Vignettes of Viognier

#134 – July 8, 2010

Last night was a rare night in which I commuted home via subway, which necessitated descending into the pits of Hell – otherwise known as a New York City subway platform – where the combination of heat and humidity can drive temperatures over 100F and a man insane. Given the recent heat wave Manhattan has been experiencing with over three straight days of over 100F weather, “pits of Hell” is a most appropriate description. As I slowly melted into a puddle of nothingness I tried to preoccupy myself with various cooling methodologies that I might employ upon my arrival at home. Interestingly enough the first thing to pop into my head was not crawling into an ice-bath but rather a well-chilled glass of sensually aromatic and tremendously juicy Viognier. This thought provided both the title and topic for this week’s newsletter as legend has it, that Viognier is derived from the Roman pronunciation of “the road to Hell”; probably a reference to the extreme difficulty in cultivating and growing it.

Notwithstanding the fact that Viognier had been growing in the Northern Rhône for over 2000 years, during the late 1960’s it was well on its way to becoming an extinct varietal with less than 30 acres planted in all of France. Since then Viognier has benefited from increasing popularity and gradual increased planting in France, Australia the United States and elsewhere around the world with over 2500 acres of Viognier planted in California alone.

Initially Viognier was used as a blending agent but it is increasingly showing up as an independent varietal. It is the only allowed varietal in two Rhône appellations – Condrieu and Château Grillit (which is a tiny, 10 acre vineyard with one owner) which are supposed to produce the world’s best representations of the grape and of which there are unfortunately, no kosher versions. However the first kosher Viognier was produced by the Golan Heights Winery in 2004 under their Yarden label and since then Viognier has benefited from increasing popularity, as many additional Israeli wineries have thrown their hat in the ring. Given that Viognier vines really only hit their stride after 10-15 years and are at their best after 20 years or so, the best Israeli Viogniers are still to come as the vineyards mature and continue to develop – this should provide us all with a great journey to relish and enjoy.

As its etymology indicates, Viognier is a difficult grape to grow which is for a number of reasons. It is very prone to rotting mildew and produces very low yields, tends to develop high sugar and low acidity which can result in flat wines devoid of character. Another issue is that in order to obtain the delightful aromas for which it is so well know it has to be harvested when relatively ripe, which, in addition to the inherent difficulty in timing the harvest just right, typically results in a relatively high level of alcohol that, unless extreme care and skill is exercised in production, can result in unpleasant “hotness”. On the flip-side, most Viognier wines have relatively low acidity freeing them from needing oak aging yet still providing a full-bodied wine similar to Chardonnay (although a light oak hand can enhance the flavor and creaminess for which the varietal is known). Some Israeli wineries (together with other New World producers) will stir the wine’s lees in an attempt to increase the wine’s acidity.

Viognier wines are well-known for their heady perfume that jumps out of the bottle and engulfs you in fresh juicy goodness. Typical notes include blooming orange, acacia or other flowers, apricots, peaches, honey, spices and a creamy mouth-feel that, when well-made, can be extremely pleasant. The intense sweet-like aromas can lead you to expect a sweet or semi-sweet wine but most Viogniers are crisply dry (but relatively low in acidity). There are some late-harvest Viognier wines being made but, to the best of my knowledge, no kosher versions. Hopefully one will surface since, given the grape’s characteristics, this could potentially produce an amazing dessert wine.

As I mentioned, Viognier has long been used as a blending agent bringing its special characteristics to other wines – both red and white (especially Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Columbard). Given its strong personality, even a small percentage can have a significant effect. One counter-intuitive benefit from blending Viognier with red wines is that it assists in stabilizing and enhancing the red color by virtue of co-pigmentation. One of the most common blendings is the addition of between 1-7% of Viognier to Syrah which is the traditional style of Côte-Rôtie in Northern Rhône. Australian Shiraz producers have also started to add up to 4% of Viognier to their Shiraz which enhances the wine with notes of apricot. The Shiraz of both Dalton and Binyamina (in their Hachoshen series) are Israeli examples of Shiraz blended with Viognier

Given the low-acidity and robust flavors Viognier isn’t the easiest wine to match as you need to be careful not to overwhelm more delicate foods. I love it with sashimi and many Gewürztraminer matches, such as spicy foods, strong salty cheeses and other strongly flavored meat or fish dishes; but it is also highly enjoyable on its own as I did last night to beat the wilting heat and humidity into submission.

I have listed a few tasting notes for some of my favorite Viognier wines below but I note that the majority are of the 2007 vintage given that 2008 was a Shmittah year, and almost no Israeli wines of that vintage were imported, and the 2009 wines are not yet readily available. Many additional Israeli wineries are producing Viognier including Carmel (under its Appellation label which I reviewed a while back), Tabor (its 2008 was amazing) and Yatir (who has yet to make a wine that disappoints me). As with almost every white (or Rosé) wine, the best vintage is the most recent one (most Viognier wines will lose their fresh aromas after three years turning flat on the nose and losing much of their appeal), so I would seek out and eagerly anticipate the appearance on your local shelves of the 2009 vintage of these wines.

Goose Bay Viognier 2007: While I feel that the Goose Bay wines have significantly deteriorated in the past couple years both in quality and value, this wine is very enjoyable. As with the Yarden below it took some serious swirling to get this wine to open up but I was rewarded with the typical fruit and flower aromas of a Viognier along with grapefruits, green apple and guava. A nice balance of fruit and acidity makes this a better food pairing than I would have expected.
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Viognier, 2007: The first kosher Viognier will always have a special place in my heart as it was responsible for introducing me to its creamy goodness. When first removed from my wine fridge the nose seemed a little flat but it rapidly warmed up and exploded into an array of cantaloupe, limes, orange blossoms and violets, apricots and peaches. Enough acidity to keep the creaminess from getting to be too much and a long, luscious finish that lingers and leaves you wanting more.

Dalton, Reserve, Viognier, 2008: A few years ago there was an explosion of Viognier wines on the market as it went through a phase of being the so called “flavor of the month”. I found many of these wines to be very Chardonnay-like and, other than the Yarden Viognier, was not very impressed. Things have gotten better over the years as wineries became more comfortable with the varietal and, while I still love the Yarden, recently I find myself drinking more of the Dalton then the Yarden. This light to medium bodied wine was partially (about 40%) fermented from the wild yeast available on the skins and in the atmosphere and presents with the varietally typical honeyed peachy and apricot flavors on the nose and palate which are backed up by apricots, honey and creamy peaches. Give the wine a few minutes and you will be rewarded with ripe figs, freshly blooming flowers, vanilla and white pepper leading into a long lingering finish.