Viognier (vee-ohn-yay) is somewhat of a cognoscente wine that has a small but dedicated following. It has never gained the notoriety of other popular whites such as chardonnay, riesling, pinot grigio, and sauvignon blanc, but I find it appealingly exotic. This is what English wine writer Andrew Jefford said so beautifully about viognier: “At its best, this variety’s wines can send shivers down your spine, blow gently over the hairs on your nape, and tweak your nipples for luck.”
Viognier came within 37 acres of extinction in the mid-20th century, but plantings significantly increased worldwide in the last two decades of the century. The reference standard for the varietal is found in viognier from Condrieu, France, where it is produced in very small quantities and quite expensive. Since the grape is suited to warm climates, it has found a home in the New World in California, where examples are considerably more affordable.
California’s iconic winemaker, Josh Jensen, the proprietor of Calera Wine Co., was the first California vintner to plant viognier back in 1983, in the hills of Hollister on Mt. Harlan in San Benito County. Jensen petitioned the USDA to import viognier cuttings when the grape did not exist in this country. Today, Calera viognier is one of the benchmarks for the varietal in California.
The 2010 Calera Viognier is harvested from a 6.1-acre organically farmed vineyard noted for its limestone soil. The wine undergoes full malolactic fermentation like many commercial chardonnays, and is aged 10 months in French oak barrels. Light golden yellow in color, it is perfumed with aromas of peaches, apricots, and grilled pineapple. Relatively rich and full-bodied, it delivers an array of tropical fruit, citrus, and stone fruit flavors accompanied by a nutty accent from oak. The mouth feel is mildly viscous, and the finish is bright with palate-cleansing acidity.
Viognier is a versatile wine that is fine on its own as an aperitif, or as a complement to various cuisines: foie gras (French), butternut squash or pumpkin ravioli (Italian), and curries (Indian). The wine has good local retail distribution, including totalwine.com, thewineclub.com, and wineex.com for $30 or less, and in half-bottle format at hitimewine.net for $15. The 2011 vintage has been released and it’s equally fine. Calera Wine Co. also produces a dessert (sweet) viognier.