Viognier is a grape that is as hard to grow as the name is to pronounce. The variety is early ripening, leaving it susceptible to late spring frosts that can burn the delicate buds that would ultimately form all the green growth including the grapes themselves.
Viognier vines tend to produce relative low yields. The grapes are prone to poor fruit sets (inconsistent fertilization of each flower which becomes one grape) and powdery mildew, which is more prevalent in humid climates.
It is believed that Viognier’s origins trace back to Dalmatia—one of the four historic regions in Croatia—and that cuttings of vines were brought to the Northern Rhône Valley in France by the Roman emperor Probus. A saucy tale suggests that cuttings of Viognier and Syrah were transported via ship along the Rhône river. The ship was attacked by pirates, and the story goes that the vines ended up in the city of Vienne, in the region where the attack happened. It is thought that the name Viognier is derived from the name Vienne, but a more intriguing suggestion is that the name comes from the Latin term “via Gehennae” meaning “Road to Hell,” in reference to its many growing challenges.
As of 1970, the grape was found only in commercial wine production in the Rhône Valley, with a mere 35 acres planted near the town of Condrieu. By French law, the only wine produced with the Condrieu name must be Viognier. Currently, there are about 29,000 acres of Viognier planted worldwide, with significant plantings in France (Northern Rhône, Languedoc-Roussillon), Australia (Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, Anderson Valley), and the United States (Paso Robles, Monterrey and Sonoma in California; Walla Walla and Columbia Valley in Washington state; and in Virginia). There are also plantings in Italy, South Africa, Argentina, Chile and other parts of the world.
While the state of Virginia does not have an official state grape, Viognier was used for several years for the marketing of Virginia wine. This was because the state received some of its first notoriety as a quality producer of wine based on wines made from the grape.
Wines made from the Viognier grape have flavors and aromas of tangerine, peach, mango, orange blossom, jasmine, and honeysuckle. The wines tend to be medium- to full-bodied and have medium-to-high alcohol, based on the ripeness they achieve prior to harvest. Hallmark characteristics of the grape include an oily sensation in the mouth, lushness and low acidity.