Viognier (pronounced VEE-ohn-yay) is the most-planted white Rhone varietal in the United States, and produces wines with intense aromatics of peaches, apricots, and violets, as well as viscosity and lushness on the palate. At Tablas Creek, it takes the lead in our Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and has also played a role as a varietal wine, as a contributor to our Roussanne-based Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, and even as a co-fermentation partner with Syrah.
Viognier is historically grown in the northern Rhône valley, and reaches its peak in the tiny appellations of Condrieu and Château Grillet. The precise historical origin of the varietal is unknown, but many believe it dates back to the Roman Empire. According to one story, Emperor Probus imported Viognier into Condrieu from Dalmatia (in present-day Croatia) in 281 AD as a means of replacing the vineyards destroyed by Emperor Vespasian. Legend has it that Vespasian tore up the Condrieu vineyards after the locals revolted, a revolt which he attributed to drinking too much of the native wine.
Regardless of how the varietal originally arrived in Condrieu, historical records confirm that Viognier was grown in the area during the Roman Empire. When the Romans were forced out of Gaul in the 5th Century, the vines remained uncultivated for centuries but were revived by locals in the 9th Century. The varietal spread to neighboring Château Grillet, and from there to the papal palace at Avignon in the 14th Century.
Viognier's Decline and Recovery
By the 1960's, Viognier plantings had diminished dramatically, down to an estimated 15 acres in Condrieu and little more elsewhere in the Rhone Valley. But with the growth of interest in varietal wines in the late 1980's, the grape was brought to California, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. There are now nearly 3000 acres of Viognier in California alone, making it by far the most planted white Rhone varietal.
Viognier in California
American growers, led by pioneers such as Calera and Joseph Phelps, brought Viognier into the United States in small quantities in the late 1980s. Almost simultaneously, other American growers brought over what they thought were Roussanne cuttings from the Rhône Valley, which were then propagated and planted in vineyards all over California. Years later, in 1998, those vines were identified as Viognier, not Roussanne – a discovery which added a new Viognier clone for California producers to work with. We contributed two new clones, imported from Château de Beaucastel.
Viognier in the Vineyard and Cellar
Viognier is a reasonably difficult grape to grow, as it is somewhat more prone to disease than other varietals and can be unpredictable in its yield. It is, however, reasonably drought resistant, enabling it to thrive in the dry, hot Paso Robles climate. The varietal flowers and ripens early, and is usually the first varietal harvested in very early September. Because Viognier flowers so early in the season, it is susceptible to spring frosts; the frost-protection fans installed in the Viognier growing block at the vinyeard have been important. The vines have medium-sized leaves, with small clusters of small, deep yellow berries that produce straw-gold colored wines. On the nine acres we had in production in 2008, we harvested approximately 19 tons of Viognier, which is about 15% of our white Rhône production.
We typically ferment Viognier to emphasize its freshness rather than its richness. It naturally ripens with relatively high sugars and low acidity, so we ferment it in stainless steel, and look to blend it with lots that have good minerality, bright acidity and low alcohol. Our most frequent partner for our Viognier is Marsanne, but we also add brighter, leaner lots of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc to make our Cotes de Tablas Blanc each year.
Flavors and Aromas
Viognier's powerful aromas of peaches, apricots, and violets make it one of the world's most recognizable grape varieties. In the mouth, it shows great richness, flavors of stone fruit and honey, and a long finish. It is typically best drunk young.