Viognier, the “White Wine for Hedonists”

The cherry blossoms are about to pop in northern Virginia, and I’m looking at the first green grass I’ve seen in six months. We’re sipping Viognier, the state’s signature grape—crisp, fruity and the perfect varietal for welcoming spring—but this bottle is from the other side of the country: Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington.

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I visited Maryhill, perched above the Columbia River near Mt. Hood, last October after the Wine Media Conference in Walla Walla. At about 8,000 cases of Viognier a year, Maryhill is the state’s biggest producer, though the American Northwest is a latecomer to Viognier-growing.

Viognier—a close DNA match to Syrah, by the way—may have originated in Croatia. One story has it imported into southern France as early as 281 AD: we know it grew in Condrieu during the Roman Empire. But it’s a notoriously difficult grape to grow because it’s more prone to disease than most varieties, and by the 1960s it was nearly extinct—only about 35 acres remained across the globe.

But as wine’s popularity grew, so did wine lovers’ awareness of this luscious white grape. Growers planted vines in California and Eden Valley (Australia) in the ’70s; now it’s found in New Zealand, Israel, North and South America, and the Cape Winelands of South Africa–for starters. In spite of its susceptibility to disease and unpredictable yields, Viognier also is drought-resistant, so it can thrive in warm, dry climates.

Viognier is a crisp, fruity wine, with aromas of peach, honeysuckle and tangerine. On top of the stone fruit layer you might detect a steely quality, along with some herbal notes–pine, chamomile, perhaps thyme. This festival of aromas is why wine authority Jancis Robinson calls Viognier, “the hedonist’s white grape variety,” but the perfume party doesn’t happen by accident. In order for the nose to fully develop, Viognier must hang on the vine longer than most grapes, sometimes rendering it “too rich to ferment to dryness.”

I think Viognier makes a delicious varietal, but increasingly I’m seeing it in blends, often with Grenache Blanc. Italian winemakers sometimes blend it with Chardonnay, especially, as Jancis Robinson notes, if it needs the Chardonnay’s added acidity. A few  creative winemakers, especially in California and Australia, have even started mixing it with reds, especially its close cousin Syrah, for a deeper texture and brighter color. And if you’re a person who likes a little oaky taste in your whites, look for Viognier that’s been aged in oak; it will give you that creamy mouthfeel you get in oaked Chardonnay.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  pH = a measure of a wine’s acidity, indicated by the amount of hydrogen in it.

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Vino ‘View:  Maryhill 2017 Viognier (14.5 % alcohol; $19) delivers superb balance in spite of that high (for a white) alcohol content, thanks to a hot summer and late harvest that give the wine a slightly tingly acidity. The grapes were sourced from four vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA, picked in the cool morning hours to keep those peachy-bright aromas. The wine was partially fermented with French oak staves, but it’s so lively and fruity, I wouldn’t call it an “oaky” wine at all. Don’t drink it straight out of the refrigerator; take it out half an hour before you serve it so you can experience its richness. I drank mine with a spicy Thai curry, a perfect pairing for the grape’s natural sweetness.

[The Maryhill Viognier was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

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On Prime Rib Day, the Wine’s a No-Brainer

…Or is it?

I don’t have a beef with National Prime Rib Day.  I’ve mostly lost my taste for red meat in recent years, but on occasion I reach for a great burger or juicy steak. Someone, somewhere decided to dedicate this day to prime rib, and that’s enough of an occasion for me.

Ad Hoc Blowtorch Prime Rib

There’s a reason why prime rib is a relatively pricey steak on most restaurant menus. It’s taken from between the 6th and 12th ribs on the cow’s upper back – a high-quality cut that earns the highest grade from the USDA.

The prime rib’s juiciness depends on its marbling, or fat. I like mine medium rare with plenty of marbling, as in the photo above. If you’re dining in tonight, you’ll want to cook it on a low, slow heat, positioned with the meat resting atop the bone so that the meat itself doesn’t touch the roasting pan. (That’s why prime rib is sometimes called a “standing rib roast.”) And if you’re counting calories, one 3-ounce serving is just 200 calories – but a full prime rib in a restaurant is likely to be four times that amount. Then there’s the baked potato, with butter and a dollop of sour cream, and the wine…

You’d think pairing wine with prime rib would be a given: grab a bottle of Cab and you’re done, right? But if you enjoy learning how food and wine interact and change each other in your mouth, there’s a bit more to consider – namely, how you “dress” or finish the meat. With chicken or seafood – protein dishes that you can prepare a hundred different ways – pairing can get more involved. Prime rib, though, is fairly straightforward, and it’s easy to narrow your wine choices to two categories: spicy and spicier.

