It is autumn (I think. It may already be winter) and those snappy, summer whites don’t quite seem appropriate. I want something different but serious…
How about Viognier? This is the Rhone grape made famous by Condrieu and Chateau Grillet. It’s an opulent sort of grape with a texture rather like Chardonnay but a different flavour set. When young Viognier has a high level of terpenes, like Riesling, lending the bouquet distinctive floral notes. The palate tends more to pear flavours than citrus, and is nowhere near as acidic as Chardonnay.
Like Pinot Blanc this is a wine that loves spicy oriental food like Thai cuisine and international style cooking. I think of it as the perfect accompaniment for steel head trout, especially if you use any rubs that include things like mustard or coriander seeds.
Traditionally Viognier was blended with Roussanne and Marsanne in areas of the Rhone outside Condrieu, and can make a fabulous table wine. In New World vineyards the wine is usually bottled pure or at least over 80 per cent. There are six listed in the Saskatchewan, Banville and Jones carries another five not listed by the MLCC (including a Condrieu!)and only God knows how many can be found in Alberta.
They are all worth a try. Chile and California have some serious fans of the grape. French viognier under $20 is common, and usually from Languedoc. Perhaps more interesting to all of us, is that there are some excellent examples coming from the Okanagan.
My favourite is from Sandhill in the Okanagan. This isn’t terribly surprising: Itís triple the price of the cheaper Chilean offerings. But this wine really stood out in the side by side tasting, a dramatically more intense wine.
It has a beautiful nose with tremendous flowery scents and some fruit. The vineyard claims peach but it struck me as more melon like. The palate was huge with great fruit flavours, a surprising amount of acidity for Viognier, and a long lingering finish. In short, this was a great wine.
My next favourite that is widely available across the prairies, including the MLCC and SLGA, Smoking Loon ís offering from California. If youíre not up for a $30 bottle but want to get some sense of what the grape can do at best, try this one. The bouquet smelt a little more massaged to me, but the palate was full, round and fruity with just a whisper of mineral and astringency on the finish.
Australian winemakers like Viognier too, and Iíd rank the Yalumba Series Y wine as close to the Loon, although it costs about four bucks more. They kept the acidity less mellow (Iíd guess they skipped the MLF), and it shows in the bouquet, having an almost citrus scent. The fruit was perfectly balanced, and the finish medium length.
Of more interest to me was how the wines progressed in the fridge over a couple of days. Traditionally Viognier – barring Chateau Grillet – is drunk under three years of age. Older than that the bouquet gets quite flat. This was the case with all of these wines, but the Yalumba in particular seemed to gain some ground when a bit oxidized. The Loon became simpler, but the Yalumba stayed together. If youíre consumption rate usually runs across a couple of days Iíd say the Yalumba was worth the extra money.
The next three are all bargain wines from South America. They have their place in my glass, but they really donít live up to the possibilities of the varietal. Cono Sur and Falernia versions were drinkable but both were a bit simple. The Falernia bouquet was pretty close to non-existent, which is a shame in a bottle only eighteen months old. Cono Surís bouquet when cold was mineral and rather sharp.
Both produced a nice round fruit palate. The Falernia was more acidic, tending to the citrus, but the Cono Sur delivered on the peach/pear palate you hope for.
Trivento Tribu is bargain priced and not really a great example of Viognier. It did have some of the terpenes in the bouquet – a major plus, especially after the other South American versions – but they seemed clumsy. The wine was dry, with a crisp acidity and a pleasant finish. Itís a nice drinkable wine, but again I doubt it will cause many to become true believers in the Viognier creed.
All three of the South American wines drove home another point to be remembered with heavier white wines: They taste best well above fridge temperature. Iíd suggest aiming for 50F/9C knowing it will warm in the glass.
If you like these and want to explore the upper reaches of the grape, Willow Park carries three more including the excellent Michele Satta Italian viognier for $70.
Sandhill Small Lots Viognier, BC, Canada, 2011. $28.00 *****
Smoking Loon Viognier, USA, 2010. $14.99 ****
Yalumba Y Series Viognier, Australia $18.99 2011. ****
Cono Sur Viognier, Chile, 2011. $11.99 ****
Falernia Viognier, Chile, 2011. $13.21 ****
Trivento Tribu Viognier, Argentina, 2011. $10.99 ***
James Romanow writes about Wine and all things Boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze
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