowed the honor of being a “father” of French wine culture as a result of the vineyards he and his troops planted in Roman Gaul.
When the Romans were forced out of Gaul in the 5th Century, the vines remained uncultivated for centuries but were revived by locals in the 9th Century. The varietal spread to nearby Château Grillet, and from there to Avignon in the 14th Century.
If that isn’t dramatic enough for you, yet another explanation tells the story of a local group of outlaws known as the “culs de Piaux” who supposedly captured a cargo ship traveling to Beaujolais. Legend has it that they took the Viognier and Syrah vines they found in their haul and planted them near the site of present-day Condrieu.Grape vines probably weren’t what they were expecting but they planted them nonetheless.
Whichever story you believe, they are both great conversation starters! Also up for debate is the origin of the name Viognier.
The most common assumption is that it was named after the French city of Vienne, which was important during the Roman occupation. Others have pontificated that the name stems from the Roman pronunciation of the “via Gehennae” which translates to “Road of the Valley of Hell” which might make sense given Viognier’s bad reputation for being difficult to grow.
The Grape Itself
The Viognier cluster is tight. The berries are a green to golden yellow at harvest. This grape can easily be mistaken for Chardonnay, as far as appearance goes.
It’s not an easy going grape to grow. Viognier is a bit of a trouble child grape when it comes to growing. This grape is susceptible to powdery mildew, a fungus that if left untreated can spread throughout an entire vineyard.
The age of the vine also has an effect on the quality of the wine produced. Viognier vines start to hit their peak after 15–20 years. In the Rhône, there are vines at least 70 years old.
Where it Can Grow
Viognier is particular about the weather. The grape prefers warmer environments and a long growing season, but can grow in cooler areas as well.In France, Viognier enjoys the Mistral wind, a strong and cold northwesterly wind blowing through the Rhone Valley and southern France into the Mediterrean. This regional wind cools the Mediterranean climate and gives the vines some respite after the long, hot summer.
Viognier produces the best wines when it grows in sunny regions with temperatures moderated by cool nights or nearby bodies of water. The importance of cool weather is to maintain Viognier’s precious acidity.
Other areas in the world that share similar climate for Viognier would be Walla Walla and the Columbia valleys in Washington State, Virginia, Stellenbosch,Franshhoek and Elgin in South Africa, Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills in South Australia, Central and North Coast of California.
Viognier is also pretty picky about when it’s picked. It has low and unpredictable yields and should be picked only when completely ripe. Picked too soon and your grape won’t develop the full extent of its “aromas” and grape “tastes”. Picked too late and your grape will only be good for wine that is “oily” and lacks “perfume”.
Winemakers in the Condrieu AOC in the northern Rhone will pick the grapes with a level of sugar so as to produce wine with alcohol in the 13% range.When fully ripe, Viognier grapes have a deep yellow color and produce wine with a strong perfume and that are high in alcohol.
How it’s Made
There are two stylistic differences that winemakers choose between when producing Viognier: new oak aging as opposed to neutral or no oak aging. New oak aging produces a richer creamier taste, lower acidity and aromas of clove, nutmeg and vanilla. Neutral and no oak aging (made in stainless steel) brings about more floral and tropical fruit flavors in the wine while maintaining its acidity and often a subtle bitter note.
Producers using oak aging also put the wine through a secondary fermentation known as malolactic fermentation (ML). That is when the natural malic acids found in the wine will be converted to lactic acid, which results in a creamy or buttery finish. This process can be stopped at any time.
Wine makers that have 100% ML, will over power the fruit and acidity of the wine.
To keep the acidity balanced, ML influence is very little. Plus, oak aging is kept to under a year in most cases.
What Does It Taste Like?
Viognier is for those who love to stop and smell the flowers. Known as the “white wine for red wine drinkers”, Viognier ranges in taste from lighter flavors of tangerine, mango and honeysuckle to creamier aromas of vanilla with spices of nutmeg and clove.
Depending on the producer and how it’s made, it can differ in intensity from light and “spritzy” with a touch of bitterness to strong and “creamy”. It’s often less acidic than a Chardonnay and a bit lighter and also more fragrant.
The wines are typically dry although there are some wines produced with a slightly off-dry style that focuses on the grape’s peachy aromas. Viognieris almost always noted for an oily sensation on the middle of the tongue which is a characteristic of wines made with this grape. The drier styles come across less fruity on the palate and deliver subtle bitterness almost like crunching into a fresh rose petal.
Viognier ranges from about 13.5%–15% alcohol by volume (ABV). This might not seem like a big jump but, on the palate, the extremes will taste like 2 very different wines. If you prefer a lighter, leaner Viognier, seek out wines that range from about 14% ABV or less. And if you want to have a richer, bolder, fruit-forward style, get a higher alcohol style.
Expect to spend $17–$25 for a good bottle of Viognier from South Australia and California and $40+ for a decent Viognier from the Rhône Valley of France or an excellent Viognier from South Australia.
Foods that work well with Viognier would be most roasted poultry, lobster, shrimp, halibut, mahi, sea bass, roasted squash, yellow and red bell peppers, etc.
Basically the middle of the road type of spices. It doesn’t work well with super spicy or really heavy foods.
In-Depth Varietal Comparisons
If you have any experience with Viognier then you may find some of these comparison pieces interesting, helpful, and educational.
► Viognier vs Chenin Blanc
► Viognier vs Chardonnay
► Viognier vs Sancerre
► Viognier vs Pinot Gris
► Voignier vs Riesling