I thought I would give “ witnessing wine” a break for a week because I recently had the delight to try our latest 2019 release of Viognier as well as experiencing a recent Viognier with Jennie Mcloud of Chrysalis vineyard. I was stoked to witness two superb wines that really are unique to Virginia.
The thing that struck me the most is the style with which these wines are made. In the early days; I’m talking 2002 we were starting out on our Viognier production path and one of our guiding lights at the time was Jennie McLoud. For several years Jennie held a Viognier symposium at Chrysalis when she would literally pull every Viognier from around the world that she could find from Condrieu, to Australia to South Africa we tried ‘em all – it was a “Viognier Fest.”
Like so many fashions in the wine industry things come and go. Well in the first decade of 2000 Viognier was all the rage to the point that by 2011 Virginia adopted Viognier as the representative white grape of Virginia. There was a splurge of planting only to discover over the years that “bless its heart” Viognier was not all that it was cracked up to be. The main problem was in the growing of the grape – the viticulture. It took a while to realize that as plant the Viognier vine was fickle and unpredictable and the term “primary bud abortion” was on every wine growers lips. In short the fashion did not last but the tradition of high quality Virginia Viogner still persists as I witnessed in visiting Jennie at Chrysalis last Friday.
What I want to emphasize is the absolute aromatic potency of Viognier – particularly when made in stainless steel and as we do, age in neutral oak for what we call lees aging. The lees are what gives the wine that beautifully full mouth feel. The aromatics are orange blossom and white flowers intermingled with peaches, apricots and cream, an aroma you can sit and literally breathe for the sheer pleasure. Then as I said, sensuous mouthfeel gobs of fruit, some spice, a little ginger and an everlasting finish.
Here’s a slightly abbreviated form of what I wrote in 2013 :
In Search of Virginia Viognier
What fascinates me about wine growing and winemaking is the incredible diversity not only between different wines but also in the same wine from different corners of the globe. This could not be truer, than with Viognier the white wine varietal that Virginia adopted in 2011 as its signature white wine. Many people commented that it was a brave step for Virginia to take on a single grape variety that Jancis Robinson considered as almost going into extinction. At one point in the late 1980s there were a mere 82 acres of vines in the entire world. The Guigal family led the way to popularizing Viognier in the form of Condrieu. The grape is now widely planted, from the Rhone valley it has spread to California, Australia, South Africa, and South America and thanks to Dennis Horton to Virginia. My concern is that with that ever threatening – globalization Virginia will lose whatever competitive edge it has gained in less than the last decade.
So imagine the scene at the 2010 London International Wine Fair in the presence of lavish stands not only from countries all over the world but also from regions within the United States- California, Oregon and New York. Veritas was pouring Viognier along with Barboursville, and Breaux when along came the legendary Steven Spurrier.
The man who in the Judgment of Paris brought California into the limelight by beating the best French first growths in a blind tasting. Spurrier tried our Viognier looked intrigued and went over to the French stand bringing Marcel and Philippe Guigal (Guigal is the largest producers of Condrieu in France) – they too were intrigued, ”Zoot Alors”such a different expression of Viognier!
Condrieu is the pre-eminent expression of Viognier in France made entirely of the Viognier grape grown on steep granite slopes on the west bank of the Rhone river where the Rhone takes a sudden turn– the “coin de ruisseau”(bend in the river)- hence Condrieu -an area of about 500 acres of Viognier grapes. In comparison Virginia now has just over 200 acres – California has 3000!
Now Condrieu is an “AOC” wine, that means in order to keep its unique flavors and to be consistent in its production both the viticulture and the winemaking practices are strictly controlled down to the clone of the vine, the planting density, the yield and ripeness of the grapes. The yields are incredibly low with less than a pound of fruit per plant.
When we visited Condrieu with Bruce Zoecklein and Tony Wolf way back in 2002 we were struck by not only the terroir but also by the winemaking- practices. At least 50% of the wine was barrel fermented and all wines went through malolactic conversion, and all wines were aged in oak. Is it surprising then that Condrieu is a very different wine than the average Virginia Viognier? The descriptors of Viognier are for the most part uniform in describing the white flower, orange blossom, white peach apricot aromatic flavors with an emphasis on the full bodied rich style.
It is clear to us all that the growing conditions what the French call the “terroir” are crucial to the quality of the wine. It is also clear that every style of Viognier is being made in Virginia in which there are as many varied terroirs as there are French cheeses. Steve Barnard at Keswick who has probably won more medals than any one with his style of Viognier uses oak and ML conversion the old world style. There are many wineries that share the new world style of tank fermentation without ML and with lees ageing in neutral oak. For me the brighter, less unctuous style provides more of those heady aromatics so vividly described by writers like Jancis Robinson.
There are so many challenges to growing Viognier in Virginia from both the viticultural and the winemaking perspectives that if we can develop a ‘Virginia style’ that is unique to Virginia it would be to all our advantage. We should not be trying to reproduce a Condrieu and for my money the lighter, zesty style that is not mellowed with ML and oak is the way for Virginia to go. It was that style that caught the attention of Steven Spurrier who has gone on to champion the cause of Virginia wine.
The real challenge is for the growers and winemakers to create those conditions that guarantee quality, consistency and a uniqueness of a Virginia style of Viognier that will establish and reinforce the gains that we have already made in the international burgeoning global markets.
Whether the Virginia wine industry can pull together to control quality standards and develop a Virginia style Viognier ultimately remains to be seen.
So there we were full of aspirations thinking that there was such a thing as a Virginia style of Viognier.
Alas too many factors drowned out that aspiration, the viticultural challenges, the varied terroir in Virginia, the varied styles of winemaking and finally the nail in the coffin the inability to meet market demands.
So a single style of Viognier fades as Virginia has now gone on to greater diversity and dropped Viognier as the state white grape, but every once in a while one gets a clear vision of what might have been and what still remains.
See you next week.