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Viognier - what's the story?

Almost a decade ago, the Rhone Rangers came riding into the U.S. and changed the face of varietal wines. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in the Santa Cruz mountains of California was the most visible Ranger, with his insistence that California should be growing the grapes of the Mediterranean region, not the "classic" varieties of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Germany. Grahm's argument was that, for the most part, California's climate was Mediterranean, not continental.

Since the Rhone Valley is mostly red, the Rangers were talking about red wine grapes--Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and the like. The white wine grapes were rarely mentioned. But now, a white variety from the Rhone, Viognier, is starting to kick up the same kind of excitement last seen when the Rhone Rangers first rode out. Not only that, but from early evidence, it looks like Viognier might do quite well in distinctly non-Mediterranean areas like Colorado and Virginia, for starters.

In June, 28 wineries and about 200 attendees from all across the United States and from Australia and France participated in an event called "Viognier: A View From the Vineyards" held at Alban Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, Calif. near San Luis Obispo. It was the second annual conference. The first was held in May of 1993 in Georgia and attracted about 30 people. Both meetings were organized by The Viognier Guild, which is virtually a creation of Matt Garretson. Garretson is now the marketing director for Eberle Wines in Paso Robles.

In some respects, the event in June was almost a pep rally for Viognier, but there were also serious questions raised about the future of Viognier in the United States, in the vineyard, the winery and the marketplace.

Some of the major questions raised included:

* What soils are best for Viognier?

* What crop levels?

* What kind of barrel treatment, if any?

* What is a textbook Viognier?

* What about pricing?

From the evidence at hand, none of those questions were answered in any definitive fashion yet progress towards answers was undoubtedly made.

But, let's begin at the beginning.

The history of Viognier is obscure. There is one theory that it was brought to the Rhone Valley by Phoenicians as early as the sixth century BC. Another theory is that it was brought by the Romans and originally came from Dalmafia in what is now part of Bosnia.

For an ampelography of Viognier, the best place to look is in "Cepage et Vignobles de France (Volume II) L'Ampelographie Francaise. Pierre Galet." Lucie T. Morton translated the Viognier section for the Viognier Guild and it was published in the handbook "Viognier: A View From the Vineyards" presented at the June conference. Following is quoted from the handbook.

"Synonyms: Vionnier, Petit Vionnier, Viogne

"History: There is no known history of this grape. The variety has been grown for a very long time in Condrieu, in Ampuis and the Loire. The Ampelographer Ulliat felt that the variety Galopine (grown in Isre) was Viognier, but as Galopine is now a lost variety, there is no way to verify this. It is also held by some that Viognier is a relative to the Albarina variety (grown in Northern Spain), but this is disputed.

"Before phylloxera there was a mention of "Viognier Vert (green)" and a "Viognier Jaune (yellow)." Galet believes this to be a minor clonal variation, where one clone is more vigorous and fertile, with the more vigorous foliage shading the fruit and keeping it green.

"Description: Heavy tomentum on growth tip with pink margins.

"Young Leaves--Light tomentum; rough surface (blistered), with some bronzing.

"Adult Leaves--Medium size, round orbicular rough surface (contured shape). Five distinct lobes, defined with narrow-pointed sinuses. Patiolar sinus is "U" shaped with no cross-over. Narrow, arched teeth. Underside of leaf blade has light tomentum, but is bristly in nature.

"Shoot--Ribbed, clear green, lightly brownish on the sun-exposed side.

"Tendrils--Long and thick.

"Cluster--Medium weight, short, lightly conical, sometimes with wing, compact.

"Berries--Small, round to oval, amber white, thick skin, slight Muscat flavor.

"Ripening--Mid-season after Chardonnay but before Cabernet Sauvignon. Around Cabernet franc.

"General Comments:

"Viognier displays durability, but has fertility problems--variety needs to be cane-pruned. A 7-to-8 bud cane is recommended. Basal buds are often sterile. ('We now know that this is more a function of canopy management; sunlight exposure to the fruit buds, etc'.--L. Morton)

"Yields in Condrieu average about 20-30 hectoliters per hectare (15hl/ha = 1 ton/acre). A truly noble variety of quality, but one must have faith to plant in an unestablished and unrecognized appellation. Low yields may inhibit economics of growing if one cannot command the price.

"Viognier is susceptible to powdery mildew. Displays good fruit set and drought tolerance. It is not prone to berry-shatter. Wine displays highly aromatic characteristics (peach, apricot, honey, spicy) of great quality."

