Viognier is the most widely planted wine grape varietal in the United States. It produces wines that have intense, fruity aromatics that many wine connoisseurs equate with violets, apricots, and peaches predominantly. The wines are very viscous and leave a lasting impression on the palate.
Viognier vines present with medium-sized leaves with small, tight clusters of grapes that are deep yellow in colour. The wines they produce have a straw yellow-gold hue. The wines have a high sugar content with low acidity. Many growers feel that fermenting in stainless steel brings out the best qualities in the wines. The flavours are much like the aromatics with properties of flowers and stone fruit.
Historically, Viognier (pronounced vee-oh-NAY) has been grown throughout the northern part of the Rhone Valley, but the actual origin of the varietal is unknown. There is speculation that its history dates back as far as the Roman Empire.
One story has the Roman Emperor Probus importing Viognier from Dalmatia into Condrieu (present day Croatia) in or near 281 CE in an effort to replace a number of vineyards that were destroyed by previous Emperor Vespasian. There is a legend that Vespasian, in a vindictive move following a local revolt, had all the vineyards in Condrieu torn apart. The reasoning for that was that he felt the revolt happened because the locals were indulging in too much wine.
Regardless of the validity of the tale, Condrieu made a great home for Viognier with terroirs that bring out all of its best qualities. When the Romans were ousted from Gaul circa 400 CE, the vines went uncultivated for literally hundreds of years. Around 800 CE, the varietal was revived and its popularity spread to Chateau Grillet in northern Rhône. There it thrived for nearly another 500 years, then making its way to the vineyards of the Palais des Papes in Avignon.
Over the centuries, Viognier planted had diminished to nearly the point of obscurity. By the 1960s, there were literally only 15 acres in Condrieu still devoted to growing it. It was equally or even more sparse throughout the rest of the Rhone Valley. By the late 1980s, however, the grape made its way to California, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Today, one can find close to 3,000 acres devoted to the varietal just in California, making it the most widely planted white Rhone varietal by a broad margin.
Some of today’s Viognier actually made it into the U.S. by accident. American growers in the late 1980s brought back a number of Viognier cuttings they believed to be Roussanne and planted them in their own vineyards. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that it was discovered that those vines were actually Viognier.
Growing Viognier is no small task. It is particularly susceptible to disease, and its yields can be difficult to predict. In its favour, though, it is particularly resistant to drought, making it capable of thriving in more arid climates. It ripens early and is among the first-harvested varietals in early September. The early flower time does make it susceptible to damaging early spring frosts as well. In 2011, for example, nearly the entire production was destroyed due to unseasonably cold temperatures in late March and early April.