Viognier (French pronunciation: [vjɔɲje]) is a white wine grape variety. It is the only permitted grape for the French wine Condrieu in the Rhône Valley.
Outside of the Rhône, Viognier can be found in regions of North and South America as well as Australia, New Zealand, the Cape Winelands in South Africa, south Moravia region in Czechia, Israel and in Austria at Weingut Roland Minkowitsch. In some wine regions, the variety is co-fermented with the red wine grape Syrah where it can contribute to the color and aroma of the wine.
Like Chardonnay, Viognier has the potential to produce full-bodied wines with a lush, soft character. In contrast to Chardonnay, the Viognier varietal has more natural aromatics that include notes of peach, pears, violets and minerality. However, these aromatic notes can be easily destroyed by too much exposure to oxygen, which makes barrel fermentation a winemaking technique that requires a high level of skill on the part of any winemaker working with this variety.
The potential quality of Viognier is also highly dependent on viticultural practices and climate, with the grape requiring a long, warm growing season in order to fully ripen but not a climate that is so hot that the grape develops high levels of sugars and potential alcohol before its aromatic notes can develop. The grape is naturally a low-yielding variety, which can make it a less economically viable planting for some vineyards.
Viognier, pronounced as [vjɔɲje], is a grape variety known for its distinct white wines. It enjoys exclusive status as the sole grape used in the production of Condrieu, a celebrated French wine from the Rhône Valley.
This grape variety isn’t confined to the Rhône, though. It’s cultivated in various global locations, including North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, the Cape Winelands of South Africa, the south Moravia area in Czechia, Israel, and at Weingut Roland Minkowitsch in Austria. In certain wine-making regions, Viognier is sometimes blended with the red Syrah grape, enhancing the latter’s hue and scent.
Viognier shares similarities with Chardonnay in its ability to create rich, velvety wines. Yet, it stands out due to its inherent aromatic properties, exuding scents of peach, pear, violets, and earthy minerals. These delicate fragrances, however, are susceptible to degradation if the wine is overexposed to air. This makes barrel fermentation a particularly intricate technique when dealing with Viognier, demanding great precision and expertise from the vintner.
The caliber of Viognier wines is closely tied to vineyard practices and the prevailing climate. The grape thrives in a lengthy, warm growing period which allows for full maturation without the extreme heat that accelerates sugar accumulation and potential alcohol content, overshadowing the development of its distinct aromas. Furthermore, Viognier’s tendency towards low yield production poses economic challenges for some winegrowers, given its demand for careful cultivation and optimal conditions.
History of Viognier grape variety
The precise beginnings of the Viognier grape variety remain shrouded in mystery. It’s speculated to be one of the older grape types, potentially hailing from the region now known as Croatia and later introduced to the Rhône area during Roman times. Myths circulate about its journey to this region; one suggests that Emperor Probus was responsible for its transfer in 281 AD, while another narrates a tale of the grape, alongside Syrah, being transported via the Rhône river to Beaujolais, only to be seized near modern-day Condrieu by a notorious band of rebels called culs de piaux.
The etymology of ‘Viognier’ is equally enigmatic. A popular theory links it to the French city of Vienne, a significant Roman hub. Alternatively, some believe its name is derived from the Roman term ‘via Gehennae,’ translating to the ‘Road of the Valley of Hell,’ a nod to the grape’s challenging cultivation.
Previously, Viognier was relatively widespread. However, by 1965, it was nearly lost to history, with reports indicating a mere eight acres in Northern Rhône yielding just 1,900 liters of wine at that juncture. Subsequently, the grape’s stature and market value surged, paralleled by an increase in cultivation. The Rhône region now boasts upwards of 740 acres (299.5 hectares) dedicated to this grape.
A significant revelation came in 2004 when DNA analysis at the University of California, Davis, uncovered that Viognier shares a close genetic link with the Freisa grape from Piedmont and is a genetic relative of Nebbiolo.
Viticulture of Viognier grape variety
Cultivating Viognier presents unique challenges due to its susceptibility to powdery mildew. This grape variety demands precise timing for harvesting; it must reach full maturity to express its aromatic potential. Harvesting prematurely results in underdeveloped flavors and aromas, while late harvesting leads to wines that are excessively oily and lack fragrance. In Condrieu, a renowned region for Viognier, vintners aim for grape sugar levels that yield wines with approximately 13% alcohol content. At peak maturity, Viognier grapes exhibit a rich yellow hue, producing wines noted for their intense aromatic profile and substantial alcohol content. The grape thrives in warm climates with extended growing seasons, yet it is adaptable to cooler regions too.
The Mistral wind plays a crucial role in the Northern Rhône’s Viognier vineyards, particularly in France. This wind moderates the regional Mediterranean climate, providing relief to the vines during the intense summer heat.
Renowned wine connoisseur Remington Norman has pinpointed two primary Viognier variants: a traditional strain predominant in Condrieu, and a more modern strain found in Languedoc and other regions. Despite originating from the same grape, these two variants yield remarkably different wines.
