Voluptuous Viognier

With delightful fruit flavors and beautiful aromas, viognier is an iron lady wearing velvet gloves.

Story by Anne Sampson
Photos by Kevin Cruff

Rough terrain can spawn some really cool things, like mountain goats or indie musicians. Include viognier (VEE-own-yay) on the list. This Rhone white is known for rich aromas and a strong backbone. Look for it in vineyards with long growing seasons and lots of sun — but not so hot that sugars climb too high — areas with steep elevations and maybe some air flow, like the mistral winds of France’s Rhone Valley. Some of Washington’s biggest producers include Maryhill Winery and Chateau Ste. Michelle. But don’t overlook some interesting bottlings from small vintners in areas like Washington’s Royal Slope, the northern reaches of the Columbia Valley, and Oregon’s Applegate Valley.

Viognier’s rich golden color and deep perfumes might smack of “girly” grapes — sweet and soft. But this is a dry wine with sturdy minerality behind its lush body. With delightful fruit flavors (pears, peaches, Honeycrisp apples) and beautiful aromas, it’s an iron lady wearing velvet gloves.

For growers, viognier can be a challenge (some think it’s named for the Roman Via Gehenna, the Road to Hell). Even in the best conditions, its yields can be unpredictable. In southern Oregon, Andy Pearl of Pearl Family Vineyard grows three acres of viognier on a gravelly, loam-covered river bench with plenty of sun exposure and a long growing season. Pearl picked his 2018 fruit in mid-October. “We do a pretty good job of waiting until the viognier is good and ripe,” he says. Taste his fruit in Awen Winecraft’s 2017 Viognier, named Best of Show at the 2018 Oregon Wine Experience.

In Washington, Josh and Lisa Lawrence grow viognier at their Corfu Crossing vineyard in the Royal Slope appellation. It’s a hands-on grape, Lisa says. Multiple passes through the vineyard for canopy control, followed by multiple picks — early for good acidity, later for more sugars — create balance. The Lawrence Vineyards’ winery, Gård Vintners, gets the lion’s share of the crop for their grave classe bottling of 100% viognier. The remainder is married with roussanne for their Freyja blend. 

North of Chelan, at Antoine Creek Vineyards, owner Brock Lindsay grows “the thickest-skinned viognier in the state” on alluvial soil pushing out into the Columbia River. Nearby cliffs give afternoon shade and protection from sunburn. Within one hour of picking, the grapes are pressed at his winery, Succession Wines. Small berries mean good balance between tannins from the skins and acid from the fruit, and a slow, cold fermentation preserves the aromatics without cooking out the flavors. Those beautiful scents, Brock says, create that viognier magic — the perfumes of a sweet wine and the strength of a crisp, dry white. 

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