Here in Virginia, we have a lot of things to be proud of—birthplace to many presidents, top-ranked universities, a myriad of flora and fauna—not to mention ham, peanuts and apples, oh my! Ask a Virginian to boast about his grapes, and you are likely to hear about Viognier. Sure, our warm growing season nurtures Viognier’s abundant aromatics, and who doesn’t love an alliteration like “Virginia Viognier,” but how much do we really know about this grape that we fancy our own?
FOUR WAYS TO DRINK PRETTY:
Domaine Brusset “Les Clavelles” Côtes du Rhône 2008 (France). Tastings of Charlottesville, $27.95
Praxis Viognier Lodi 2006 (California). Market Street Wineshop, $17.99
Yalumba Viognier 2007 (Australia). Whole Foods Market, $12.99
Blenheim Vineyards Viognier 2008 (Virginia). Blenheim Vineyards, $19
The tale of Viognier dates back to when a Roman emperor brought the vines from Dalmatia to France’s Rhône Valley in 281 A.D. The grape’s most likely namesake is from the Roman pronunciation of “via Gehennae,” which means “road to hell,” alluding to how difficult Viognier is to grow. Highly susceptible to powdery mildew, Viognier yields are low and unpredictable. In fact, between the devastation of phylloxera (if only those pest management courses had been offered the fall semester of 1862!), the abandonment of the vineyards after World War I, and the grape’s finicky nature, by 1965, Viognier was almost extinct with only 30 acres of the vines left in France. In the late 1980s, the United States and Canada took a shot with Viognier, doubling the world’s acreage and setting Viognier back on its pretty little legs.
Let’s move on though, because once you smell a Viognier, you will be in an exotic garden in the mood for romance and this little history lesson will be long forgotten. Just like with a good woman, Viognier is so much more than meets the eye (and nose). Her flowing floral frock and sweet, heady perfume of honeysuckle, citrus blossom, lychee nut, white melon, peach, apricot and ripe pear is just an innocent front for the complexity of her soul. Completely dry and full-bodied (with curves in all the right places), Viognier offers a palate of ripe pear, lemon-lime citrus, almond, spice, peach, apricot, but with enough acidity to entice you to keep on sipping. With the texture of crème brulée, Viognier is reminiscent of Chardonnay, but with more wiggle in her walk than that sometimes dowdy matron of the wine world.
The best wine to me is one that speaks of its upbringing, or terroir, and Viognier is no exception. My inspiration for this column was a Viognier from its original terroir, the Côtes du Rhône. The wine was so indescribably delicious that I was momentarily speechless (until I swallowed it). I then tried to describe the ineffable: “It reminds me of just baked apricots topped with fresh cream, crushed amaretti cookies, and a drizzle of wildflower honey—yet completely dry and in liquid form,” I announced with conviction to no one in particular. I took another sip, half wondering if I had channeled Violet Beauregarde and her Willy Wonka Three-Course Dinner Gum, but managed quite happily to finish the glass without blowing up like a giant apricot.
My old-fashioned tastes always bring me to the Old World for my wine, so French Viognier will always have my heart, but its New World counterparts are pretty fetching too (and often less pricey). From Australia to Virginia, Viognier is worthy of a sincere courtship, rewarding its suitors from first seductive sniff to last satiating sip.