On the palate, a "textbook" Viognier has many taste qualities in common with Pinot noir. At its best, Viognier has that silky quality also found in top Pinot noir and that elusive appearance of sweetness, even when the wine is dry. (Matthew Garretson, the marketing director of Eberle Winery and founder of the Viognier Guild was the first to call this similarity to Pinot noir to my attention.)

On the nose, the best Viognier should be perfumed, with a market basket of aromas--peach, apricot, pear, violets, sometimes herbal tones like thyme appear. All of those aromas should follow through on the palate. Viognier should have a rich, deep mouthfeel with an exotic mix of fruit. At the end, the finish should be moderately long, clean and refreshing.

Those flavor characteristics seem to hold true, whether the grape is grown in the U.S. or in France, although the better French Viognier--those from Condrieu, with Georges Vernay the prime example--seem to have an added depth, a flinty backbone missing in most U.S. versions. However, with the exception of La Jota, the U.S. wines were all made from very young vines. The flinty character may kick in as the vines mature. For example, a Georges Duboef Viognier from young vines in the Ardeche region of Rhone, was missing that flinty bite.

Worldwide, Viognier plantings are concentrated in France where an estimated 1,000 acres are now under cultivation, up from perhaps no more than 100 acres 30 years ago, and that may be a high estimate. John Livingstone-Learmouth in "The Wines of the Rhone" estimated only about 20 acres under cultivation in Condrieu in 1965. He projects about 120 acres for 1995.

The explosion of Viognier in France is taking place in various Vin de Pays, where it is often sold simply as a white wine. In the Ardeche it is sometimes seen as Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc. There is an estimated 400 acres of Viognier now planted in Ardeche in the Rhone. In 1993, producer Georges Duboef has plans for 40,000 cases of Viognier by 1996, which will be made at a new winery under construction at Villeneuve de Berg. In Languedoc-Roussillon there are over 300 acres of Viognier, where it is commonly called Vin de Pays d'Oc. Leading producers include Skalli's Fortant deFrance, Val d'Orbieu's Reserve St. Martin and Brutte's Pere Anselme. A number of negociant labels are turning up, including Melvyn Master's Les Jamelles.

There are 20 to 25 acres of Viognier planted in Italy and an estimated 11 acres in Australia.

The Viognier Guild estimates that acreage in the U.S. is approaching 350, and much of that acreage is experimental. The following state-by-state survey is based on research by the Viognier Guild.

With its 32 acres, Virginia is the second largest Viognier producer in the U.S. Outside of California, it has more Viognier planted than the rest of the U.S. combined. Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards was the first to plant Viognier in the state on 1991 and in 1992 Horton produced the first commercial Viognier in the eastern U.S. He made 1,000 cases from the 1993 vintage and will make 2,000 cases this fall if all goes according to plan.
                            Commercial        Estimated
State                          Wines            Acres

Arizona                         No                4.50
California                      25              280.00
Colorado                         2                4.00
Georgia                         No                0.50
Louisiana                       No                0.50
Maryland                        No                0.20
ichigan                         No                1.10
New Mexico                      No                0.10
New York                        No                4.00
North Carolina                  No                2.00
Ohio                            No                0.05
Oregon                          No                8.00
Texas                           No                1.53
Utah                             1(*)             0.10
Virginia                         1               32.00
Total                           29              338.58

* Arches Vineyard has made Viognier from Colorado grapes.

Horton's Viognier is planted on Rootstock 3309 with an open lyre (divided canopy) trellis. He harvested 3.5 tons per acre in 1993 and is expecting 4.5 tons per acre in 1994.

Horton is sold on Viognier for several reasons. It is part of the winery's Rhone series, which includes Marsanne, Mourvedre and Syrah. He believes that those warm-weather grapes work very well in Virginia. As for Viognier in particular, its thick skin, loose bunch cluster and cold-hardiness are appealing in Virginia's continental climate in the rolling hills of central Virginia. Horton said that Viognier ripens very well in both cool and warm years in Virginia. He has planted 20 acres of his 60 acres of vineyard to Viognier.

Horton's success with Viognier has led to plantings by Ingleside Plantation Vineyards, where two acres are planted on 3309 on a bi-lateral cordon with a single curtain; Tarara has planted 5.5 acres on a vertical trellis. Ivy Creek and Oasis Vineyards also have planted new vineyards.

Oregon, with eight acres, has the third largest planting of Viognier in the U.S. Commercial wines are expected from Cristom Winery and Temperance Hill Vineyard, both in the Eola Hills region. Cristom is planting on a dense 2,700 vines per acre spacing on an upright trellis. Temperance Hill is planted on 10' x 4' spacing on a vertical trellis trained to Guyot. Mark Chin of Temperance Hill plans to restrict yield to no more than two tons per acre.

