THERE MAY be a reason viognier nearly went extinct a half-century ago. And with regularity, grape growers no doubt wish it had.
The white grape of France’s northern Rhône Valley can be maddening to grow and a difficult wine to craft. Viognier is best known as the grape of the Rhône’s Condrieu district. As recently as 1965, just eight acres of viognier remained in Condrieu, putting it in jeopardy of simply vanishing into history.
But since that time, viognier’s fortunes have improved. Today, about 750 acres of viognier are grown in Condrieu. In the past 15 years, the grape has gained a bit of a stronghold on the Pacific Coast, particularly in Washington, where nearly 2,000 tons were harvested in 2012.
Viognier is difficult to grow because it ripens unevenly and is susceptible to disease. If it’s harvested too early, it will become a simple wine. If it’s picked too late, a flaccid, oily and generally unattractive wine could be the result. In addition, viognier is naturally low in acidity — just the opposite of riesling or sauvignon blanc, and arguably it doesn’t handle oak well at all.
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To top it off, because of its scarcity and difficulty to grow, viognier is relatively expensive — the highest-priced white variety in Washington — so the resulting wines are not bargains.
So why in the world would we be interested in this whiny little brat of a grape? Because when a winemaker finds the sweet spot with viognier, the result can be simply sublime. Aromas and flavors that are reminiscent of an orange Creamsicle, along with notes of tropical fruit and exotic spices make it worth the effort to put up with a grape that is finicky at best and exhaustingly frustrating at its worst.
Additionally, many Washington winemakers like to add up to 5 percent viognier to their syrahs, a strategy traditional in the Côte-Rôtie district of the northern Rhône that adds another layer of complexity to the red wine.
My consistently favorite viogniers through the years have come from cooler regions in warm vintages, which gives the grape a chance to mature during a long season. Areas such as the Yakima Valley, Lake Chelan and Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley tend to have the most success with viognier.
Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com