The Tables Have Turned

Paul Blow

California winemakers started making Viognier in the 1990s, as vintners sought an alternative to Chardonnay. The wines were mostly terrible, and French Viognier remained the standard. In the last 15 years, though, something has shifted: American Viognier has improved, while the French stuff has gotten worse.

Viognier is native to the northern Rhône region, the sole grape of a very small appellation called Condrieu, which produces a wine known for its honeyed, rich texture and floral, peachy flavors. It can be either dry or off-dry. The problem with California Viognier used to be the heat: American vintners planted the vines in climates too warm for them. The grapes came in overripe, with high sugar and alcohol levels, while not developing proper flavors. The results were wines that had a bitter florality, off-puttingly high alcohol levels, and often an offensive bit of residual sugar in an attempt to cover up the alcohol in the finish. No matter how cold these white wines were served, they were not drinkable.

But then some European-minded American vintners figured it out. They planted or found vineyards in cool places. Like the California Central Coast winemaker Morgan Clendenen, who says, “When I started making it in the Santa Rita Hills at the Sanford & Benedict vineyard, no one thought it would ripen. But it’s turned out to be wonderful.” The American vintners also rejected using new oak, either keeping the wines entirely in metal tanks to get that steely zing or maturing the wines in used barrels to get a rounder, more intricate structure without flavors of vanilla and toast.

Clendenen—brash, blonde, and charmingly eccentric (and formerly married to Jim Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat winery)—is the queen of Viognier in America. With her label Cold Heaven, Clendenen is the only winemaker in the country to have chosen, oddly, to specialize in this not particularly popular white wine grape.

And what happened to French Viognier? Celebrated Condrieu producers like Yves Cuilleron and François Villard started making wines in the style of California Chardonnay: heavy, clumsy, alcoholic, and positively smothered in oak. If anything could save these wines, it was that many of them were coming from old or mature vineyards that could draw the minerality out of Condrieu’s limestone soils.

The other day I tasted the new vintage from Peay Vineyards, located in the cool Sonoma Coast region of California. The Viognier, which co-owner Andy Peay agreed was the winery’s best ever, was sublime: a delicate balance between succulent white flowers, nectarines, and apricots, with a low enough alcohol level that the potent concentration of the juice showed through. Likewise, the Viogniers from winemaker Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines fill the mouth but feel lean and wiry on the tongue. Calera’s Josh Jensen makes one that’s floral and springlike but taut with acidity and long in finish. And this is just the beginning for American Viognier. While the northern Rhône—and especially Condrieu—is a very small region, the wine-growing spaces of America are vast.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.