White wine in the states is often limited to well-known varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, but there are hidden whites just begging for their time in the spotlight. Viognier is one of them.
Viognier is the only legally allowed grape in Condrieu, a French appellation in the northern Rhone Valley, and is therefore closely tied to that region. Still, there are examples found far beyond France, including the U.S., Italy, Argentina, Chile, all the way down to Australia and New Zealand, and even in the underrated, underexplored vineyards of Israel and South Africa.
In Rhone, Viognier is often barrel mates with Syrah, but it’s delicious all on its own, too. Much of the draw comes from the wine’s startling aromatics; this is a grape that smells downright phenomenal. Oodles of stone fruit, purple flowers, honeysuckle, and stone. You may get bits of vanilla and toast from oak aging, and perhaps a hint of warm baking spice. It’s a wine with many personalities, too. Some versions will be light and almost acrobatic on the palate while others are heavy and lush with a creamy mouthfeel. In fact, blind tasters often nail Viognier because of the telltale oily finish it often leaves on the tongue (that may sound unpleasant, but it generally isn’t).
Note: How about a little help on the pronunciation? This is a tricky one. Viognier is a French word and the “g” is silent, so the wine sounds a lot like vee-own-yay.
If You Like This…
Domaine Georges Vernay Condrieu Les Chaillees de L’Enfer, 2016
New to Viognier and want to try a consistently delicious classic? This is the bottle you need. Georges Vernay and his father Francis were around in Condrieu’s infancy. It wasn’t until 1940 that the area became a recognized appellation, and the Vernays helped usher in the age of Viognier by producing stellar examples of the varietal that spoke to local terroir and possessed unparalleled nuance. Those same standards continue today, although oversight now falls to Georges’ daughter Christine.
The winemaker describes the Les Chaillees de L’Enfer as “opulent”, and you’ll get no argument here. Waves of exotic stone fruit roll over your tongue followed by a veritable garden of gold honeysuckle blossoms and the unmistakable green-meets-citrus flavor of verbena.
Local: M Chapoutier La Combe Pilate, 2016
What Domaines Georges Vernay is to Condrieu, Chapoutier is to, well, pretty much the entirety of Northern Rhone. Marius Chapoutier was a pioneer of vinification, preferring to grow his own grapes rather than sourcing elsewhere. It was the dawn of a new soil-to-shelf winemaking. Chapoutier continues to be an industry leader with an intense commitment to biodynamic practice and high-quality wines that epitomize Rhone flavors.
La Combe Pilate is a beauty—and an affordable one at that. It’s 100% Viognier and bursting with ripe peach and apricot, honeysuckle, orange blossom, and a hint of something green. There’s all the roundness you expect from the varietal but also a beam of acidity that keeps the wine from feeling overly heavy or round.
A Little Far-Flung: Eberle Mill Road Vineyard Viognier 2017
Gary Eberle doesn’t just own his own winery, he co-founded the entire Paso Robles appellation. Though Eberle started his college career on a football scholarship and ended it with a degree in biology and graduate work in cellular genetics, he soon saw his passion for wine take over almost everything else. Enology studies at the famed U.C. Davis followed. With all those brains and training, it’s no surprise Eberle has found success with a diverse portfolio encompassing a wide range of varietals including Zinfandel, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Chardonnay, Rhone-style blends, and of course Viognier.
This bottle from Eberle’s Mill Road Vineyard is a tantalizing twist on the classic. Peach and apricot? Check. Honeysuckle? Check. Citrus flirting with whiffs of stony minerality? Check and Check. The main differences are the slice of pithy lemon rind and a crisp finish that makes this wine seem a bit brighter and more brazen than its French counterparts. If you often find yourself waffling between a Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll likely enjoy playing with this.
Out There: Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier, 2016
An old world classic like Viognier is heavily steeped in tradition, something you don’t always find in new world regions, but Yalumba is a rather hefty exception. The winery dates all the way back to 1849, and although the Hill-Smith family embraces progressive techniques, they also remain fiercely devoted to wines that help convey the natural qualities of the land on which the grapes are grown. “Terroir” isn’t just a buzzword, it’s the lifeblood of every creation that comes out of Yalumba. Combine that with incredibly century-old vines and sustainable practices and you have something special with a very defined sense of place.
Again you have a Viognier with the requisite peach and apricot, but unctuous honey and orange blossom give way to lighter white flowers and spice. Don’t get confused, though—while this may not have Jessica Rabbit-level va-va-voom, it’s still luscious, rich, and longing for a fun pairing like spice-crusted duck with apricot jus or a coconut curry.