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Viognier in the Vineyard

May 14, 2013

Viognier is a white fruit variety best know from the Rhône Valley of France but has also proven itself in many of the world’s finest growing regions, including Paso Robles. In France, the variety has historically been grown in the northern Rhône Valley in the small appellation of Condrieu, as well as the very tiny area known as Chateau-Grillet. Viognier is also grown in the greater Côtes du Rhône region of the southern Rhône Valley and is quite frequently blended with many of the other Rhône white varieties grown there.
Viognier found its way to America in the late 1980’s by some pioneering growers intrigued by the white Rhône variety, but it did not gain much universal public attention until many years later. However, today Viognier is the most widely planted white Rhône variety in California with over 3,000 acres in production.

While not a particularly easy variety to grow for a number of reasons, Viognier does well in the warmer Mediterranean-like climates and excels here in Paso Robles. It is generally one of the first to bud break and subsequent flowering and is therefore quite often one of the first varieties harvested in the fall. Some daring farmers and winemakers will allow it to “hang” an extended time allowing for increased flavors and expressive wines. Viognier is a moderate to good producing variety and as with all winegrapes the yields produced depend on soils and growing conditions, as well as the grower and ultimately the winemaker’s determination as to the appropriate crop size based on the style of wine to be produced. In Paso Robles, the yields likely will range from one to four tons of fruit harvested per acre, although more can certainly be obtained if conditions are favorable and/or desired.

In France and particularly in the steep hillside vineyards of the northern Rhône Valley the vines are closely planted and trained in a method called Guyot. Each vine has an “A” frame-like structure where the vine is planted on one side and a Guyot or small section of the vine is spanned to the opposing side. It is from this Guyot that each year’s new growth is produced. The new shoots each year are allowed to twist and entangle themselves up the “A” frame structure. In the U.S. we generally plant Viognier using a trellising method with horizontal wires spread between stakes. The most popular being a method called Vertical Shoot Positioning. This allows for the permanent structure of the vines to be grown on a horizontal wire and the new shoots each year are supported in an upright position between a series of additional wires, which allow for maximum sun exposure to the leaves.

Wines produced from the Viognier variety are known for their expression of character and include aromas and flavors of stone fruits such as peaches and apricots as well as floral characteristics like honeysuckle, violet, jasmine and rose petals. Viognier is quite often bottled as a single variety but also blended with other Rhône whites such as Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc to create expressive, mouth-filling wines.

Carl Bowker
Caliza Winery