In the 1960s, Viognier seemed to be an endangered grape, planted only in dwindling numbers in a pair of obscure redoubts in France, the shrinking Condrieu region and the one-winery Château-Grillet AOC. By the 1990s, it had become all the rage, with vineyards springing up all over California, in tandem with the explosion of Syrah.
Things have certainly leveled off since then. Viognier is no longer the darling white, overtaken successively by Pinot Grigio, Riesling, unoaked Chardonnay, Moscato and, at the moment, so-called “orange” wines. But it has earned a place on shelves and wine lists and become a staple not only in California but in Virginia as well, where the acreage is approaching that of Condrieu. (California’s is ten times bigger than either.)
Even if Viognier has become a household name in wine-loving households, it’s still in its adolescence, and still has the inevitable identity issues of that time of life. It’s planted in a wide variety of climates, many of them far too warm for quality fruit, and it gets treated to every known form of winemaking, from squeaky-clean stainless to full-on new oak barrel fermentation. Viognier in the marketplace ranges from taut and zippy to something near canned fruit cocktail juice, with alcohol. Because the wine can be blowsy, some winemakers, home and commercial, have pulled back from its charms.
Because it offers so much in the way of fruit, body and aromatics, Viognier becomes a balancing act. If the grapes are too ripe and the winemaking too extravagant, the result can be alcoholic, cloying and overbearing. But if the grapes don’t get ripe enough, Viognier comes out like mean-spirited Sauvignon Blanc. Somewhere in between is the balance point: voluptuous aromatics, yes, but also with a firm structure of acidity.
When it works, Viognier is both refreshing and a bit magical. Definitely worth the effort.
Getting Good Grapes
In France, in the windswept, weather-beaten little pocket of the Northern Rhône where Viognier made its stand (see photo, above), it developed a reputation as the Pinot Noir of white grapes: finicky both in the vineyard and the winery. The good news is that in most of the US, where weather patterns are less erratic (at least for the moment), Viognier is not especially temperamental or disease-prone in the vineyard.
The best recipe for Viognier grapes is a cool climate with a long enough season to gain full ripeness without bloated sugar levels. It’s much better to get ripe flavors at 23 °Brix than to have to wait till 27 °Brix, and better to have natural acidity than to have to add in your own. There are places in coastal California and the Sierra Foothills where nature serves up good conditions, as well as sites in Virginia and elsewhere; and there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of acres in other places, mostly warm ones, where Viognier grapes get unbalanced and have to be retrofitted in the winery. Truly cool places like the Finger Lakes in New York State or Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley in California cannot get Viognier ripe.
As with any grape, if you can taste a Viognier made by a competent winemaker from your vineyard source, so much the better. If you have a choice of climate regions, take the cooler one. Most home winemakers, alas, have limited choices in grapes and have to sharpen their winemaking skills to compensate.
Pick over fresh grapes carefully, removing anything non-grapey, like stems, leaves and insects. Toss any rotted bunches; a few clean but raisined bunches might be OK, but a lot of them will guarantee a high-alcohol wine. Try to keep the grapes as cool as possible from the time they are harvested.
Many commercial producers opt for whole-cluster pressing, which is usually not an option for home winemakers (unless you are buying juice). The next best plan is to destem the grapes and crush them as gently as possible, so as not to shred the skins and crack seeds. Then press immediately. In a basket press, layer some stems between the crushed grapes, in order to provide some empty space for the grape juice to ooze out into. All the way through the process, keep things cool; don’t do your crushing and pressing in direct sunlight if you can possibly avoid it.
Most Viognier practitioners I have talked to don’t recommend any contact time on the skins between crushing and pressing. This technique is commonly used on aromatic white varieties like Riesling and Gewürztraminer, since it can augment the aromatics and even add a tad of tannin structure to the wine. On the other hand, extended skin exposure can extract bitter phenolic compounds that can be off-putting. I would suggest that the first time you try any Viognier grape source, skip the skin contact; once you know the grapes, you might do a small trial and see what you get.
In a perfect world, your Viognier grapes will taste ripe and luscious, and will come in at no more than 24 °Brix, with a pH down around 3.3 and a TA upwards of 7 grams per liter. Think of it as the high end of white grape Brix and pH numbers, not down in the 21 °Brix and 3.1 pH range where Riesling thrives. On the other hand, I have had purchased Viognier arrive at 26 °Brix, the pH at 3.8, and the TA barely at 5 grams per liter. I managed to make decent wine out of them, but it took a lot more work.
So do make sure to get accurate numbers on the juice chemistry of your grapes at harvest, and if things are far out of balance, push them back ASAP — adding tartaric acid, possibly even a slight amount of water for over-sugared grapes. The balance in white wines is more fragile than in reds, which give the winemaker more options and wiggle room, so the sooner you muscle problem grapes into line, the better.
