The Beyoncé of Forgotten Grapes

Viognier, the Beyonce of Forgotten GrapesSee, they rhyme. Get it? No, seriously, sing it with me: Viognier and Beyonce. Crazy, huh? More like crazy in LOVE! No, you’re right. That’s enough.

So, Viognier: a diva grape if there ever was one. She can be extremely difficult to work with; fickle about the climate, weather, soil, and direct sunlight it is planted in; she gets sick fairly easily; you have to pick her at just the right time or else the wine doesn’t turn out well; and even after all of that, the wine can still sometimes turn out flabby and “hot” due to its high alcohol content. And even though Randy Jackson is on a crusade to get us to think that everything hot is good, it is not when it comes to wine, because higher proof does not a good wine make.

Yet for all of the strain and struggle and attitude and effort that Viognier requires, there is an undeniable talent and one hell of a body on display when all conditions are properly met. Viognier wines have perhaps the most intoxicating fragrance of any wine in the world – perfumed with flowers and tropical fruits and apricots. And yet, just when you are expecting a sweet, cloying, sappy kind of wine to match that aroma, Viognier surprises you yet again with a soft, velvety, sometimes viscous mouth feel and unleashes a deep, belting voice of tart, biting flavors. There is a whole lot more to this package than just a pretty face (or a pretty scent, in this case), and Viognier knows it’s something special. In fact, it flaunts it.

Like Beyonce, Viognier got her start harmonizing with two others, in this case fellow northern Rhone white varietals Roussanne and Marsanne, which we’ll cover in more detail over the next two weeks. But those two were never anything more than back-ups to Viognier, and when you taste a true northern Rhone white wine, there is no doubt as to who the clear front grape is. From the nose through the crisp tartness and clean finish, you know from the first sip that Viognier is in charge of any white Rhone blend, from Hermitage to Saint-Joseph and all points in between.

Viognier also makes her presence felt in the all-red-wine appellation of Cote-Rotie as well. Small amount of the white grape are traditionally added to the steep-cliff Syrah grown in the appellation to soften and balance out the wine. While Cote-Rotie wines can  include up to 20% Viognier in their blend, most vintners add no more than 5%, knowing that just a little bit of Viognier can go a long way. It makes for a marriage of grapes that Jay-Z and Beyonce would be proud of: two rich wines coming together as one; he (the Syrah) still wears the pants and gets to maintain his rugged, masculine persona throughout, but her presence is still felt through the class, polish, and fragrant allure she brings into his world. There is a reason why Cote-Roties are some of the most expensive and sought-after Rhone wines, and it has everything to do with the presence of Viognier.

And yet, the most precious, scarce, and expensive wines of the entire Rhone region are solo acts for Viognier, from the Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet appellations, where she finally gets to strut her stuff and show everyone the superstar that she is. And over the last two decades, her image has been so carefully crafted and her star has gained so much momentum that she’s now gone worldwide, with Viognier thriving in such far-off places as California, Virginia, New York, South America, Australia, and Canada. She’s a global icon now. Not bad for a grape that barely existed before the mid-80’s, just like Beyonce. In fact, since the grape nearly disappeared off the face of the earth from the mid 1960’s through the mid 1980’s, you could say that Viognier is the original survivor.

There is one difference, though, between Viognier and Beyonce that can’t be ignored. One is a true worldwide phenomenon, on the lips or at least in the cerebral cortex of just about everyone on the planet. The other is a Forgotten Grape. Which is a crying shame, because there may be no better alternative to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc out there, and certainly no other with the same pedigree as Viognier. Sure, she’s a Forgotten Grape gaining in momentum; perhaps one day she will finally regain the throne it once held and so rightly deserves. But for now, all if can do is present herself in all her perfumed glory, give you everything she’s got night after night, and hope that you like her, you really like her. We here at Friends of the Forgotten Grapes sure do. In fact, we’ve got front row seats to every single one of her performances. And luckily for you, we’ve got one extra ticket.

