A Red-Minded White

By Mark Stock

Having flirted with extinction in the mid-1960s, one might imagine Viognier (vee-ohn-YAY) as a wine with little strength and character. Yet, brought up in the tough company of mighty Syrah in the northern Rhone region, Viognier became thick-skinned, resilient and wonderfully full. Perhaps it was the tough love dished out by the Romans, the party most likely responsible for its French upbringing. Like a younger sibling raised under a bullying brother, Viognier has weathered a fair amount of abuse. But it’s under those conditions the bold white achieved its rich independence and one-of-a-kind personality.

In 1965, there were fewer than ten planted acres of Viognier worldwide. Prone to disease and extremely labor intensive, the varietal had nearly become a thing of the past. Low yields and trying fruit sets make it a finicky crop indeed. In many ways, it’s the Pinot Noir of the white wine arena.

For some time, the golden yellow grape was used as a softener, its low acidity dampening bigger, burlier blends. In general, Viognier emits a strong, alluring fragrance. Though feminine in scent, Viognier offers a drier, more masculine palate feel. In few other whites is there such a disconnect between nose and mouth. Perhaps part of that comes from its peculiar genetic background. Viognier is related to both Nebbiolo (the noble Piedmont grape of Barbera and Barbaresco) and Freisa (another northern Italian red).

Now much more common, especially as a single varietal, Viognier has stretched its vines from France to Australia and the States. Domestically, it’s planted in California, Washington and Oregon, as well as Virginia and Colorado. Arizona has even had its stabs at Viognier, a grape particularly enjoyed—much to the stress of the farmers—by resident coyotes. Southern Oregon sees the most Viognier, thanks to sunnier, drier weather. Several of the wineries on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge make Viognier, too, albeit often with Washington fruit.

In a state saturated by Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, Viognier offers an exceptional alternative, unlike any other. Great alone and fairly flexible in pairings, it’s a white on the rebound, partially due to recent interest in Rhone varietals but more so on account of its uncanny richness.

Southern Oregon’s Troon makes a Viognier. Dick Troon founded the eponymous vineyard in 1972. Their 2007, made from Applegate Valley fruit, smells of passion fruit and melon with the faintest of green hues. Slightly effervescent upfront, the wine builds into a creamy mid-palate with notes of citrus. So soft is the ’07, it seems to caress the tongue. This vintage has sold out, but still may be available at some of Troon’s retailers.

Valley View’s 2006 Anna Maria Viognier packs more of a punch, the product of a warmer, lengthier growing season. With a buttery perfume of cantaloupe and apricot, the wine is somewhat oily. Lush and creamy with the faintest hints of bubblegum, the wine offers a tart, fruity finish akin to an un-oaked Chardonnay. What a difference a year makes, as their 2007 Anna Maria (the name goes on the labels of their finest wines) is much quieter. The nose reminds one of green apples and vanilla, even herbal, while the flavor is quicker, sharper and more dependent on the grape’s flavor. The Anna Maria wines are released through Valley View Winery of the Rogue Valley. Launching in 1972, their rustic barn turned winery is operated by the Winovsky family.

Medford’s RoxyAnn Winery crafts a true rarity in their late-harvest Viognier. A barnyard owl occupies the label, a reference to their century-old pastoral barnyard, which shares the scenic landscape with lots of local critters. In the glass, the dessert wine smells distinctly nutty, like caramelized pecans and green tea. In the mouth, there’s a pinch of carbonation, before an explosion of pineapple, melon and peach fruit flavors. Somewhat grassy, the syrupy wine exits with a limey, sorbet-like finish. Of a Rhone mindset, RoxyAnn also crafts a Roussanne, as well as a traditional Viognier.

Daisy Creek Winery out of Jacksonville produces a 2007 Viognier with a tremendous bouquet. Melted butter, cherries and violets radiate, while the taste relies on citrus and toasted almonds. Its sharp edge reminds the taster of how dominant the fruit can be when made and aged accordingly. Their vineyard cradles a trickling Daisy Creek and at 1,350 feet, offers a slow and steady fruit ripening process.

Agate Ridge Vineyard, born in 2001, makes a barrel-fermented 2007 Viognier. Quite limited at 102 cases produced, the wine is exceptionally smooth—perhaps to excess—with a creamy, herbal backbone. Somewhat fleeting on the palate, their ’07 displays a dense tropical perfume, like walking into botanical garden. The faintest mint flavor gives it a refreshing mouth quality.

Recommended with salty seafood and even spicy Asian cuisine, Viognier is a white with plenty of gusto. Its genetic ties to big European reds seem more than expected after you climb into its many folded layers. As with most wines, the elder vines make for the finest wines. Because Viognier has only recently gained domestic fitting—cultish as it may be—its quality can only improve. Many of the prized vines of Condrieu (northern Rhone) are 70 years old.

The “Anything but Chardonnay” movement has taken a liking to the varietal, but to be fair, Viognier is very much its own animal. Comparing it to a Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer is almost impossible. Further separation from the pack comes from mindful winemaking, often involving limited oak or older barrels.

Though most of the Viognier growing in Oregon occurs in the southern reaches of the state, many wineries in the Valley, as well as in the Gorge, make the Rhone white. The fruit is purchased from warmer climes and manipulated in the area. And though the price is often a bit higher than the average white, Viognier is anything but average. Considering its sensitive nature, the cost certainly reflects the labor and hair loss invested.

It’s a wine with a bright future and a deep, flavorful past.

Mark Stock, a Gonzaga University grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.

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