If you like to top your prime rib with au jus, then you’ll want a Big Sexy Red such as Mourvedre (or, as it’s called in Spain, Monastrell). It’s a wine that gives you structure without heavy oak aromas, with tastes of black pepper and thyme – spicy herbs that stand up to the fatty coating in your mouth. You’ll get those same lively spices from a Syrah or Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) – those elegant Southern Rhône grapes with just enough acidity to cut the fat.

But to me, one of the best flavors of a prime rib dinner is homemade horseradish sauce.

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It’s not for everyone. Some horseradish lovers prefer a creamier style; others take it plain. Whichever style you choose, you’ll want a robust red with enough tannins to tame the sting of this powerful root plant. Cabernet Sauvignon is an obvious choice, but I would go for a Dolcetto from northern Italy’s Piedmont region – or, even better, a Barbera-Dolcetto-Nebbiolo blend, if you can find it, from the Langhe district of Piedmont. Wines made from any of these grapes are typically rich and earthy, and they can be high-alcohol. These are the wines that will put hair on your chest.

Or, if you live in the Midwest, look for Cabernet Franc. Wine expert Jancis Robinson has called Cab Franc the “feminine side of Cabernet Sauvignon.” It’s a little softer, yet spicy and bold enough to sip with horseradish, with hints of bell peppers and tobacco. You probably can discover a winery in your region that produces it. French Cabernet Franc is lighter, but I enjoy the slightly bolder Midwestern version.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Saumur-Champigny = a small appellation in the Loire Valley region of France that produces only red wines. It’s known for its spicy red wines made almost entirely from Cabernet Franc grapes; blending up to 10 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chenin Noir is permitted.

Enjoy those prime ribs!

Mary

[Photos by Arnold Gatilao (prime rib) and Paul (horseradish), courtesy of Flickr.]

 

Washington Wine Month is Walla-Walla-Wonderful!

Some say the shrubby, scrubby, almost desert-like terrain of eastern Washington is what gives character and backbone to wines from that state. There, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, you’ll find 99 percent of Washington’s vineyards.

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

March is Washington Wine Month and we can all raise our glasses: their wines are sold in all 50 states and about 40 countries.

Big Sexy Reds do well here. A slew of micro-climates are scattered across the state’s 13 AVAs, but typically the vines goes fully dormant in winter, with temps from 28°-45° to keep the roots cozy and growing, and hoarding their carbs until the vines are ready to sprint in the spring. Diurnal (overnight) temperature swings of 40° keep the acid levels up there, and summertime highs of 90° or more make great sugar for the fruit.

Some 25,000 acres are planted with reds – slightly more than half the state’s vines – with about 10,300 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon alone. But it’s all good for red-lovers of every stripe; Washington also produces Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Malbec and more. For white-wine drinkers they grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier – more than 40 wine grapes in all.

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Washington wine has come a long way since the first wine grapes appeared in the Walla Walla Valley around 1860. The state’s oldest living vines are the Muskat of Alexandria vines on Snipes Mountain, reportedly producing fruit since 1917. (Next year, when those vines celebrate their 100th birthday, I think Washington wine lovers should make a pilgrimage to Snipes Mountain and dance naked in the vineyard. Just saying.)  The first commercial-scale plantings – predecessors of today’s Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery – came in the 1960s; today Washington wine is a $4.4-billion industry, with a new winery opening almost every 30 days.

Although the biggest tastings happen this month, you have plenty of time to plan a visit during sunny, walking-around weather: it generally stays warm (70°-80°) into the fall, with some wineries able to harvest as late as November.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  AVA = American Viticultural Area, an officially designated wine grape-growing region in the U.S. The gatekeeper for AVAs is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Currently there are 234 AVAs in the U.S. (138 of them in California), with 10 applications pending for the creation of new AVAs or expansion of existing ones. One day when I’m feeling especially nerdy I’ll write an entire post on AVAs, their regulation and how they differ from wine-region designations in other countries. Sound exciting? Yeah, I thought that’s what you’d say…

Don’t forget to click the “Follow” tab (lower right corner of your screen) to get BigSexyReds.com by email (pretty please!).

Cheers!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of WashingtonWine.org]