Viognier: French white grape gaining foothold in Washington

From left, owners Craig and Vicki Leuthold and winemaker Richard Batchelor lead Maryhill Winery in Goldendale. Maryhill has become one of Washington’s top producers in the past few years. (Maryhill Winery)

From left, owners Craig and Vicki Leuthold and winemaker Richard Batchelor lead Maryhill Winery in Goldendale. Maryhill has become one of Washington’s top producers in the past few years. (Maryhill Winery)

Viognier, the noble white grape of the northern Rhône Valley of France, has started to gain a strong foothold in the Pacific Northwest, rolling in on the wave of interest in Rhône varieties in our region.

It’s a maddeningly difficult grape to grow and often more difficult to craft into wine. However, it can make some gems our region. It is most famous in the Condrieu district of the Rhône, where it almost went extinct in the 1960s.

“I like all the iterations in Washington, which are all over the map — bone-dry, some chardonnayesque with malolactic and oak — and that’s one thing that has confused consumers a bit,” said Maryhill Winery co-owner Craig Leuthold. “There’s not one style that our industry has taken to.

“I’m not fond of the California style of viognier, which is so phenolic that it’s almost musky and too rich in flavor for people to take serious. I think Washington could take it some place.”

Leuthold’s showpiece winery on the edge of the Columbia Gorge has positioned itself to make that statement. Richard Batcehlor, Maryhill’s winemaker with a Midas touch for seemingly every variety, produced nearly 8,300 cases of viognier from the 2016 vintage. No other Northwest producer is even in the ballpark.

“It’s our second-largest production wine, and our demand has grown 38 percent in the last year, which was almost what rose has been for us,” Leuthold said. “A lot of people had planted it in Washington, but nobody really has been doing much with it, so we’ve been able to find viognier without any problem.”

At this point, Chateau Ste. Michelle offers a single example of viognier, a production of 1,100 cases with sales limited to its tasting room and website. Maryhill remains bullish on it beyond its original Goldendale tasting room and new satellite tasting room overlooking the Spokane River in the heart of Leuthold’s hometown.

“We’ve sort of created a market for this in the Northwest,” Leuthold said. “It’s one variety that hasn’t yet hit the mainstream, and we enjoy the way it offers a nice balance of fruit and tartness.”

Today in Washington, about 2,000 tons are harvested annually, ranking sixth among white grapes and catapulting it beyond longer-established varieties semillon and chenin blanc. Just to the north in British Columbia, there were 630 tons of viognier harvested in 2015, which ranked seventh among white wine grapes. That same vintage saw Oregon pull in 688 tons of viognier.

Much of what Maryhill needs — Gunkel Vineyard — is within view of his winery, but Batchelor also brings in viognier from Tudor Hills in the Yakima Valley, as well as Coyote Canyon and McKinley Springs in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Around the Northwest, not all that tonnage goes exclusively to making bottles labeled as viognier. Some is blended with other Rhône varieties such as roussanne and marsanne or other white wines. Viognier also is co-fermented with syrah, adding color and some citrus hints for a more complex wine.

“I’m fond of having it with chicken alfredo or smoked salmon fettuccine — something with a creamy sauce,” Leuthold said. “The creaminess of the wine in the midpalate with the butter really seems to complement each other.”

Here are several examples of viognier we’ve tasted recently. Ask your favorite wine merchant for them or order them directly from the winery.

Maryhill Winery 2016 Viognier, Columbia Valley, $16: The Leutholds have been receiving gold medals for viognier for more than a decade, and they’ve maintained the ripe fruit characteristic while dialing down the oak and sweetness. Hallmarks include apricot, honeysuckle and orange Creamsicle, as lemony acidity nicely balances by a bit of residual sugar, paving the way for it to win a gold medal at the 2017 Washington State Wine Competition.

Icon by Waterbrook 2016 Viognier, Columbia Valley, $24: John Freeman’s viognier includes fruit from Canyon Ranch Vineyard in the Yakima Valley and a barrel program of six months in neutral oak. Classic notes of orange Creamsicle come with light toast and caramelized banana, joined by lime peel and lemongrass. The roundness on the palate is backed by yellow grapefruit pith.

Vale Wine Co. 2016 Viognier, Snake River Valley, $18: Pilot-turned-vintner Tim Harless lives in Idaho’s Sunnyslope Wine District and pulls from Block 39 of acclaimed Sawtooth Vineyard south of Lake Lowell. These grapes never saw oak, leaving it to explode with fun aromas of banana taffy, pina colada and gooseberry. The lovely texture brings in peach and more tropical flavors with green banana and lychee, tightened up by tart orange.

Rio Vista Wines 2016 Antoine Creek Vineyards Viognier, Columbia Valley, $30: Antoine Creek is quickly gaining a reputation as perhaps the top site in Washington for viognier, as this wine has won a gold medal or better in a regional competition for three straight vintages. Aromas of jasmine flowers include hints of orange and mango fruit. On the palate, tropical fruit dominates the flavors, with just a whisper of residual sweetness rounding out the flavors.

Cave B Estate Winery 2016 Cave B Vineyards Viognier, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, $25: One of the top destination wineries in the Pacific Northwest is adjacent to the fabulous Gorge Amphitheatre on the western edge of the Ancient Lakes American viticulture area. This superb viognier is very floral at first whiff, followed by flavors of fresh peaches, banana oil and classic orange Creamsicle in the finish.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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