Strong acidity in the grapes gives you the option of putting the Viognier through malolactic fermentation, which can build a broader, fuller mouthfeel and smooth off any acidic edge. But if the acidity is low already, going through malolactic, which always lowers total acidity to some degree, just makes things worse. If preventing malolactic is part of your plan, treat the juice with a modest dose of lysozyme early on and a booster at the end of the primary fermentation.
The juice should get an initial precautionary addition of 25 parts per million of sulfur dioxide. Let it settle in glass or stainless steel for 24 hours, to settle out the grossest solids, and then rack into clean carboys or whatever vessels you are using for the fermentation.
Once you have juice ready to ferment, pause and think through your options one more time. You should have an idea or two in your head about how you’d like this wine to come out, and then you have the reality of actual juice. Maybe this juice could stand up to barrel fermentation or even a touch of new oak and go through malolactic and still have bright acidity — or maybe that’s for next year. Maybe you wanted a straightforward, clean, bright little refresher, but the combination of slightly high Brix and plenty of acid suggests that an off-dry style would fit better, leaving some of that sugar intact, lowering the final alcohol, and still holding onto mouth-cleansing acidity. In which case you might want to freeze a little juice for later. Whatever. The point is, make sure that your winemaking plans are based on the juice you have, not the juice you wish you had.
Most likely you are going to want to ferment your Viognier slow and cool, and do it in stainless steel, glass, or inert plastic carboys. Cool in this context means keeping the fermenting juice under 60 °F (15 °C), maybe even down around 50 °F (10 °C), by any means necessary. If you do not have the luxury of a walk-in cold room, you may need to swap carboys in and out of a spare refrigerator, or set them outside at night to cool off when the sun goes down, or set them in tubs of ice water. It’s worth some trouble to keep temperature down for the duration.
There are at least three strategies when it comes to yeast for Viognier — or four, if you count just letting it go and seeing what happens. Some winemakers employ recently developed yeast strains that emphasize extraction of aromatic compounds and their precursors; others rely on traditional, neutral strains that just get the fermentation job done, figuring that Viognier has plenty of aromatic punch in any case. A third camp — including me — use multiple yeasts on multiple small ferments, in hopes of obtaining a pinch more complexity in the final accounting. Make sure whatever strain you use can handle low temperatures and, if necessary, relatively high alcohol for a white wine.
If you know the nutritional status of your juice (testing for YAN), use nutritional supplements accordingly. If you have no clue — like most of us small-scale winemakers — do a small addition of a multi-nutrient cocktail preparation (like Fermaid-K) and keep close watch on how the ferment proceeds.
If your intention is to stifle malolactic, make sure to have some lysozyme in the mix. If you want the wine to go through malolactic fermentation, consider overlapping that secondary fermentation with the primary. Once the yeast starts to bubble, add the malolactic bacteria and let both run concurrently; that way, your malo is done sooner and the whole package can be stabilized with sulfur for aging.
Monitor the fermentation, checking for temperature and falling Brix, twice a day. It can’t hurt to stir things up occasionally with a long-handled spoon or rod, just to make sure all the grape material gets exposed to everything. Sniff the fermentation when you check the numbers, and be on the lookout for anything problematic — especially the rotten eggy smell of hydrogen sulfide, the sign of a stuck or sluggish fermentation. If that happens, try a pinch more nutrient, raise the fermentation temperature if it’s gotten too low, or pull off some of the juice/wine and do a full restart with fresh yeast. Taste the developing wine every now and then; it will change daily.
If your aim is for a semi-sweet or sweet wine, you can stop the fermentation once you near the desired residual sugar level by a combination of rapid chilling, sulfur dioxide (at a level appropriate for the wine’s pH), and the addition of potassium sorbate when the fermentation is stopped to inhibit refermentation. Remember that these measures don’t stop the fermentation immediately; the sorbate, for example, doesn’t keep yeast from fermenting sugar to alcohol, it just stops them from breeding. The sugar level in your wine is likely to drop another percentage or two before things stop entirely, depending on the temperature and the starting sugar level.
When fermentation activity has subsided, test for dryness, not just with a hydrometer but with Clinitest tablets or some other validation method. And whether or not you added a malolactic culture, test to make sure a malolactic fermentation either happened or didn’t; you do not want to find out the answer as a surprise after the wine has been bottled. Once the wine is microbially stable, make a sulfur addition, again correlated to the wine pH, that will keep it that way as the wine ages.
Once the fermented wine is racked off the gross lees that settles to the bottom and put into clean containers, it needs a little time to grow up. Even though it can make a big, full-bodied wine, Viognier is typically a short turnaround, bottled four to six months after harvest. Early bottling with any aromatic variety helps hold onto the more elusive of the aromatic esters. The challenge for home winemakers is getting the wine clarified on that fairly short timetable, since simple gravity can take a while.
While you’re waiting for the lees to fall, think about blending. Viognier is a great blending tool, adding body to lighter wines and aromatic intrigue to more neutral varieties, such as Chardonnay. Viognier even makes its way — or sometimes just Viognier skins (see page 34) — into red wines, particularly Rhône blends.