How do I pronounce Viognier


Viognier Looks Like:

When properly produced, Viogniers have a bright, vibrant yellow color to them. Not as glowing as a highlighter, not as rich as the gold Cross pen that your Uncle Mort and Aunt Mabel gave you as a graduation/first communion/bar or bat mitzvah gift, and not as pale as Sally Barker’s hair (you know Sally, that really cute girl with the braces and barrettes who used to sit in front of you in the third grade), but a nice, soft, opaque, slightly glowing, slightly rich, slightly pale yellow. Honeysuckle, light bronze, pale gold, light straw, light gold, pale straw, light yellow gold, pale golden straw...whatever words you choose to describe it  will work since they all add up to yellow.

Viognier Smells Like:

Now this is what Viognier is most well-known for: its fragrant perfumed aroma. Don’t worry: it won’t be as overpowering as sitting in the front seat next to your 86-year-old grandmother on her way to church, but the strong, sweet aromas of flowers – particularly acacia, orange blossom, gardenia, jasmine, and honeysuckle will be pervasive with your first whiff of Viognier. This perfumed nose is the reason why small amounts of Viognier are commonly blended with Syrah in the northern Rhone (well, that and the fact that the Viognier helps cut the ruggedness of Syrah and give the wine more body and structure) and why certain new-world winemakers are blending Viognier with other white wines like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and even Sauvignon Blanc (that, and to cover for Viognier’s thin, inconsistent flavor nature). Beyond the florals, though, you may also get the scents of apricots, some melon, and possibly some tropical fruit, all of which match the flavor profile of the wine.  

Viognier Tastes Like:

Grenache Blanc produces wonderfully perfumed wines resplendent with bright fresh fruit and florals: notes of green apple, tropical fruits, and stone fruits like peaches and nectarines along with some sweeter hints of honey or powdered sugar. Young Grenache Blancs often take on the scent of dill before they are properly aged. However, because Grenache Blanc is a grape that takes on a lot of the scent and flavor characteristics of the terroir in which it is grown, there can also be more rugged, animalistic scents to the wine, a barnyard smell fairly indicative of certain grapes from the southern Rhone valley, and depending on where the grapes came from, a stoniness or minerality to the nose of the wine as well.

Key Regions:

●        France's Northern Rhone valley, especially the Condrieu and Chateau Grillet appelations and Cote-Rotie (where it is blended in small amounts into Syrah)

●        The Languedoc region of France

●        Paso Robles and California's Central Coast

●        Australia

Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:

Much like Carmenere, numerous acres of Viognier were lost to the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century and never replanted because of the difficulty of growing and harvesting the grape. In fact, by 1965 the grape was nearly extinct in France, with only 30 total acres of Viognier (not a misprint – that’s 3-0) planted throughout the entire country, almost all of it concentrated within two appellations of the northern Rhone valley. Those near-ELE (extinction level event) numbers remained for the better part of the next two decades, until France suddenly got wise to the Viognier renaissance occurring throughout most of the “new world,”  especially in central Calfornia, where Viognier and other Rhone varietals were embraced by a collective of Maverick winemakers calling themselves the “Rhone Rangers.” Today there are over 740 acres of Viognier grown throughout France, and tens of thousands more throughout the rest of the world. Not bad for a notoriously volatile grape that nearly died in the 1960s. Hey, maybe it should be the Keith Richards of Forgotten Grapes instead...

Perfect Pairing:

Viognier is really a deceptive wine. Because it has such a perfumed nose, you might think it’s going to be this slightly sweet, deep, complex wine. And in many cases, it is. But often it ends up being the opposite: either really thick and oily or kind of thin with lots of alcohol up front, and really dry with a ton of peach, apricot and tropical fruit flavors. This doesn’t mean that you can’t pair up a Viognier nicely, though. The tart crispness of a Viognier pairs up very nicely with artichoke hearts. You can either sauté them or deep-fry them, but serve those artichoke hearts with a really garlicky aioli, something that can cut through the acidity and temper that alcoholic burn on your tongue. And let’s face it – anything that’s deep-fried or sauteed and served with garlic aioli is in and of itself super tasty, regardless of what wine you pair it with.

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