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Wednesday, July 25, 2012
In the world of wine, New Zealand is famous for its crisp sauvignon blanc, and Argentina is justifiably proud of its malbec. California’s Napa Valley produces exceptional cabernet sauvignon. If some Virginia winemakers and wine enthusiasts have their way the state will soon be known as the home of viognier.
In May 2011 the Virginia Wine Board , meeting in Charlottesville, declared viognier as Virginia’s signature grape . According to its website, the wine board promotes the interests of vineyards and wineries in the commonwealth through research, education and marketing. The board arrived at its decision after considering the input of wine writers, judges and business consultants. They noted that Virginia viognier has beaten competitors worldwide and has a proven track record of growing well throughout the state.
Viognier, pronounced vee-on-yay, originated in France’s northern Rhone Valley where it is the exclusive component of the exotic white wine Condrieu , which can fetch upward of $100 a bottle. According to legend, viognier was introduced into France when Roman legionnaires en route to Beaujolais were ambushed by outlaws who stole their viognier cuttings and planted them locally. Once widely planted, viognier was devastated by the phylloxera root louse in the late 19th century. So many more vines were lost in the chaos of the two world wars that by the mid-1960s there were only 3.2 acres in the world.
In 1983 , Dennis Horton , a defense contractor and wine enthusiast, planted some vineyards in Madison County, Va. He quickly learned that Virginia’s warm and humid summer evenings were conducive to mold, rot and mildew. Touring the Rhone Valley in France, he discovered that viognier grapes had a thick skin and loose clusters to protect them from these natural fungi and that wines made from these grapes were aromatic and delicious. Horton went on to build a winery near Charlottesville, and in 1993 his viognier won first prize in a California wine tasting. This victory provided an incentive for other Virginia vignerons to plant the grape.
Today, 76 of almost 200 wineries in the state produce the varietal. Viognier plantings have grown from 20 acres in 1993 to more than 200 today.
Viognier can be produced in a dry, sweet or even a sparkling style. Viognier contains terpenes, chemical building blocks of essential oils, which impart a profusion of aromas into the wines. Viognier is noted for aromas of honeysuckle, peaches, vanilla and violets. Some vintners allow some skin contact to thicken the body. Others barrel ferment the wine for a buttery quality, and some avoid oak all together, fermenting the wine in neutral stainless steel tanks for a pure expression of the grape’s flavors and aromas.
Viognier is best consumed young because age ravages the aromas.
I believe the best examples come from the Monticello AVA (American Viticultural Area) near Charlottesville.
So try some Virginia signature viognier instead of that boring old chardonnay. It could be Virginia’s next best thing.
Gordon’s picks for Virginia viognier
*Prices and availability may vary
Fincastle Viognier 2010
This crisp, golden-colored libation is completely fermented in stainless steel to allow the pure flavors of the fruit to come barreling through. Aromas of peaches, papaya and guava give way to a palate of fresh peaches and nectarines. The wine finishes with a touch of lime with lively acidity and just a bit of tingling sensation on the palate. Try it with a lime and habanero seafood ceviche. Limited availability. 13.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), $14
Veritas Viognier Monticello 2011
This luscious wine displays a light golden color and effusive aromas of honey, oranges, peaches and honeysuckle. The wine is very rich and opulent on the palate, much like peach nectar except without sweetness. It finishes with a silky peach note and it would taste great with the garlic and butter of shrimp scampi. 13 percent ABV, $20
Horton Viognier Orange County 2011
Horton was the first Virginia producer to make viognier, and it was such a success that other vintners followed suit. The wine displays a straw color, and notes of orange peel, hay and butterscotch waft from the glass. On the palate the wine has a bold tangerine blast followed up with lemony acidity on the finish. I like the label because it has a picture of a cluster of plump viognier grapes on the vine. Try it with flounder stuffed with crabmeat. 13.5 percent ABV, $18
Chester Gap Viognier Virginia 2009
Chester Gap is situated on a 1,000-foot elevation at the northern edge of Rappahannock County . The vineyards feature rocky soils for good drainage and cooler nights due to the altitude. These conditions produce very ripe grapes as evidenced in this rich wine. Aromas of peaches and nectarines predominate with a wash of sweet fruit, a bit of herbs and a soft finish. Serve with a tilapia filet seasoned with herbs and lemon. 14.2 percent ABV, $18
Tabali Viognier Reserva 2010
Limari Valley, Chile
That’s right, alert readers; this wine is not from Virginia. I just thought I would try it for comparison’s sake. The vineyard is located in northern Chile, bordering the Atacama Desert . The wine has a light straw color and racy notes of lemon, tangerine and lime zest. It is made in a crisp style with zingy acidity and citrus notes. I think it would be good with creamy cheeses such as Camembert . Complete with an easy-open screw cap. 13.5 percent ABV, $14
Gordon Kendall’s column on wine and spirits runs monthly in Extra.
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