Better Know a Grape: Viognier

Better Know a Grape: Viognier

I’m taking a step back from my last très recherché BKAG selection, Savagnin, and choosing a more mainstream variety this time. Viognier is the finest white wine grape of the Rhône, and as such doesn’t exactly keep a low profile. It’s gone through phases of semi-trendiness here in the U.S., but has never quite taken off.

It’s understandable. The wines are rarely cheap. The word is hard to pronounce (Vee-o-NYAY, for a rough approximation). And the flavor profile isn’t an obvious sell for people who like their whites crisp and refreshing. These are wines with meat on their bones. The aromas are rich and honeyed, and what the wines may lack in acidity, they make up for in body and alcohol. The relatively low acidity of Viognier means it’s never going to be my absolute favorite variety of all time. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for acidity.

Viognier shines in the northern Rhône, particularly in the tiny Condrieu appellation. The small size of Condrieu, as well as the difficulties of growing this grape (its yields are low) help to explain the high prices these wines fetch. Fun fact: Viognier can also be blended with Syrah to create the powerful, intense red Côte Rôtie wines that are close to my heart–a very, very rare example of white variety being allowed in a red wine.

There are also some good Viogniers stateside, from California and Virginia in particular. This 2007 Praxis Viognier ($20) from Lodi, in California’s hot and sunny Central Valley, is one example. (Full disclosure: this wine is carried by wine importer/wholesaler Todd Wernstrom of Ice Bucket Selections, an avid STBNY commenter and newish Twitter friend. Todd recommended that I try the wine, which I paid for myself.) The Praxis, which is a side project from Napa Cabernet specialist Bill Arbios, has a pretty golden cast, a distinctive feature of the grape. The nose is orange-blossom honey and grapefruit, with a hint of musky fruitiness too, a little like unfiltered apple juice. There’s more honey on the palate, plus some apricots (a tell-tale sign of the grape), as well as some almonds on the lengthy finish. The wine is fermented entirely in stainless steel, which provides some welcome restraint. (Fermenting the wine in oak barrels would make the wine more unctuous — and increase the price.) It’s full-bodied, and it wears its 13.6% alcohol well enough. This an unabashedly pretty wine, and one that would go nicely with, say, scallops in cream sauce or a pseudo-Moroccan chicken dish with dried fruits, nuts and cinnamon. I opened this wine on a Thursday night and it tasted just as good when I pulled it out of the fridge on Monday evening. In part because it’s sturdy enough to hold up nicely for a few days, but also because after a weekend of tasting racy, high-acid and light-bodied Finger Lakes Rieslings, this full-bodied, lush wine was just the ticket.

One final fun fact: Viognier is the sole grape allowed in Château-Grillet, one of the only French appellation that consists of a single wine estate.

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