Two or three careful rackings (careful to avoid exposing the wine to oxygen) will do most of the clarification work. If the wine continues to be too cloudy for your taste, fining with a cleanup agent like Sparkalloid will move things along in a week or so. Commercial wineries fine with bentonite clay to remove proteins that might throw a haze at high temperatures, but if you do not plan to store your wine at 90 °F (32 °C), you may not need this step.
If you want to avoid the possibility of little wine crunchies/crystals forming when bottles are chilled, you can either do a partial cold stabilization by sticking carboys in a cold refrigerator for two weeks, or use one of the commercial stabilization additives that prevent the precipitation of the tartrates that make up those crunchies. And for a more brilliant final product, even a light, 5-micron filtration adds some polish without significantly altering your wine.
Watch sanitation at bottling as though your wine’s life depended on it, because it does. Sanitize bottles and equipment thoroughly, and do what you can to avoid exposing the wine to oxygen in its final movements. Give the wine a light final dose of SO2 to keep it happy. Store corked wines straight up for a few days to equalize air pressure, give the wine a couple weeks to get over bottle shock and enjoy!
Like other aromatic whites, Viognier is likely to get to the bottle with some of its aromatic precursors still not done with their development, meaning that it should get more interesting in two or three months. You bottle it early to trap the esters, then wait just a bit for the chemistry to unfold, and there you have it.
The Romance of Viognier Skins
Though Viognier is not the most important white variety in the Rhône — both Roussanne and Marsanne are bigger deals — it has a certain mystique because of its association with Syrah, the flagship red of the region. The famous (and pricey) wines of the Côte Rotie, not far from Viognier-happy Condrieu, usually contain a portion of Viognier, thought to add an element of elegance. In the Southern Rhône, winemakers have a long tradition of putting pressed Viognier skins into Syrah fermentations, in hopes of boosting not only aromatics but color.
The color part may seem counter-intuitive: how can white grape skins help with red color? Turns out that with many red grape fermentations, what determines color is not simply how much anthocyanin (pigment) gets extracted, but how much gets retained. By the end of fermentation, pigment is actually dropping out of the wine, settling at the bottom of the fermenter or re-adhering to the grape skins. Some white grapes — and Viognier is one — contain compounds which are colorless but which love to team up with pigment, not fully bonding but forming something more like stacks that keep more anthocyanins suspended in the mix and contribute measurably to the color intensity of young red wines.
Syrah isn’t the only red that might benefit from this kind of co-fermentation; it’s just that Syrah has a reputation to uphold as a really dark red wine, so it may need help. Viognier skins can give a similar boost to other Rhône grapes; it might even help your Merlot’s color, though the aromatics would come out weird. Experiment in your home winery if you have complementary grapes.
The trick, of course, is having pressed Viognier skins around when your Syrah (or other red) is ready to ferment. If you are lucky enough to have both varieties come in at the same time, terrific. If your Viognier comes in first, freeze some of the skins and thaw them in the red ferment. (Don’t let the Viognier sit around at room temperature and become a vinegar mother.) A small portion, maybe ten percent of the grape total, is plenty.
Tips from the Pros
Viognier is one of the few grape varieties in the United States that is thoroughly bi-coastal, with a significant presence in both California and Virginia. One of the very first producers was Calera, high in the Pinnacles in California’s underknown San Benito County, a winery more visible for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. For a number of years, at least, the biggest producer in the country was Horton in Virginia. Most of California’s Rhône-style labels include a Viognier in the mix since people expect it. For Virginia, Viognier has become the signature white. All of which means there are as many Viognier “recipes” as there clones of Pinot Noir.
At various times I have had serious Viognier chats with Josh Jensen at Calera, Dennis Horton at Horton, Leon Sobon of Sobon Estate in Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, Kirsty Harmon at Blenheim in Virginia (yes, the winery owned by rocker Dave Matthews), and Bob Lindquist at Qupé in Santa Barbara’s Santa Maria Valley. There was some daylight between the five of them, but agreement on some key points:
• All of them want their grapes at modest sugar levels, no more than 24 °Brix or so, to keep final alcohol rational and acidity up.
• None of them are fans of skin contact for Viognier, even if it works for other aromatic varieties.
• All rely either on natural/feral yeasts — Calera, Lindquist’s biodynamic project — or pretty mainstream yeast strains — Fermiblanc for Sobon, D47 for Horton, EC1118 (among others) for Harmon at Blenheim. Nobody ever brought up “designer” aromatic yeasts.
• Cool is the rule for fermentation; even the barrel fermenters in the group keep their ambient temperatures low enough that the temperatures don’t get much over 60 °F (15 °C).
• Oak is not the answer. Josh Jensen was in the habit of using 12 or 13-year-old barrels (those numbers are not typos) to make sure they were neutral; Lindquist barrel ferments in neutral wood. Sobon uses a short time in used oak; Horton’s method was a mix of stainless and barrel fermentation, with very little new oak among the barrels; Harmon uses a mix of steel and wood as well.
• Everybody bottles this wine in under six months.