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52 Wines in 52 Weeks: Viognier, Your New Friend if You’re Sick of Chardonnay

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The green-skinned aromatic grape Viognier probably has roots, if you will, in Croatia, but in the States it’s most generally associated with France’s Rhone regions (in Condrieu it’s the only game in town). Like most major French varietals it’s a traveler, and now has kin in the States, Israel, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and South America.

Viognier is a little bit like Riesling or Gewurtztraminer in that people sometimes regard it with suspicion if they are not fans of residual sugar. But (like those other grapes) it might or might not be off-dry. Like Pinot Noir, it’s a terroir-sponge that expresses very different aspects from region to region (indeed there are apparently “old world” and “new world” strains that, while they are the same varietal, produce quite different wines), and like the Pinots it’s a touchy, difficult grape to grow, low-yielding, prone to powdery mildew and liable to get weird in hot weather if there isn’t a stiff breeze to temper the heat. If it sounds like I’m making a case against it, however-absolutely not. Good Viogniers can be rounded and voluptuous or lean and bony but across the spectrum they have delicate but powerful aromatics (honeysuckle and peach are the common thread in most cases) and can be exceptionally tasty companions to a wide range of foods, including pairing-resistant spicy stuff. It’s a low acid character and rich in phenols, which are the compounds you’re probably picking up on when a wine has an “unctuous” or “oily” texture. Viognier at its best is both a bit mouth-filling and light on its feet; it is perfumed, crisp and quaffable. Some of them age well. Quite often their lovely aromatics will fade with time, so don’t wait for a special occasion. Your special occasion is Thai takeout.

As always, my list of “bottles to hunt down” is representative of what I’ve tasted and liked lately, and is by no means inclusive (and it leans heavily toward the Pacific Northwest because I just tasted a whole gang of them). In fact there’s not a single iconic Condrieu in the bunch, but that doesn’t mean those aren’t awesomesocks: Many are. But there is a great big Internet out there and many under-repped makers of flowery-yet-refreshing aromatic whites, so have at ‘em.

Seven Bottles to Try:

Abeja Estate Viognier (Walla Walla Valley, WA $30)

First of all, I was recently treated to an amazing evening at this place and have to say that if you’re in the Pac NW or your travel plans take you that way, you’ll find few lovelier places to stop for a sip of something. That said: This Viognier is on the unctuous side of the spectrum, with a mouth-coating, slightly beeswax-like quality. It favors the hallmark varietal aromatics of honeysuckle and peaches, with traces of vanilla and fresh bread on the quite-long finish, most likely a result of its relationship with neutral oak barrels. Small-run stuff, and most easily found online unless you are in the immediate area, but worth the click-through to say the least. It’s nuanced and rich and stone-fruity and thoroughly affable. And sure, food-friendly, but I like this one paired with a good book and a balmy evening.

Domaine Triennes Sainte Fleur (Var, France, $16)

The Triennes wine you’re most likely to stumble across (well, the one I stumble across in California) is their rosé, but look for this guy too. The name means “Sacred Flower” and it’s pretty apt: the wine’s all about bouquet. Honeyed, blossomy, intense, and with a strong note of lavender I don’t usually get from New World Viogniers (in addition to the peaches, gardenias and honeysuckle that practically ID the grape). This one’s aged in stainless steel versus oak, so the minerality comes across more strongly and the acidity is firm and fresh. Pair it with anything from roast chicken to a spicy green papaya salad. I think it appreciates fennel if that’s a thing you like. It likes a lot of stuff.

Illahe Viognier (Willamette Valley, OR $19)

Sustainably produced is always a plus, and Illahe wines are a good way to vote for that with your booze-budget. Their Viognier is firmly in the “jump out of the glass” aromatics camp, with the hallmark white flowers and peach or apricot profile dominating but also branching out into things like mandarin zest and lavender honey. I know, I said the lavender note wasn’t common to west coast Viogniers, but come to think of it, this would be an example of it. There’s a slight spiciness and a slightly oddball note of bananas to this one (it’s Oregon, after all, so no one’s going to be totally by the book). There’s a little residual sugar in this wine, which makes it your friend in the event of difficult-to-pair spicy things, so bring on your Thai peppers, your wasabi, your Szechuan peppercorns or your Madras curry-Illahe is not afraid of you.

Maryhill Viognier (Washington, $16)

Maryhill has one winemaker, which is astonishing given the number of varietals they work with. These hardworking generalists in the Columbia Valley produce a super-quaffable Viognier, on the “juicy” side, with a feisty little note of lemon where there is sometimes a much more subtle acidity in this grape. Along with the usual peach and honeysuckle suspects there are a panoply of melon notes and some aromatic Asian pear or possibly quince. It’s versatile and tasty.

Pine Ridge Viognier+Chenin Blanc (California, $15)

There’s always a cheat. This one’s a blend. A tasty blend at a very accessible price thanks to a grape-growing locale that doesn’t break the bank (the fruit comes from the San Joaquin Valley, more notable for row crops than high end wine grapes, and Lodi, best known for a song about being stuck there, again). The experimental blend is stainless-steel-aged to preserve acidity, it’s vivid and lush, and more tropical than the other wines on this list. Aromatics certainly include honeysuckle and peach, but also yuzu and grapefruit. And pineapple guava. And lemon and wet rock. Do you like Penang curry? So does this wine. Do you like cheese? Ditto. Are you into stuff you can just crack open because it’s 5:01 and warm out? Yep.

Tangent Viognier (Edna Valley, CA $17)

Oh, yeah: If you thought this was going to be the time I didn’t bring up the Niven Family wines in the context of an aromatic white at a great price, you’re just a silly. Cool climate Viognier from a master of expressive aromatic white wines: SIP certified, dry, creamy yet crisp. Strong aromatics and expressive palate: White peach, honey, caramel, melons and a touch of something like pink peppercorns. Central coast minerality, which is to say marine and slightly chalky. This is an absolutely excellent seafood wine. If that’s not your bag, hopefully goat cheese is. But if not, you’d have to go pretty far to find a dish this wine will actively complain about being seated with.

Veritas Viognier (Virginia, $25)

Did you know Viognier is the official wine of the state of Virginia? Neither did I! So here’s an example of why. This wine’s fairly intense in color compared to a Viognier from, say, Walla Walla, golden versus clear to pale yellow. Its aromatics are complex, led by a neroli or orange blossom note and followed in short order by, yes, you guessed correctly, honeysuckle and peaches. Orange zest dominates the finish, which is rich and lengthy. The winemaker’s pairing suggestion is shrimp and grits, and I have no reason to argue. It’s great with Thai food too.

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