It is an unlikely friend of Niagara because it’s so difficult to grow, easily infected with mildew in humid conditions, must be picked at its peak of maturity, which is late in the harvest, and is notorious for its low acids and high alcohol.
Yet some of the best wineries in Niagara feel it’s worth all the risks to produce a top-notch Viognier year-in and year-out.
Viognier is best known for its roots in the Northern Rhone appellations of Condrieu and as a powerful ally when just a tiny amount is added to many of the Rhone’s, and other region’s, top Syrahs.
The varietal’s powerful and complex aromas and flavours — from apricot, mango and tangerine to acacia, honey and guava — are appealing to lovers of bolder, more full-bodied white wines. Many consider Viognier the red wine lover’s white wine.
And it seems to be making a comeback of sorts with regions from California (which uses it in a lot of new blends) to Australia planting more and more of the grape.
Both B.C.’s Okanagan Valley and Ontario’s Niagara region have a smattering of plantings, used primarily for small amounts of boutique Viognier sold to a niche market.
After tasting over 20 Viogniers from Niagara, B.C. and even a Condrieu from France, with some friends at Hidden Bench Winery, one thing is clear: No one style defines this complicated varietal.
We tasted Viogniers that were dry, off-dry, sweet, barrel fermented, or fermented in neutral oak, heavily oaked, unoaked, and several variations of all of the above.
The one constant through all the styles and variations was relatively high alcohol levels in all of them, 13% or higher, from the late hang-time these grapes need to reveal their true varietal character.
Another interesting trait in nearly all the wines tasted was the longevity factor (or lack thereof) due to low acidity — they need to be drunk in their youth as the wines start deteriorating rapidly after a few years of bottle age — in fact, some of the wines we tasted from earlier vintages were essentially undrinkable.
But, after saying all that, Viognier can be an exciting wine enjoyed in myriad styles. I found some real beauties in the tasting, whether dry, off dry, oaked or unoaked. I’m certainly happy that some in Niagara have chosen to make this variety — a nice alternative to Chardonnay and Riesling.
Though tricky to match with food, Viognier pairs up well with Thai food, Mexican dishes, medium to strong and salty cheeses, fish dishes made with rich sauces, pork, chicken and fresh fruit.
Here are some of my favourites from the tasting, hosted by Jay Johnston and Marlize Beyers, winemakers at Hidden Bench.
Chateau des Charmes St. David’s Bench Viognier 2008 ($26, 4 stars) — This Viognier is made in an unoaked style with gorgeous melon, peach and floral notes on the nose. Love the freshness on the palate to go with peach fruit and a smooth finish.
Fielding Estate Viognier 2009 ($30, winery, 4 stars) — The inviting nose starts with pear preserve, wild honey, peach and sweet, exotic spice. It’s lush, round and fleshy on the palate but finishes with some noticeable acidity to balance out the subtle residual sugars.
Creekside Reserve Viognier 2009 ($29, winery, 4.5 stars) — Barrel fermented in neutral oak, this Creekside version is intense with ripe, rich apple, peach, apricot fruits on the nose to go with a touch of spice. It must be a hallmark of the 09 vintage, but this Viognier also showed some vibrancy on the palate to go with rich fruits and spice.
Creekside Undercurrent Viognier 2008 (price and availability unavailable, 4.5 stars) — A highly stylish wine, with 18 months in oak barrels, and atypical notes for this varietal. But, don’t let that stop you — it’s a sensational wine with pear preserve, cream, vanilla, cinnamon and, what some tasters felt, Sauvignon Blanc-like qualities including kiwi and herbaceous notes. Somehow it all works on the palate. A fascinating wine. Will be sold in half bottles when released.
Hidden Bench Locust Lane Vineyard Viognier 2009 ($35, winery, 4.5 stars) — We were treated to a four-year vertical of this wine from Hidden Bench. Only the 2006 was starting to fade. The 07 and 08 showed excellent varietal fruit and the just released 09, fermented in neutral oak, was one of the favourites of the tasting and one of the closest to the style of Condrieu. Exotic notes on the nose revealed peach, subtle spice and tropical fruits. The tree fruits on the palate are bolstered by soft spice and freshened by good acidity. It shows elegance and wonderful texture in the mouth.
Stratus Viognier 2008 ($38, winery, 4 stars) — This is Stratus’ first Viognier and spent 20 months in 33% new oak. The nose is all about sweet and exotically spiced pear and peach notes. It shows structure on the palate with melon, pear and peach flavours topped with vanilla and coconut.
And some of the Okanagan Valley, B.C., Viogniers we enjoyed:
Hillside Estate Viognier 2009 ($25, 4 stars) — Very interesting style with partial barrel fermentation in year-old Hungarian oak and barrel aged for four months. Shows wonderful aromatics of apple, peach, musk and a touch of toast and vanilla. Fabulously lush, rich and creamy mouthfeel with spicy fruit and a long finish.
Jackson Triggs Silver Series Viognier 2009 ($16, 4 stars) — Representing not only great value but wonderful aromatics of melon, peach, and floral notes. This unoaked version of the grape had it all â€” clean and crisp tropical fruit and peach flavours that last through the finish.
Silkscarf Viognier 2008 ($22, 3.5 stars) — Poached pear and apricot dominates the nose of this summer sipper. Lacking a little acidity in the mouth but shows nice apricot, pear, and melon flavours.
Sandhill Small Lots Viognier 2008 ($25, 4.5 stars) — It’s no surprise to me that this wine earned winemaker extraordinaire Howard Soon the white wine of the year award at last year’s Canadian Wine Awards. Grown exclusively from the Osprey Ridge Vineyard, this stunner is rife with rich aromas ranging from lush tropical fruits to poached pear. It’s fleshy, textured and layered on the palate but still retains freshness. A thing of beauty.
Stag’s Hollow Viognier-Marsanne 2008 ($25, 4.5 stars) — One of the most interesting wines of the tasting. This blend of 83% Viognier and the rest Marsanne is right up winemaker Dwight Sick’s alley. He’s a self-confessed Rhone-varietal fanatic and had some fun making this wine that was 100% barrel fermented and aged in oak for eight months. It starts with a gorgeous nose of sweet stone fruit, apricot, exotic spice and vanilla. It’s broad and rich on the palate with ripe fruits and some acid zing. It’s long sold out, but you might want to make the effort to snap up the next vintage when it’s released.
And the one Condrieu we tasted:
Pierre Gaillard Condrieu 2008 ($68, 4.5 stars) — A delicate note of white flowers to go with stone fruits and a whiff of cardamom spice. It’s wow wine on the palate with a creamy texture from eight months in oak, exotic tropical fruits and spice. All nicely balanced with freshness on the finish. And it can age nicely for five year.