Colorado has two commercial Viogniers, Grande River Vineyards and Minturn Cellars. Production at both was under 100 cases in 1993. Grande River's vines are on their own roots (sourced from La Jota, Ritchie Creek and Calera) on vertical, bi-lateral cordons with moveable catch wires. The yields were 1.94 tons per acre in 1992 and 3.61 tons in 1993. The first planting was in 1987. Stephen Smith, the owner, said that in his experience, Viognier loses acid and gains pH, especially after undergoing malolactic, but it responds well to acidulation.

The commercial history of Viognier in California began in 1961 when Bill Smith of La Jota and Pete Minor of Ritchie Creek Vineyards planted Viognier. Minor's vineyard site on Spring Mountain suffered from ripening problems and he finally ripped out his Viognier in 1993. Smith has been called the "Johnny Appleseed" of American Viognier. He has provided many producers around the U.S. with budwood in a kind of ongoing experiment to see how Viognier performs under various soil and climate conditions.

Smith's vines are planted on AxR1 rootstock with a Geneva Double Curtain and double cordon trellis. The average yield is about three tons per acre. Smith says that berry shatter can be a problem but zinc treatment seems to solve that.

Smith applies zinc by foliar spray, which he says has made a big difference in the set. "Instead of 1 1/2 tons per acre, now we get about three tons per acre."

Smith, who released his first commercial Viognier in 1986, said that varietal has no particular problems in the vineyard. "There are no mildew problems. We do some leaf pulling, but I think it's a varietal characteristic."

Some producers across' the U.S. have had problems with birds (and coyotes in Arizona) but Smith said he has not experienced that, perhaps because of his site.

His vineyards are on volcanic ash and tufa, both red and white soils, depending on the iron content. He hasn't found much difference between the two soils. Smith has three clones, one from the Geneva Testing Station in New York, one from Montpellier in France and a University of California at Davis clone. It's mostly the Geneva clone that Smith passes on.

"At first, I thought I could tell a clonal difference in the wines, but not anymore," he said.

At first, Smith picked at 22.5 or 22.8 brix. "But Viognier really needs mort ripeness. Now we pick at 24 and I think we get a much better wine. I prefer to have the aromatics you get at the higher brix and not worry about higher alcohol."

Unlike the experience of Grande River Vineyards in Colorado, Smith has no problems with low acidity and almost always puts the wine through malolactic.

Lou Preston at Preston Vineyards shares Smith's experience in moving toward a riper grape to develop flavor characteristics. "We started out looking at early picking. Now we are picking at about 23 Brix, which gives us about 14% A.C. but also gives us that aromatic, floral character," he said.

Preston's vineyards are planted on light river soils with a lot of gravel, soils that wouldn't support a very big crop under any circumstances. Preston and his winemaking staff believe after reviewing the past four years that 2 1/2 tons per acre is about right. "At a bit over three tons, the flavor intensity starts to decline," he said.

He said it was not a difficult varietal to work with, beyond getting the right level of ripeness. He doesn't put the Viognier through malolactic. He said the wine seems sensitive to fermentation temperature, with cooler temperatures bringing out floral and tropical notes, while warmer ones emphasize fruit pit and nutty aromas. (At Horton Vineyards, the grapes are refrigerated overnight after picking to 40F then whole-cluster pressed to maximize fruit flavors.)

Like most producers, Preston doesn't think Viognier is suited to new oak. He uses barrel fermentation for about two-thirds of the wine, using five and six year old French oak. "I'm not after oak with the barrel fermentation, but the added complexity," Preston said.

Josh Jensen's experience with Viognier seems to be typical of why people are planting the grape.

"It was back in 1969 when I was working the harvest in France. I had a bottle of Viognier from Chateau Grillet in Condrieu and fell in love with it. When I got back to the states, I started checking around to see if there was any Viognier in California. I was told that Davis didn't recommend it for planting because it was too low yielding. They had said the same thing about Chardonnay. In 1973, I submitted a formal petition to the Foundation Plant Material Service. Fifteen years later, the first certified Viognier came forth. I got my first budwood from Geneva in New York and planted my first two acres in 1983."

Jensen planted three more acres in 1989. The vines are on their own roots on a bi-lateral cordon with a catch wire. The first commercial Viognier from Calera was in 1989.

"My biggest problem in the vineyard was just getting vines established. We had many experiences of budding or grafting where the shoot would grow for a few months and then die. I was really getting discouraged when I talked to the people at Guigal. They said that if you just look at it wrong, it died. But since we have started getting a commercial crop, we've had no particular problems. We get a yield of between 2 and 3.5 tons per acre which is a larger yield than we get from Pinot noir. We want to pick it fully ripe."

