Power grape: Virginia’s unique relationship with viognier

Winemaker Kirsty Harmon fell in love with Virginia wine as a UVA biology student. After formal training at UC Davis, she returned to helm Blenheim Vineyards where she bottles viognier on its own and blends it in the Painted White and White Table Wine. “Viognier is an important grape for us,” says Harmon. Photo: Amy Jackson Winemaker Kirsty Harmon fell in love with Virginia wine as a UVA biology student. After formal training at UC Davis, she returned to helm Blenheim Vineyards where she bottles viognier on its own and blends it in the Painted White and White Table Wine. “Viognier is an important grape for us,” says Harmon. Photo: Amy Jackson

Viognier and the Virginia wine scene have one thing in common: They both sprung from meager beginnings over the last few decades. In the late 1960s, only about 35 acres of viognier existed in the world, and most of it grew in France’s Rhône Valley. Around the same time, there wasn’t much of a Virginia wine scene. But as viognier spread around the globe and came to places like Charlottesville, both the grape and our local wine region grew to new heights. Today we can visit over 250 Virginia wineries, and we can find viognier worldwide with more than 10,000 acres in France alone.

Viognier has become a cornerstone of the Virginia wine scene over the last few decades. First planted by Dennis Horton, viognier’s thick skins proved to be suitable to Virginia’s heat and humidity. “Viognier likes warm, dry weather with cool nights, which is what we have here,” says Andrew Ornee of Blenheim Vineyards.

The grape also tends to ripen right before hurricane season, which can be a harvest miracle in certain vintages. Its functionality in our unique local climate make it a fine choice for planting, and many wineries have looked to viognier for the staples of their bottling programs.

Some benchmark producers of local viognier include Blenheim, Veritas, Horton, Jefferson Vineyards and Michael Shaps. Blenheim’s juicy viogniers, crafted by Kirsty Harmon, are joyous and hedonistic, and they can also handle a few years of aging, which makes them fun to watch over the long term (Ornee points to the 2012 as one of his favorite recent vintages).

New to wine? Start with Veritas for a tasty textbook example of viognier’s lush, aromatic character.

Horton’s viogniers tend to show depth and complexity; they are made from the oldest viognier in the state and old vines mean deep roots and extra complexity in the grapes.

Jefferson Vineyards recently made headlines with its 2013 viognier’s double gold win at the 2014 San Francisco International Wine & Spirits Competition, which also got it an invite on a national trade tour, granting Virginia’s power grape further recognition in the industry.

For a European-style example of what viognier might taste like in the northern Rhône, try Michael Shaps Virginia viognier, made to old world tastes and ready for some Condrieu-esque aging. Joy Ting, enologist at Michael Shaps’ Wineworks, says, “In a good year, Virginia viognier can be some of the best in the world.”

Even in Colonial times, Virginians were enchanted with viognier and references appear in texts relating to Côte Rôtie in the Northern Rhône as early as 1781. Soon after, Thomas Jefferson sampled the wines of Côte Rôtie, and also the famous viognier from nearby Chateau Grillet, which he deemed to be the best white wine in the northern Rhône.

Today, we can acquire the prolific vino a bit easier than Jefferson. A few additional excellent viognier bottles to hunt down include Barboursville, Chester Gap, Chrysalis and King Family. While Virginia has experimented with many well-known international varieties (merlot, cabernet, chardonnay), viognier is a unique part of our heritage and it helps to distinguish the identity of Virginia in the international market. 

Another important tidbit when choosing a local wine with dinner: “Our viogniers work nicely with a lot of different foods,” Ting says.

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.

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