In 1989, Dennis Horton, winemaker and founder of Horton Winery in Gordonsville, north of Charlottesville, planted the first Viognier vines in Virginia.
Best known as the aromatic white grape of the Condrieu appellation in the northern Rhône Region of France, Virginia’s first Viognier vines came from California’s Napa Valley.
Horton’s initial planting of Viognier included five acres at the Berry Hill Vineyard with cuttings sourced from La Jota Vineyard located on Howell Mountain in northeast Napa Valley and eight acres planted with cuttings from Pete Minor’s Ritchie Creek Vineyard across the valley on Spring Mountain.
“The first vintage [of Viognier] was 1992 but it was the 1993 that created the buzz,” says Mike Heny, winemaker at Horton Vineyards. “It was a great vintage in Virginia that coincided with the peaking of interest in Rhône varieties in California. The wine received high scores from Parker (reviewed by Pierre Rovani) and caused a big splash at the Hospice du Rhône.”
Horton’s early success with Viognier prompted other Virginia winegrowers to start planting the grape.
Today, Viognier is the fifth most planted grape variety in the state with 259 bearing acres under vine (and 82 non-bearing acres). About 80 Virginia wineries offer a Viognier.
Because of the growing popularity and potential for differentiation, the Virginia Wine Board designated Viognier the state’s official grape for national branding purposes in May 2011 (nevermind that milk is the official beverage of Virginia).
Viognier is popular with consumers but can be a headache for growers because it’s prone to diseases like powdery mildew and significant yield fluctuations.
Beginning with the rain-soaked 2011 harvest, several recent vintages have been challenging for Viognier and the total tons harvested have fluctuated significantly across the state.
Virginia Viognier fans will be glad to know that 2015 was a great year for the state’s official grape (and for most grape varieties); winemakers across the state reported excellent yields and fruit quality.
“Compared to prior years we made a lot of Viognier this year,” says Jordan Harris, general manager and winemaker at Tarara Winery in Loudoun County. “In 2014 we processed 6 tons (about 360 cases) and this year about 75 tons (about 4500 cases). A lot of [Viognier] fruit came from our Nevaeh vineyard for the first time in a while. No frost, no cold issues and a new planting a started to yield fruit.”
Following are a few of my favorite Virginia Viogniers from a recent tasting:
Veritas Vineyards 2015 Viognier
Made from grapes grown in the Shenandoah Valley, the 2015 is 100% Viognier aged in stainless steel tanks. Winemaker Emily Pelton consistently makes one of the top Viogniers in the state; the 2015 may be her best yet that showcases the potential of this grape in Virginia. Bright gold color in the glass, this Viognier is fresh and vibrant; offering notes of peach, honeysuckle and white flowers with a lovely waxy-peach texture in the mouth. Rich without being cloying. Excellent balance. Delicious! This wine will be even better in five years. Would be great paired with thai food. Hat tip Lucinda Smith for providing my first taste of this beautiful wine in May.
Purchase this wine, $25.
Horton Vineyards 2015 Viognier
Though Virginia does not have a ‘Viognier style’ (and never will in my opinion), Horton’s Viognier may be the one that best represents a style most popular with consumers: full bodied with honey, white flower and tropical fruit aromas and flavors. A delicious and fantastic value at just $20. The 5% Petit Manseng adds pineapple notes and acidity that adds to the wine’s freshness. For a different style, try Horton’s sparkling Viognier NV. For more information about Horton’s Viognier, see this review of the 2014 by James the Wine Guy.
Purchase this wine, $20.
King Family Vineyards 2015 Viognier
King Family winemaker Matthieu Finot may be best known for his award-winning Meritage red blends but the 2015 Viognier is deserving of high praise. A blend of 85% Viognier with 15% Petit Manseng for acidity, this Viognier is rich and unctuous with notes of peach syrup, honeysuckle and zippy citrus fruits. 70% of the juice was fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks while the rest was aged in neutral oak, acacia barrels and concrete egg. Finot also made a limited production orange Viognier (meaning the juice was fermented on its skin like a red wine) as part of the Small Batch Series that is available only to club members.
Purchase this wine, $26.95.
Keswick Vineyards 2015 Les Vents d’Anges Viognier
Named for owner Al Schornberg’s youngest sister, Genevieve, Les Vents d’Anges means ‘the wind of angels.’ This is one of three Viogniers produced from Keswick estate fruit by winemaker Stephen Barnard, who won the Virginia Governor’s Cup this year for his 2014 Cabernet Franc Estate Reserve. Rich with loads of stone fruits, this wine would make a great aperitif and pair with fish topped with mango salsa.
Purchase this wine, $24.95.
General’s Ridge 2015 Viognier
With each new vintage, this growing winery is becoming the gem of Virginia’s Northern Neck. This Viognier was made by noted Virginia and Burgundy winemaker Michael Shaps with fruit grown in the General’s Ridge estate vineyard planted in 2001. Darker gold in color, this Viognier offers notes of peach, apricot creme brûlée with hints of herbs on the edges. Well balanced with a long stone fruit finish. This wine pairs beautifully with Grayson cheese.
Tarara Winery 2015 Viognier
Loudoun County (made from Monticello AVA fruit)
Made by one of Virginia’s first Rhone Rangers, winemaker Jordan Harris. 100% Viognier. Fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. Fresh and clean, this Viognier is light-yellow color in the glass offering notes of peach and white flower dominate with zippy stone fruit acidity. Perfect served as an aperitif or paired with salads. For a more serious Viognier check out the 2015 from Adventure Farm Vineyard in the Monticello AVA bottled under Harris’ second label, Boneyard Wines.
Purchase this wine, $30.
Look for 2015 Viogniers from these other notable producers: Barboursville Vineyards in the Monticello AVA; Breaux Vineyards and North Gate Vineyards in Loudoun County.