Viognier ranks among the most maddening and confounding grapes. It is difficult to grow, and it is equally difficult to make into a balanced and delicious wine.
Yet the grape and its often highly floral aromatics has captured the imagination of some Pacific Northwest winemakers, many of them caught up in the growing interest in Rhône varieties.
Viognier originates in France’s northern Rhône Valley, in a region just south of Côte-Rôtie called Condrieu. As recently as 1965, Viognier had dwindled to just a few acres and appeared on the brink of extinction when its fortunes and plantings improved.
It was first planted in Washington in the 1970s, with some of the first Viognier going in at Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley.
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Today, Viognier remains a darling amid Washington winemakers, despite its difficulties, and it pairs nicely with scallops, shrimp, spicy Asian fare, creamy cheeses and chicken salad. Last fall, wineries crushed 1,900 tons of Viognier. Here are a few delicious examples of we’ve tasted in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Armstrong Family Winery 2015 Lawrence Vineyards Viognier, Columbia Valley, $22: The Armstrong family works with the Lawrence family’s Corfu Crossing Vineyard and its 2008 planting of Viognier at 1,500 feet elevation along the Royal Slope north of Wahluke Slope. One of Washington’s highest vineyards seems to make sense for Viognier as winemakers chase ripeness while maintaining acidity. Tim Armstrong fermented this lot in 40 percent new French oak for 10 months, allowing for aromas and flavors of Bosc pear, lemongrass and orange Creamsicle. Pleasing roundness transitions to a finish of lemony acidity and a shaving of pear skin, setting the table for suggested pairings with ham, turkey or buttery shellfish. (14.8 percent alcohol.)
Martinez & Martinez Winery 2015 Tudor Hills Vineyard Viognier, Yakima Valley, $16: Some of Washington’s oldest vineyards serve as neighbors for Mark and Tom Tudor’s vines near Grandview, and while they sell to some of the state’s largest wineries, here they work Prosser winemaker Andrew Martinez. The nose of lemon meringue pie, nectarine and spearmint include lamb’s wool and lanolin. On the palate, it takes a tropical turn with Mandarin orange and honeydew melon, backed by sweet lemon flavors that make this quite a quaffer. Enjoy with turkey breast, Tacos Camarones or Pork Pozole. (13.67 percent alcohol.)
Martin-Scott Winery 2015 Viognier, Columbia Valley, $15: Although it’s not referenced on the label, Columbia Valley vigneron Mike Scott grows the Viognier on his Needlerock Vineyard overlooking the Columbia River and bottles it at his East Wenatchee estate. The enticing nose offers tropical hints that lead with lychee and are followed by fig, melon and peach. Its flavor profile opens nicely with sweet peach as it picks up ginger and almond on the midpalate. There’s a fair bit of residual sugar on the back that’s tightened up by orange oil and Bartlett pear skin. Enjoy with Thai or spicy Mexican cuisine. (14.4 percent alcohol.)
William Church Winery 2015 Sara’s Vintage Viognier, Columbia Valley, $25: William Church in Woodinville reaches across the Cascades and into the Columbia Basin to create this bright and lively Viognier by using fruit from Gamache and Conner Lee vineyards. There was no wood involved during its four months of fermentation, which explains the clean and tropical aromas with hints of peach and pear, freshly laundered linen and spearmint. That tropical theme continues onto the palate, which is hints at unsweetened Juicy Fruit Gum flavors. A thin sheen of lanolin on the midpalate yields to a pulse of lemon/lime acidity with a scrape of minerality. (14.4 percent alcohol.)
Coyote Canyon Winery 2014 Sweet Louise Late Harvest Viognier/Riesling, Horse Heaven Hills, $22: Justin Michaud’s second vintage for Horse Heaven Hills grower Mike Andrews included this tasty dessert wine that’s a Coyote Canyon traditional blend of Viognier (62 percent) and Riesling. It finished out at 21 percent residual sugar with a classic ice wine nose of apricot glacéed, fig, poached pear with cinnamon and honey. Those notes come through as flavors, too, wrapped in a texture of maple syrup and capped with a nuttiness that includes a squirt of grapefruit. (11.2 percent alcohol.)
Stottle Winery 2014 Lucille Late Harvest Viognier, Yakima Valley, $21: The aromatics of Viognier continue to lure Josh Stottlemyre into creating a dessert wine from Two Coyote Vineyard. Lovely scents of peach blossom and lavender-infused honey lead to flavors of lychee and apricot stung by finish of honey, beeswax and peach skin. (12.1 percent alcohol.)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com