From the Department of Oddities And Curiosities…Viognier

Who are we? When asked to supply a vinous identity, I reply “We are primarily a Sonoma Coast Pinot noir house with a small Chardonnay program and a sizable Syrah experiment.” You may have noted on the enclosed order form that we also produce Roussanne/Marsanne and Viognier. But as you may have discovered when attempting to order it in the past, we only make a tiny amount of Viognier, less than a hundred cases, and it sells out within days. So you may ask, “What’s the story with Peay Vineyards’ dabbling with this variety?”

First impressions are lasting and my first wine job back in 1988 with Bill Smith still influences my winegrape passions to this day. On a vacation through the Northern Rhône valley, Bill was struck by the unique beauty of the wines from the tiny Condrieu appellation made exclusively from the Viognier grape. Bill was so impressed he brought some cuttings home from the tireless Condrieu promoter and producer, Georges Vernay. In 1981, Bill grafted a few Cabernet rows at La Jota on Howell Mountain over to Viognier, as did Pete Minor at Ritchie Creek across the Napa Valley. In doing so, they became the first ambassadors of this Northern Rhône grape variety in the United States. In 1990, Bill and his wife Joan went a step further and imported Condrieu from seven vignerons. Other than the importer of Guigal, they were one of the few introducing Condrieu to the States at the time.

One day during vintage, Bill opened a 1987 La Jota Viognier that intrigued me. It was pretty and floral with mineral undertones yet delivered weight and broadness in the mid-palate. That vintage was nicely brisk with its finishing acidity. I observed over the years, however, that Bill struggled to retain, or create, acidity in his Viognier. Eventually he gave up trying to duplicate on Howell Mountain what he had tasted from Condrieu, but not before inspiring and encouraging me to give the grape a try.

By the time Andy and I found our viticultural piece of paradise out on the Northern Sonoma Coast, Bill was tiring of– but not yet finished with– Viognier. He gave me cuttings of two different selections that we grafted during the winter of 1996-97. I took Bill’s advice that in order to retain its acidity, Viognier should be planted in a cooler climate than the Cabernet-friendly Howell Mountain. Although I wasn’t exactly certain of the climate at our new property, I knew it was a lot cooler than Howell Mountain. Thus was born our little 0.8 acre Viognier block, a size that reflects the calculated risk of the previously unknown viticultural climate in the northern Sonoma Coast. Add to that the known difficulty in attaining a perfectly balanced wine from the grape, and the relative obscurity and uneven quality of these wines, and you can see why we proceeded with caution. Happily, the results of our small dalliance have been warmly embraced.

In the nine years between first tasting Viognier and our planting, I tasted Bill’s Condrieu imports, followed the evolution of his La Jota wines, and tasted anything anyone in California had attempted. I concluded that over-cropped Viognier was a watery, anonymous white wine. On the other hand, Viognier that was correctly cropped but grown in too warm a site produced “fruit cocktail” flavors: syrupy, thick wines whose florality was transformed into apricot liqueur that finished heavily without any refreshing acidity. One year, Bill had a young consulting winemaker barrel ferment his Viognier in 100% new French oak. In comparing the Condrieu of that time made with no new oak to Bill’s 100% new oak Viognier, I came to the conclusion that new oak was the enemy of good Viognier expression. I assumed that these things were written in French stone somewhere, on tablets in the town square of Condrieu. “Pas de bois!”

Not at all, it turns out. In 1972 there were only 12 hectares of Viognier planted in Condrieu. In 1994, the Guigals launched the La Doriane cuvée using 50% new oak, and by 1998 it was 100% new and highly prized by critics. Today, Condrieu is experiencing a renaissance with over 130 hectares planted and young entrepreneurial winemakers copying their successful grower—négociant to the north by including varying amounts of new oak. It turned out the Condrieu imported by Bill and Joan were just snapshots, the style of the day. Since those early years, I’ve tasted bigger Viogniers that can tolerate 10-20% lightly toasted new French oak and benefit. Most often, though, I’ve found that the new oak takes the flavors in a different direction, adding a graham cracker note at the expense of floral freshness. And the other positive attribute of new oak, the mid-palate broadening and body-enhancement that comes from the barrel sugars of the new barrel, are completely unnecessary to Viognier since it comes with its own weighty, almost oily mid-palate. New oak use in Condrieu and elsewhere varies widely today, with some returning to all or partial stainless steel or old oak fermentation. But winemaking styles often swing on a pendulum. I’ve recently read that the style of the 1940’s, around the time of the creation of the appellation, was to make a fizzy sweet wine to be sold (in bulk — bring your jug — or directly to restaurants) at Christmas-time following the vintage. Today, sweet Condrieu has made a comeback as many are making late-harvest dessert wines with fruit from the new vineyard parcels.

The techniques used to make Viognier today mostly depend on a winemaker’s preferred stylistic expression (40s, 80s, 90s) as well as on where she gets her grapes. In a climate as cool as ours, un-inoculated, barrel-fermented, sur lies-aged in neutral oak Viognier delivers the suppleness and richness necessary to counterbalance our crisp acidity while the lack of new oak retains our pretty high-tone floral notes. But there are significant challenges. Managing the acidity in the grapes from our cool climate has been a trial. In some vintages there has been so much acid that it has been difficult for the malo-lactic bacteria to finish the secondary fermentation. Ironically, it is the very growth and metabolic process of the malo-lactic bacteria that reduces acidity. In years with unfinished malos, our Viognier is extra-crisp, as it is with this spring’s offering.

But I feel we are learning, viticulturally as well as enologically: when to pick, how to meet the vines’ nutritional needs, what rootstock to use, and how to space the vines. I’m negotiating with the other two newsletter scribes to allow me to plant another half acre next spring. Can we make seven barrels instead of four? Can we move from the whimsical to the experimental stage?

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