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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Vive la Franc!

You’re right, BigSexyReds doesn’t usually work on Sunday. But I couldn’t resist – today, December 4, is Cab Franc Day, and I want to kick up my heels a little and celebrate this rock star of cool-climate reds.

There’s a bit of serendipity at play here. Last week, I spent Thanksgiving with family in northern Virginia. Now, you don’t need me to tell you that Virginia has emerged as a powerhouse of terrific wine. Its “signature” varietal is Viognier, but for my money, that state produces some of the smoothest, most luscious Cabernet Franc on the planet, and we discovered a new favorite at Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run.

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Cabernet Franc is one of the three primary grapes in the classic “Bordeaux blend.” (The other two, if you want to sprinkle your next cocktail conversation with a little wine trivia, are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.) We do our Cab Franc dance on December 4 because  it’s the date when Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642 – and he happens to be the fellow who carried cuttings of the vine from Libournais to the Loire Valley, where the variety thrived. I know, it’s a spotty connection, and I’m sure it’s the only day of the year when anyone gives a thought to poor dead Cardinal Richelieu, but there it is.

Cab Franc has a slightly shorter growing season than its heftier relative, Cabernet Sauvignon; it’s ready to harvest at least a week earlier. That means its skin doesn’t get as thick; it doesn’t need the long weeks of hot sun that thick-skinned Cab Sauv needs, so it does well in cooler wine regions such as Ontario, Ohio and the Finger Lakes. Cab Franc does grow in California, though, where it’s popular as an ingredient in that state’s famous Meritage blends.

Cabernet Franc is an adaptable grape with plenty of backbone, so it’s often used in blends, lending some structure to the mix. Petit Verdot is one popular blending partner. I like Cab Franc best as its own single-variety wine, though – it’s robust but, since it’s thin-skinned, its tannins are tame. I think of it as Cabernet Sauvignon’s more refined kin – softer, slightly more floral, but never wimpy. Cab Franc tastes of dark berries and dry leaves; it can hang with the big guys at dinner, pairing well with pork or, because of its spicy notes, a nice sausage dish. But it also goes down nicely with roasted chicken.

So, which Cab came first – Franc or Sauvignon? According to wine expert Jancis Robinson, DNA research in 1997 found that Cabernet Franc had mated with Sauvignon Blanc; their love child was Cabernet Sauvignon. So, Cab Franc is the older grape.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  “Hectare” = a unit of square-area measurement, equal to 2.471 acres. This is the global term used to convey how much land is “under vine,” or planted with wine grapes. Worldwide, about 54,000 hectares, or 133,437 acres, are devoted to growing Cabernet Franc. Most of that land is in France (about 37,000 hectares, or 91,429 acres). About 7 percent of the world’s Cab Franc is grown in the United States.

Vino ‘Views:  We’re raising a glass of Pearmund Cellars 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve ($42) tonight. Voted “Best Winery in Virginia” by readers of Virginia Wine Lovers Magazine, Pearmund Cellars got our vote for best Cab Franc of the three wineries we visited. Lush and smooth, the aromas of smoke and black cherries gave way to tastes of tobacco, blackberries and strong tea – but without the tea’s tannins. Don’t let the price tag scare you off; it includes the cost of shipping.

Enjoy your Cab Franc tonight!

Mary

[Photo: Fire pit at Pearmund Cellars, courtesy of Benjamin Snyder.]