Jensen said he had three "trade secrets" for Viognier:

* Pick the grapes very ripe. The extreme ripeness gives the full range of flavors for Viognier. For five straight vintages, he has hit 25.5 Brix.

* Barrel ferment in the oldest barrels you have. At Calera that means ten to twelve year-old barrels. Like Lou Preston, the goal here is not oak, but richness on the palate. As Jensen put it, "We feel that viognier grapes arrive already perfect. They don't need additional oak flavoring.

* Induce malolactic to cut the acidity, to add complexity and stability.

So, very early answers to the questions posed at the beginning of the article look like this:

* What soils are best for Viognier? No clear answers. Jensen thinks its reputation for being a low producer may have to do with the traditional poor soils where Viognier has been planted. The soil question is linked closely to the next question:

* What crop levels? Under three tons an acre seems to be the thinking just now, although Horton Vineyard is making very typical Viognier at slightly higher levels. There is no good data available on Vin du Pays crop levels, although there does seem to be some dilution of flavors in those wines.

* What kind of barrel treatment, if any? The answer seems to be, no new oak, indeed, not much oak at all.

* What is a textbook Viognier? The goal here is for the floral aromatics, the full-bore range of fruit, plus a complex mouthfeel which can come from barrel fermentation (in old oak) and malolatic fermentation.

* What about pricing?

Ah, there's the rub. Pricing. Which seems to be linked closely with the market for Viognier.

There has been some talk that Viognier is an alternative to Chardonnay. Jensen, for one, doesn't buy that approach. "It is not going to take the place of Chardonnay. It's such a flamboyant wine that I don't ever see it becoming a super mainstream everyday sort of wine. But there is no better wine for a change of pace. Its highest and best use may be as an aperitif," Jensen concluded.

Lou Preston concurs. "The flavors are very exotic. It's a wine for the people looking for more flavor."

If Viognier does not fit into the mainstream, then pricing is not important, but if a producer is looking at a mainstream sell, pricing is obviously critical.

Fetzer Vineyards is now planting 30 acres of Viognier, which would make it the largest Viognier producer in the U.S.

Why? And what price?

Sid Goldstein, national marketer for Fetzer, "Viognier fills a real need in the white wine slot," Goldstein said. "With red wine, you've got Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot noir, Syrah--a lot of choices. In white wines, there's Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and that's about it for marketing purposes."

The Mondavi family is reportedly interested in Viognier as part of its popularly-priced Vichon series. (Vichon Viognier does have a ring, doesn't it?)

Lou Preston believes that the future of Viognier depends to some extent on the price. While he believes the wine must be made according to the intrinsic character of the fruit, it must also be priced so that it's more than a curiosity. Prices, he believes, must fall into the mainstream range.

Melvin Master, the negociant who created the Les Jamelles label for Masterwines, Inc., which is imported by Yale Sager, Winesellars, Ltd., of Skokie, Ill., thinks, on the other hand, that it is important to make the wine as affordable as possible, to avoid giving Viognier the elitist ticket.

Most U.S. Viognier is priced in the $15 to $30 range, with some French producers going above $30. The producers offer two defenses: first, there just isn't that much Viognier available. Citing the law of supply and demand, producers argue that since Viognier is in short supply, the high prices are justified. It's a good argument, but scarcity of supply doesn't mean much unless it is coupled with demand. At this point, the Rhone varieties and Viognier in particular are selling well, but in very small quantities compared with the standard varieties. Will they keep selling well as production increases? No one knows.

The second leg of the "what price Viognier" argument is that bargain Viognier lacks the richness and quality of the higher-priced wines. Several winemakers have made the point that if Viognier is overcropped it tends to flatten out and turn into just another white wine.

Bill Smith of La Jota makes the point that just as there are $5 Chardonnays and $100 Chardonnays, so Viognier could fall into a similar price range.

The early evidence, from the tasting of almost 40 Viogniers at Alban Vineyards, is that the less expensive Viognier (made, presumably, from more productive vineyards) does lack the characteristic rich mouthfeel that one wants in a good Viognier, yet still retain some characteristic Viognier fruit.

It could just be that Viognier winegrowers either have to make a decision to remain true to the grape, keep production low and go for the limited super-premium market, or become, in the modern jargon "market-driven" and sell less-than-impressive wines.

Viognier is beginning to get some respect, but it is also at a turning point. The final question to be asked is how many more mass-marketed $5 wines does the world really need?
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Title Annotation:white wine grape
Author:Walker, Larry
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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