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.”
This doesn’t detour Troutmiller from finding the perfect Viognier for customers who have otherwise ruled it out. “I think it makes you perk up even more when you discover one that is beautifully balanced or, better yet, when you drink a Viognier paired perfectly with food,” she says. “I just hate when people give up on a wine after trying one or two and not enjoying it.”
With its many faces, Viognier is perfect for fall cuisine. Try pairing it with root vegetables and winter squash. The richness and heartiness of the squash go well with the tropical flavors of the Viognier. Outside of Riesling, it is one of the best options for spicy food. Try a late-harvest Viognier with desserts incorporating figs, apples or persimmons. It truly adds an extra layer of flavor.
Troutmiller usually recommends Viognier to guests when one person wants a Sauvignon Blanc and the other wants a Chardonnay. “It’s a fun way to get people to try something new and it usually pleases both,” she says.
The best examples of Viognier are a little pricier, so they tend to be found on the bottle list, as opposed to by the glass. And despite media attempts over the past decade to generate awareness about the grape varietal (such as Food & Wine Magazine’s “Viognier Goes Boom” by Lettie Teague published August 2004), many consumers are still in the dark. So adding Viognier to your wine list will be a labor of love, because it will most likely be a hand-sell (a common restaurant term meaning a wine that does not sell itself and must be recommended to the customer).
Although Condrieu and Château-Grillet in Northern Rhône tend to be the most classic regions for Viognier, many other areas are successfully producing the grape variety. The Purple Pig’s McDaniel recommends Domaine de Triennes from Cotes de Provence ($15 to $20 retail). “You don’t think about it as having Viognier, but it’s a traditional grape in the region,” he says.
Another one of McDaniel’s favorite up-and-coming regions for the variety is California. From Morgan Clendenen of Cold Heaven Cellars in Santa Barbara County, to Eric Mohseni at Zaca Mesa in Los Olivos and Ehren Jordan’s Failla from Alban Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, the golden shades of Viognier seem to thrive in the Golden State. And although California Viognier is receiving a lot of attention from sommeliers across the nation, lovely examples can also be found from Oregon, Virginia, Italy and Australia.