As you swirl, the glistening yellow to pale golden hue slowly falls down the edges of the glass, creating legs as seductive as the aromas. The highly perfumed notes slap you across the face as you draw your nose closer to the glass. Gushing aromas of ripe apricot, peach, mango, honeysuckle, rose, potpourri, candied citrus peel, Froot Loops (yes, the cereal), and butter. The waxy texture and off-dry palate are balanced by a slight bitterness and moderate acidity. I remember the first time I tasted a well-made Viognier (pronounced vee-oh-NYAY), and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Sommelier Jon McDaniel’s favorite memory of Viognier was in Condrieu, France, while visiting Domaine Philippe Plantevin.
“It was every sommelier’s dream come true,” says McDaniel, who serves as restaurant manager as well as sommelier of Chicago’s Purple Pig. “As everyone was heading to bed, the winemaker gave me the keys to the cellar and I pulled out a ’77 Condrieu he had made. I walked around the vineyard with a bottle in hand gazing at the stars. It was the history and understanding of terroir coming together to make it a surreal moment.”
McDaniel’s favorite thing about Viognier is its versatility. It can be anything from mineral and crisp to sweet and fat. Like Chardonnay, Viognier is a chameleon. It’s a blank canvas for the vineyard manager to paint. Unlike Chardonnay, which can be manipulated in the winery with oak treatment (and easily mask any vintage flaws with its oaky flavors), Viognier requires more vineyard decisions, such as the length of hang time, for example. Viognier is already a finicky grape requiring optimal climate and conditions to thrive. Without the forgivingness of oak treatment, it’s a much riskier grape to produce than Chardonnay.
“Viognier can turn people off if it is aggressively perfumed,” says Amy Troutmiller, senior manager for beverage development for Marriott International in Washington, D.C. “This can be caused from harvesting at the wrong time or young vine age, or even a drinker that is sensitive to floral notes altogether. Someone who hasn't loved a Viognier may want to try a bottle with a few years of age. Although most Viognier is best young, the perfume lessens over time and may well be suited for a picky petal hater.”