Furthermore, the age of the vine significantly influences the wine’s quality. Viognier vines generally reach their prime after 15 to 20 years, and in the Rhône region, some vines are celebrated for their longevity, with ages extending to 70 years or more.
In the realm of viticulture, an effervescent Viognier has emerged as a standout from Washington State, marking a significant shift in global wine production trends. The cultivation of Viognier vines has seen a substantial upsurge globally since the 1990s, with California and Australia at the forefront, dedicating vast expanses to this varietal. This expansion is also evident in milder climate zones, including the Monticello AVA in Virginia, showcasing a broader geographical embrace of this grape.
The historical ebb in France’s Viognier cultivation can be traced back to the destructive impact of North American phylloxera pests in the late 19th century and the subsequent vineyard abandonments during the turmoil of World War I. By the mid-20th century, France’s Viognier vineyards had dwindled to a mere 30 acres, nearly vanishing entirely. However, paralleling its global rise, France has witnessed a significant resurgence in Viognier cultivation since those critical years. This revival is not confined to France alone; countries like South Africa, New Zealand, Greece, and Japan are also contributing to the grape’s global renaissance.
In the French viticulture scene, Viognier has a unique standing, especially in the Rhône appellations of Condrieu and Château Grillet, nestled on the Rhône’s western banks near Lyon. While it is predominantly cultivated as a single varietal, blends are not uncommon, with combinations featuring Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache blanc, and Rolle in the broader Rhône region, and even Chardonnay in the Northern Rhône. The Côte-Rôtie AOC presents an intriguing blend, allowing up to 20% Viognier in its red wine mix, though most vintners prefer a more conservative 5%. The early ripening nature of Viognier complements the Syrah during fermentation, lending a stabilizing effect to the red wine’s color through co-pigmentation.
French vintners are also exploring other regions with granite-rich soils conducive to Viognier cultivation, with notable expansions in regions like Languedoc, largely fueled by efforts from figures like Georges Duboeuf. Languedoc now stands as a prominent hub for Viognier, often labeled under Vin de Pays.
Across the Atlantic, North America has embraced Viognier with zeal since the late 1980s, particularly in the United States and Canada. California’s Central Coast has become a prominent hub, with its Viognier variants known for a higher alcohol content. The grape’s ascent was partly spurred by the Rhone Rangers movement in the mid-1980s, and its acclaim has reached states like Virginia, where it’s been honored as the signature white grape. The grape’s footprint extends through a mosaic of states, each contributing to the varietal’s diversity and adaptation to different terroirs and climates.
Venturing further south, both Argentina and Chile have become noteworthy contributors to Viognier cultivation, with Brazil and Uruguay also exploring the grape’s potential.
In Australia, the grape has found a robust advocate in Yalumba, the nation’s leading producer of Viognier, known for both its varietal wines and its role in enriching Shiraz blends. The varietal thrives in the Eden Valley’s loam and clay soils, with its presence also notable in regions like Clare Valley and Barossa Valley, among others.
New Zealand, too, has joined this global trend, albeit on a smaller scale, with regions like Waiheke Island, Wairarapa, and the Hawke’s Bay Region integrating Viognier both as a single varietal and in Syrah blends, echoing the traditions of the Rhône style.
Originating from California, Viognier wine is celebrated for its distinctive floral scent and presence of terpenes, similar traits shared with Muscat and Riesling varieties. Depending on factors like their origin, climatic conditions, and vine age, these wines can exhibit a rich spectrum of floral and fruity notes. Typically, Viognier wines are best enjoyed while fresh and youthful, as aging, particularly beyond three years, tends to diminish their hallmark floral fragrances. Although their hue and scent might hint at sweetness, these wines are predominantly dry, with the exception of some sweet, late-harvest versions.
Viognier grapes, known for their low acidity, are often blended to enhance and mellow wines primarily made from the Syrah grape. Besides imparting a smoothing effect, they contribute to the wine’s color stability and aromatic complexity. These grapes are generally resistant to the Botrytis cinerea fungus, although encountering a botrytized Viognier is not entirely rare.
In the production process, harvesting the grapes in the early hours is a common practice aimed at securing the purest juice. Winemakers might choose to permit skin contact, noting that the Viognier’s skin, rich in phenols, can introduce astringent qualities if overexposed. To enrich the wine’s body and moderate its acidity, malolactic fermentation is sometimes employed. In the New World approach, lees are stirred (batonnage) to refine the wine’s texture, followed by an aging process on the lees akin to that used in sparkling wine production.
For crafting a dessert-style Viognier, late harvests in autumn are typical, with the Condrieu region employing a unique technique known as à l’assiette for collecting overripe grapes. The fermentation is halted prematurely to preserve high sugar levels, followed by chilling and sterile filtration to maintain stability and prevent re-fermentation post-bottling.
The optimal age for enjoying a Viognier varies with style and region; some reach their prime in just a year or two, while others maintain their quality for up to a decade. Wines from Condrieu are generally consumed young, whereas those from California and Australia exhibit a greater capacity for aging.
In terms of culinary pairings, the grape’s robust aroma and fruity profile make it an excellent match for the bold flavors of spicy dishes, such as those found in Thai cuisine.
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