Viognier: a wonderful surprise in the wine world.

By way of context, I should reveal that I was in the wine profession for about 15 years as a retailer, wholesaler, and importer. The work in these fields is not nearly as glamorous as you might think, but I guarantee that I rode the glamorous stereotype for as long as I could before I got married!

I mention the context just to show how much things changed in 25 years. Back when I was in the business, no one knew what Viognier was. I ran into it a couple of times when a customer ordered Condrieu, and my natural curiosity led me to look it up. Condrieu is a tiny appellation in the Northern Rhone and, apparently, it had fallen into disfavor in other areas because it was notoriously finicky compared to other available white varieties; the window of picking Viognier is very narrow, because if you pick it too late, its acid levels tend to drop and it is a grape that requires enough acid to make its peach-apricot-honeysuckle qualities come through.

Fortunately, just when it looked like Viognier was on the road to extinction, two powerful forces came to the rescue. One was Georges DeBeouf who, so famous for his Beaujolais wines, was looking to branch out. While I have yet to see any of his Viogniers in the U.S., he has been influential throughout both France and places as far-flung as Australia.

Josh Jensen (who deserves a post of his own) showed what the wine world now knows:  a willingness to experiment and a resolute refusal to blindly follow traditions. As far as I can tell, he was the first one to bring Viognier to the United States and make commercial wine, followed shortly thereafter by the “Rhone Rangers” just to the south (another group worthy of its own post.)

Good Viognier, to me,  fills the same flavor niche that good Chenin Blanc does. It is a wonderful sipping wine on its own, but it matches well with anything in a cream-based sauce, including some dishes that are mildly spicy. What was once its curse may be its blessing; Chenin Blanc sadly fell out of favor because it could be grown in huge, bland yields that hurt the reputation of the great Chenin Blancs, but Viognier is always going to be a low-yield grape.

So, where does it grow best? Viognier loves warm to hot days, but cool nights. Josh Jensen and the Rhone Rangers of San Luis Obispo have got the right climates. So do Southern Oregon and Eastern Washington.


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