Vineyards & Wine

Aromatic and Elegant—is Viognier the Go-To Wine for Fall?

Experts adore this full-bodied white for its aromas of peach and apricot—here’s everything you should know about its essential characteristics

If wine were poetry, Viognier would be a love sonnet, given the romantic associations it inspires in its fans. “When it’s good, it’s beguiling, evoking the headiness and sultriness of late summer—of apricots just on the verge of becoming over-ripe,” raves Alex Barlow, a Master of Wine (a qualification issued by The Institute of Masters of Wine in the U.K., and one of the wine industry’s highest standards of professional knowledge).

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard in California, one of a handful of highly rated U.S. Viognier growers, also waxes lyrical: “The aroma of fermenting Viognier in our cellar is an annual announcement that summer is over and fall is beginning.”

Viognier grapes on the vine
The Viognier grapes at Tablas Creek Vineyard, California, take the lead in the winery’s famed Côtes de Tablas Blanc and elevate the blend within its award-winning Patelin de Tablas Blanc. Image: Courtesy Tablas Creek

Perfect Pairings

But, say the experts, for all its fragrant notes of peach, apricot, and honeysuckle, Viognier is not to be considered a dessert wine, nor an aperitif.

“I drink it alone because I adore it, but it is too low-acid to whet the appetite,” says Barlow, who recommends its delicate yet full-bodied flavors as the perfect partner for a crab risotto or paired with pork—“you don’t need the apple sauce, as the Viognier brings the fruit.” Meanwhile, New York-based Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria still savors a memorable pairing with seared tuna and mango salsa. “It just exploded with flavor; Viognier is weighty enough to stand up to meaty fish like tuna and salmon.”

Provenance and Planting

Weight and finesse are that rare marriage exemplified by the elegant wines of France’s northern Rhône region, the heartland of Viognier planting. The grape is the only varietal allowed in Condrieu, the tiny appellation that established the market and which is associated with the finest examples of the wine.

However, Barlow warns that provenance is no guarantee of quality. “I’ve had some Condrieu that was expensive but disappointing, and Viognier from California, Australia, and South Africa that was very successful,” he says.

Rhone River and Vineyards in city of Condrieu, Rhone-Alpes, France.
While its larger neighbors in northern Rhône specialize in robust reds made from Syrah, the Condrieu region is known for delicate white wines—albeit with substantial body—made exclusively from Viognier. Image: Getty Images

The fact this ancient grape has even survived, let alone proliferated across the world, is astonishing given that it was almost extinct by 1965. “It proved far more profitable to grow fruit trees than grapes in Condrieu,” explains Barlow, crediting a few determined growers with perpetuating the wine’s popularity in a new generation.

Today, Viognier production in the northern Rhône has risen a hundredfold—from eight acres (3 ha) of planting 50 years ago to a current high of 740 acres (300 ha). But it hasn’t always seen the same results in the South of France and the New World.

Sagaria explains that this is often due to the difficulties of replicating the varietal’s ideal terroir. “The northern Rhône is known for its diurnal shift, as well as its granite and slope. In New World regions, where the ripeness is much greater, the wine takes on the tropical fruit notes but can also lose finesse.”

Names to Know

Caitlin Miller, a specialist in Wines and Spirits at Christie’s New York, has had “mixed experience” with U.S.-made Viognier but finds that name recognition certainly helps the varietal at auction. “Christie’s sales history shows that the most popular Viognier at auction is Sine Qua Non—a Californian producer. In this case, I think the popularity is because of the producer, not the grape, as many true Viognier lovers tend to go for Condrieu.”

A bottle of Calera Viognier wine
Bright and mouth-filling, Calera’s Central Coast Viognier is made from grapes from growers throughout the Central Coast region of California and boasts tropical flavors that pair well with a variety of dishes.

There are other top California makers who Miller singles out for quality. These include Joseph Phelps and Tablas Creek, co-founded by famous Rhône growers Beaucastel. She also points to Calera, one of the first wineries to plant Viognier in the state—and a brand that Sagaria and Barlow rate highly, too. Sagaria also recommends Virginia-made Viognier from Barboursville. In fact, the grape has been named the state’s signature white, thanks to the international attention its winemakers have attracted.

While California remains the most prolific U.S. producer, winemakers are also experimenting with Viognier in Washington, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, and as far north as Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Canada is another leading North American producer, and to the south, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and Mexico have entered the field.

Bright Blends

White blends containing Viognier can be outstanding. For instance, Barlow highly rates the combination with Roussane from South Africa’s Babylon’s Peak, while Haas credits the tension between Viognier’s richness and the brightness of Grenache Blanc with creating the “central drama” of Tablas Creek’s Patelin de Tablas Blanc—a wine that has garnered accolades from Wine Spectator and others.

Workers harvest grapes at Babylon's Peak in South Africa
At Babylon’s Peak in South Africa, a combination of Rhône varieties is harvested to produce a wonderfully textured dry white wine, with a natural richness that supports apricot, floral, and musky aromas. Image: Courtesy Babylon’s Peak

When combined with reds, such as those from the Côte-Rôtie appellation in the northern Rhône, it brings out the best in the wine’s predominant grape, Syrah. Australian growers, who have taken to Viognier with gusto, are given to adding it to their shiraz, but they are also making fine examples of the varietal. Barlow cites Deakin Estate in Victoria for exemplifying what he loves best about the grape: “The tantalizing taste of nostalgia for a season just turning.”

Will this niche wine please everyone? No, says Caitlin Miller, who considers it “polarizing—you love it or you hate it. It’s hard to make well and, in the wrong hands, you either don’t get all the aromatics or it can be oily and overwhelming.” But, Barlow points out, “To those who connect with the wine, it’s like no other and adds an important element of diversity to the anthology of wine.”

Sagaria agrees, and believes anthology is exactly the right term: “A wine list is like an orchestra—you need many different instruments, each bringing their own unique sound, to complete a good one. For that reason, Viognier will always have a place.”

Banner image: Getty Images