Journey to Harvest…and Beyond!

Viognier!

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A viognier leaf and cluster.Drawing by Squire Fridell

 

By Squire Fridell

First off, let’s get the pronunciation of the grape right. If you try to pronounce the word as it is spelled, you’d probably say “vee-ogg-knee-err.” If you did, folks (particularly French folks) might give you a strange look. So, you might as well learn to pronounce it correctly.

It’s easy. Simply say “vee-own-yay” in three very distinct syllables. If you say it aloud three times with a pause between each of the syllables, you’ve got it! “Vee-own-yay,” “vee-own-yay,” “vee-own-yay.” Congratulations! You’re speaking French!

So, now that you are bilingual, what is viognier?

Viognier is an ancient white grape variety that has been grown in the northern Rhône region of France for a couple thousand years. Before it ended up in France, viognier most likely dates back to Roman-occupied Dalmatia (present-day Croatia). The Romans carried viognier cuttings and planted them along the Rhône River, in what became southeastern France.

For whatever reason, those viognier plantings were primarily focused only in the northern part of the river, and viognier is the only grape variety, white or red, that has ever been grown in the Condrieu appellation in northern Rhône. In neighboring Côte Rôtie (“Roasted Slope”), it is the only white grape allowed to be grown.

It is also interesting to note that, for flavor and added aroma, viognier is often blended with syrah, the only red variety allowed to be grown there. In France as a whole, there are many other very specific “rules” about which grapes may be planted in different areas.

GlenLyon pays homage to the tradition of Côte Rôtie by blending 15% viognier in with our syrah to make a separate wine that we call “Pater et Filia” (Father and Daughter). It was our daughter’s idea, and it brings another dimension and softness to the wine. It’s delightful!

Over time, and because of the tiny geographical area where viognier was grown, very few folks were even aware that the grape existed until recently. In fact, in 1965, the total acreage of viognier in the entire world, all in the aforementioned Condrieu, had shrunk to less than 30 acres!

Since that time, awareness of the magical qualities of viognier has increased dramatically. Now the variety is successfully thriving in many places, not only in our own Wine Country, but also in Paso Robles, Texas, and Tennessee. If fact, viognier is now the white grape variety of the state of Virginia.

Other countries also have discovered the magic of viognier, and it is successfully grown in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Greece. It appears that viognier won’t ever come close to going the way of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Here at GlenLyon, we’re now well into our second decade of making viognier as a single variety wine, sourcing the fruit from a tiny two-acre vineyard off Trinity Road in Glen Ellen. So, I guess we really are one of the first wineries in Sonoma Valley to discover the magic of the grape! We named the wine “Suzy’s Toast” to pay homage to Suzy’s past career as a modern dancer with the Nikolais Dance Theatre in New York City. We love the wine!

How did you find this small viognier vineyard?

Two decades ago, I don’t think I had ever consciously tasted a viognier. At a wine gathering, my buddy came over with a glass of white wine and a smile on his face and said, “Taste this.” I did and it was delightful, but I couldn’t identify the variety so I asked him what the wine was and who made it. He pointed to a woman sitting by herself, so I walked over, introduced myself, and we struck up a conversation.

Her name was Margaret Gokey and she said that, yes, it was her fruit from her Trinity Road two-plus-acre vineyard, which had been planted a couple of years earlier. She also said that the prior harvest was her first vintage and that the wine was a “home wine,” made by a friend. I asked if I could come over the following day to see her vineyard.

The next day I drove over and she opened another bottle of her “home wine” — and it was as delightful as it had been the day before. After we had walked the vineyard, I asked if she was interested in selling her fruit to GlenLyon. We shook hands and a long-lasting relationship began. We now have a vineyard designate printed on each bottle (“Margaret’s Vineyard”), and she’s had a number of dinners at our home since our new wine has been released. We compare our viognier to a myriad of others made locally and abroad. It is a very fun evening!

What does viognier usually smell and taste like?

Viognier is usually described as possessing a distinctive floral aroma and taste, but we discovered that there can be two very different flavor profiles for viognier. The usually “floral” version is the result of picking the fruit at full ripeness (as folks usually do), somewhere north of 24 Brix (percent of sugar). The “fruit-driven” version (that we prefer) is the result of picking the viognier between 22–23 Brix, at the early stages of ripeness. The earlier

the fruit is picked, the more the acids are abundant and vibrant. Picking our viognier earlier results in a wine that tends to burst forth with fresh fruit notes such as apricot, white peach, lemon, pear, and tangerine.

As an added benefit of picking the grapes earlier, when the sugars are at a lower percentage, the wine ends up being lower in alcohol, usually in the 12–12.9% range. Our Suzy’s Toast viognier is my wife’s favorite white wine on this planet (or any other planet). She adores it!

What foods go well with your viognier?

Our not-floral-but-fruit-forward viognier can be sipped as a late-afternoon wine. It pairs well with most appetizers and with any light fish or chicken dish, particularly if prepared with a lemon/herb marinade. Suzy, in fact, enjoys “her” viognier with almost every food imaginable!

We bottled the new viognier on March 25, and we’re greatly looking forward to uncorking our first bottle tonight with dinner! You should be here!

Sláinte mhath!

“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my brain and say something clever.” —Aristophanes, Greek playwright and poet, circa 400 BC.

Squire Fridell is the winemaker, vineyard manager, CEO, CFO, COO, EIEIO, WINO, and janitor at Glen-Lyon Vineyards & Winery and Two Amigos Wines. Contact him at Squire@GlenLyonWinery.com.

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It takes a long time to grow an old friend.