Viva Viognier

Worried about being stuck in isolation during the growing sixth wave, I made a trip to the No Frills on Rainbow Road to stock up the wine cellar, where I spotted a case lot sale on one of my favorite Viognier wines. 

For those not familiar with the varietal, Viognier (pronounced like vee-ohn-yay) is a white wine grape with a long history, dating back to the 3rd century in the Rhône Valley of France, and has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity over the last few decades.

The unrepentant wine snobs in the audience may recognize the Rhône Valley of France as the ancestral home and origin of the famed Syrah grape varietal, one of the biggest and boldest of the big red wines.

In addition to its fine pedigree for red wines, the Rhône Valley is also the adopted home of the white Viognier grape, which is thought to have been brought to the region by the Roman Emperor Probus in the year 281 C.E. 

The popularity of the Viognier grape has waxed and waned over the centuries, with it nearly dying out in the 1960s when a mere 8 acres of Viognier grapes were planted in the entire Rhône Valley.

Luckily, Viognier found reprieve when adventurous winemakers found they could impart an attractive apricot aroma to their big and bold Syrah wines by blending in around 4% Viognier during the fermentation process.  

Chardonnay is also often blended with small amounts of Viognier, which softens the acidity and adds aromatics to make a more balanced wine.

Plantings of Viognier started increasing around the world in the 1990s, with California and Australia being the most significant New World producers.  We even produce small amounts of Viognier right here in Canada, especially in the Okanagan Valley and around Lake Erie.

Viognier wines tend to be quite floral on the nose, with powerful aromas coming off the glass when you take the first whiff.

When aged in stainless steel vats, there will be strong flavours of stone fruits such as peach and apricot.  If the wine has been aged in oak barrels, expect the fruit flavours to be muffled by a complex layer of vanilla and spice overtones imparted by the wood.  

Genetically, the Viognier grape is closely related to the Freisa grape varietal, and a slightly more distant cousin of the robust Nebbiolo grape, both of which are very popular in Italy.

Like many white wines, Viognier tends to peak at a young age, so it is generally best when consumed within 3 years of bottling.  

Unfortunately, Viognier grape vines are not particularly vigorous, so the yield per acre is lower than other white grapes, which tends to slightly increase the price.  The grapes are also susceptible to mildew and other diseases, so Viognier is a challenging grape to grow, making for many a frustrated winemaker.

While the grape can be unpredictable, it usually ripens fairly early in the season.   The winemaker must exercise patience, as the grapes do not develop their signature aromas and flavours until full ripeness, so the temptation to harvest early must be resisted.

Luckily, the grape has flourished in the New World, with selective breeding producing a more hardy stock that does particularly well in California.  Buoyed by consumer interest in more exotic wines, Viognier is riding a tidal wave of popularity, so it is easy to find at your neighbourhood booze merchant.

The perfumed aromas and strong fruit flavours make Viognier a natural for pairing with spicy foods, with Indian curries and Moroccan tagines being particular favourites of your humble narrator.

If spicy foods are not your thing, try it with a creamy camembert cheese, or a dish made with sweet root vegetables like yams or glazed carrots.  Seafood dishes like scallops or lobster also pair well with Viognier.

Always wanting to support our hardworking Canadian winemakers, my favourite domestic offering is the Liquidity Viognier, produced at Liquidity Wines, located about halfway between Penticton and Osoyoos, in the heart of Okanagan wine country.  With exotic notes of mango and tangerine on the nose, followed by a complex finish of ripe fruits and just a hint of candied ginger, the Liquidity Viognier has long been one of my favourites.  Put down that tired old bottle of Chardonnay and pick up a Viognier on your next trip to your local bottle shop!

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Nick Jeffrey

Nick Jeffrey

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