My blog this week features the Viognier grape, how it was popularized in Virginia over the last 15 years and where the grape stands now relative to other wines like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Manseng. In particular, I want to tell you about what it is that makes Veritas Viognier stand out from the rest.
Do you remember those heady days in the early 2000s when at last there was a white wine other than chardonnay, a wine that elicited:
Intoxicating aromas of honey, peach, and orange blossom, tasting of opulent ripe peach, apricots, a lick of honey, sprinkling of orange zest, and a hint of smoke, all entwined with a mineral twist.
Virginia fell in love with Viognier and by 2011 the Virginia Marketing Office declared Viognier the Commonwealth’s flagship white wine. It seemed to us all that Viognier had the necessary qualities to fulfil the flagship role. It was unusual and so had a definite novelty factor. It was distinctive in its aromatic profile and initial reports claimed that it grew well in Virginia.
Early on Tony Wolf, the state viticulturist at the extension office in Winchester, studied Viognier on different trellis systems. In so doing, whether he intended to or not, he seemingly gave the go ahead with Virginia growers that this was a grape with huge promise.
Jim Law, one of the most respected voices in in the Virginia wine industry (although not growing the grape himself) was quoted as saying:
Viognier is a great grape for Virginia. It is what we do well. It is easy to grow, and it commands a great price.
Jennifer McCloud at Chrysalis was an early champion of Viognier leading the charge by planting Viognier on a trellis system called Geneva Double Curtain. In the early 2000s, she held a yearly Viognier symposium inviting all growers to taste different Viognier styles from literally all over the world. To cap it all, Stephen Barnard won the Governor’s Cup with a Viognier Reserve when he was at Rappahannock Cellars.
The stage was set for a great union of Virginia and Viognier.
Veritas first planted four acres of Viognier in 2002, a second planting of one acre in 2010 and a third planting in 2018 of two acres making a total of 7.2 acres of Viognier on site.
Things were looking good. In those days, we were keen to compete in the International market where we displayed our wines at the London International Wine Fair. I love to relate this story. Our Viognier caught the attention of the biggest producer of Viognier in the Rhone Valley in France, Marcel Guigal and his son Phillipe. They were intrigued by the style of Viognier made in Virginia. Typically, Viognier from the Rhone valley is fermented and aged in oak barrels and as is typical of the French the wine is named after the region that produced it, in this case Condrieu.
The styles are strikingly different. Condrieu has less aromatic intensity but still has the same basic components peach and apricot. The influence of oak both in fermentation and in aging gives the wine less acidity. Although, what it loses in acidity (the wine goes through malolactic conversion) it makes up in texture.
It was after the publicity and media attention from the LIWF that in 2011 the marketing office adopted Viognier as the state flagship wine. Headlines in the Washingtonian Magazine read, “The Best Virginia Viognier Wines – Viognier is the State’s Signature Grape.”
The initial promise was not fulfilled mainly due to the apparent fickleness of growing Viognier. It seemed that as time went on Viognier appeared to be cyclical. One year the yield was good, the next year it was half of the previous year. Not only did the viticulture flag, but also the enthusiasm for the wine by the sommeliers waned in influential restaurants, particularly in D.C. There is no question that wine, like fashion, has its fads. By 2016 the Viognier fad had faded.
According to the Virginia Grape Report, in 2019 there were the same number of acres of Viognier planted as there were in 2010.
|Year||Acres||Yield (in Tons)|
|Veritas Viognier |
Emily takes credit for our particular style that she has developed over the last 15 years. The emphasis is simple – aromatics, aromatics, aromatics.
In the vineyard Bill Tonkins, our vineyard manager, works closely with Emily to decide when to harvest the grapes. Although we have seen some fluctuations of yields, Veritas has not seen the degree of variability that other growers have complained about. Our yields have been more consistent. For the most part we try to achieve sugar levels in the 22-23 degrees Brix range.
In the cellar Emily safeguards the aromatic intensity of Viognier by using a number of techniques from stainless steel fermentation to specific yeast strains. In addition, unlike our other white grapes that we whole cluster press, we destem the Viognier grapes and allow them to sit on the skins for 4-6 hours to extract as many of flavor components as possible. This sounds simple but isn’t. The big danger here is, if taken too far, chemical characters called phenols are extracted as well. Phenols can ruin the very delicate aromatics that we are trying to enhance.
Finding this critical point takes the skill and experience of the winemaker to call the shots.
We do all the standard stuff like excluding oxygen from the juice (anaerobic technique), using pectolytic enzymes to break up pectins that bind aromatic components, and deliberately allowing for cool fermentation below 65°F for 14-21 days.
After fermentation to dryness, the wine is aged for 9 months in neutral oak barrels that do not impart any oak flavors to the wine. We deliberately avoid malolactic fermentation so as to maintain as much acidity as possible and keep the wine bright and fresh. The process called “lees aging” improves the texture also known as the mouthfeel of the wine.
Our Viognier is pale gold in color. Delicate orange blossom precedes aromas of ripe peach, apricots, nectarine and orange zest. Deliciously opulent, the uplifting rush of apricot and peach are embedded in a rich mouthfeel that gradually fades into a tantalizingly long finish.
Viognier pairs wonderfully with Dungeness crab or nutty lobster. On the other extreme, as a full-bodied white wine, it holds its own with Thai and spicy curry or as an aperitif with all sorts of scrumptious nuts, dried apricots, and figs.
After the initial hype, it turns out that Viognier was never officially adopted as the state grape. It was, as so many things are in the wine industry, a marketing ploy. Now as many wineries realize the pros and cons of producing Viognier in Virginia, the wine has found a place in the market that I would say is, for most people “favorable.”
Too many factors drowned out the aspiration of a single style of Virginia Viognier: 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. These factors have put Virginia Viognier as one of the many valuable assets in a state where diversity takes the place of a single variety.
That leads me to a conclusion. If the state no longer embraces Viognier as the flagship white wine, one thing is for sure; what we have learned both in Viognier wine grape growing and wine making is that Viognier remains the flagship wine for Veritas.
During Virginia Wine Month, we are including the 2020 Viognier as part of a special trio that celebrates what we believe could be considered “signature” varietals. While these particular bottles are not reserve wines, nor have they been recognized in competition (yet!) each varietal in the trio has stood out for us, exhibiting consistency, high quality, and a unique stamp of Virginia terroir.
Purchase your bundle of these classics today – the 2020 Viognier, the 2019 Merlot, and the 2020 Cabernet Franc.
Thanks for this enlightenment, Andrew. Best to all the Hodsons.
I love your Viognier, and heartily second the recommendation of pairing with Dungeness crab. Marketing ploys aside, Virginia does produce excellent Viognier. I have noticed more California vineyards are producing Viognier, but they can’t compete. At least not on my palate! Thanks for sharing some of your secrets.