It’s January, the dead of winter, and so naturally we’re recommending a viognier! On a cold, crisp night, try a cold, crisp wine. I digress. I have a love-hate relationship with viognier. Mostly hate, actually. Living in Virginia, we have a lot of it around here and frankly, most of it is bad. If you read the 2018 Tastemakers article from a few weeks ago, you got a glimpse into why I feel that way. In short, a former governor thought it would be a good idea to effectively crown it the state grape when it’s very poorly suited for our often wet and cold climate. This led to a lot of planting and production, and we now have a lot of it.
The flip side is that, when viognier is good, there’s nothing quite like it, and I love it. Viognier is a relatively low acid white grape, but a lot of the higher quality viognier manages to still somehow pair really well with a wide range of food (acid is considered key to good food wine). The world’s most famous and coveted viognier comes from an appellation in France’s Rhone Valley called Condrieu, which is quite small (around 330 acres of vineyards). Condrieu viognier is known for being structurally rich and oily while delivering vibrant minerality, tropical and floral notes. The concentrated wine attracts a small but loyal following that, combined the small amount produced, means prices start at around $40 and go north of $100 with ease.
A few other spots around the world have figured out how to make good viognier as well. Australia, Washington State, South Africa, Argentina and Chile are probably the best known outside France. While each produces a different version of viognier, none fit the Condrieu mold in terms of that oily feeling and concentration. One place that isn’t making much viognier at all is Oregon State, but that’s where I go for my benchmark bottle of the variety.
Before I introduce the wine, I need to say that I don’t love most viognier. It’s very hard to find one for less than $25 that has unique personality, and that’s a turn off. Once in a while I love a big Condrieu, but other than that there’s only one viognier I look forward to having every time: the one from Oregon’s Penner-Ash Wine Cellars.
Tasting with Lynn Penner-Ash in the summer of 2018
I first had Penner-Ash’s viognier in 2015 at my inaugural visit to the winery. I remember wondering whether they had poured me the right wine. Yes, it had those quintessential tropical, vanilla and honeysuckle flavors that viognier is known for, but the acid was unusually spry and formed a spine that I hadn’t experienced in any viognier prior. It had finesse. I realized I could enjoy more than one glass. Since then, it’s become my standard for domestic viognier, my favorite bottle of the variety, and one I enjoy whether I have food with it or not.
Viognier should have a lushness to it, but too often it’s produced to the point of opulence, which is a mistake as the variety easily slides into flabby territory if not restrained before it enters that zone. Viognier can have trouble putting on enough acid to be interesting, even under the attentive watch of the winemaker. This makes the winemaker’s role a necessary but insufficient part of achieving nice acid. What has made Penner-Ash’s viognier the standard for me is that Lynn Penner-Ash, the winemaker, gets the right levels of acid and body restraint, and finds a nice balance, every year.
The 2017 vintage is just killer. The nose offers sharp and precise mineral, chalk and citrus zest on first sniff. Breath deeper and you’ll get light tropics and florals. It smells like a cool climate viognier. On the palate it is similarly influenced by a cool climate. Medium in weight with none of the more typical oiliness and fleshiness of warmer climate vio, the acid runs the full length of the palate, remaining sharp and crisp throughout. It almost tickles the tongue. The flavors run deep, delivering sweet lemon and lime, banana leaf, lychee, rich vanilla custard and whispy white pepper. 93 points. Value: A.
For a deeper look at Penner-Ash, check out this report from our visit there last summer.
Where to buy:
Bay Area, California: Solano Cellars, 1580 #B Solano Avenue, Albany, CA. 510-525-9463.
Minneapolis, Minnesota: Ace Wine & Spirits, 4 Shady Oak Road #18, Hopkins, MN 55343. 952-960-8014.
New Jersey: Wine Works, 319 West Route 70, Marlton, NJ 08053. 856-596-3330.
West Hartford, Connecticut: Maximum Beverage, 333 North Main Street, West Hartford, CT 06117. 860-761-2541.