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The State of Viognier Wine In Texas

Viognier Grapes (photo courtesy Yalumba Winery)

I have maintained several times that we are at an inflexion point in the reputation and prestige of Texas wines. This is not out of boosterism: I have driven out to about 50 Texas wineries in the past year and reported on only five (Duchman, Inwood Estates, Perissos, Sandstone Cellars and The Vineyard at Florence). Those five were the ones that were ‘aspirational,’ in that they both tried to make the best wine they could and showed significant progress. Extrapolating to the 200 wineries in the state, the aspirational category consists of about 20 wineries. Undoubtedly, those wineries are on their strongest ground when they use the grape varieties most suited to the Texas soil and climate. For white wine, there is something of a consensus now that that grape is Viognier.

I had a chance to participate in a multi-state, multi-country Viognier tasting this week at the 2012 Texas Viognier Symposium organized by the Grayson County College Viticulture and Enology Program and held at Brennan Vineyards in Comanche. Winemakers, grape growers, sommeliers, academics and one media peep tasted Viognier wines from France, California, Virginia and Texas and I am pleased to report, by way of an ‘executive summary,’ that Texas Viognier is as good as any in the United States, and better than some Viognier emerging from the Languedoc-Roussillon area of France. These results reinforce an opinion that I have had for a couple of years that major national wine publications like the Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator are guilty of a criminal idleness in not reporting on certain wines from Texas that have passed the threshold of replicable quality. This is particularly unjustifiable now that these small-production wines ship directly to more and more states each year.

The day started with a summary of Viognier Around The World by James Tidwell, MS, Beverage Director at The Four Seasons Resort and Club in Irving. His 90-minute presentation brought up some surprising facts. For example, Viognier may have arrived in France (via the Romans) from Dalmatia around 280AD; DNA analysis shows it to be closely related to the Nebbiolo grape grown in Piedmont, Italy; Viognier was so out-of-fashion forty years ago that in 1971 there were only 34 acres being grown in the whole world (all in the northern Rhône valley in France); Cuttings came to the USA in the early 1980s with Josh Jensen of Calera Wine Company, maybe deserving the lion’s share of the praise in sustaining U.S. vineyards of the grape.

Also significant, said Tidwell, is the flavor spectrum, dependent on how ripe the grapes are harvested. Just ripe and grapefruit flavors predominate. Slightly riper, and flavors of stone fruit (peach, apricot) dominate. Riper still, and it is tropical fruit (mango, persimmon); even riper, and nutty flavors of almond appear.

Tidwell then led a tasting of French Viognier. The first wine, a 2007 Condrieu from Pierre Gaillard, had heavily oxidized, making for a potion that only a wine geek could love. It exhibited the substantial body, peach flavors and aromas and subtle complexity of Condrieu. It would have been fascinating to compare with one of its younger brethren. The second wine, a 2010 Vin de Pays de Mediterranean by Pesquie was a simple, build-to-a-price, unoaked Viognier from a 4 hectare vineyard in Ventoux, in the southern Rhône.

The symposium’s attention then moved to Virginia with a presentation and tasting led by John Delmare of Rappahannoch Cellars, one of the most celebrated producers in the state. The accompanying tasting consisted of their 2010 and 2011 Viogniers. The 2010 showed typical Viognier peachy flavors and a finish of ripe apples. The 2011 was quite different, with wine gums in the nose and green apples in taste. I was struck by how precisely made these wines were. The fruit-acid balance was spot on.

Next, our attention turned to Texas and a discussion of the issues involved with vineyard site selection and preparation. The tasting brought wines from three of the several wineries in attendance. All of these wineries represent the forefront of Viognier production in the state.

2010 Lone Oak Winery, Texas

A double-gold medal winner at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition. Straw color, peachy flavors and fruit sweetness in the mouth.

2010 Brennan Vineyards, Texas

Tropical fruit in the mouth. A hint of bitterness at the back of the mouth during the finish. This is not a flaw, and is a common phenomenon with Viognier (and Chardonnay). Maybe ‘grip’ would be a better description.

2011 Brennan Vineyards, Texas

Peach nose and flavors.

2010 Alamosa Wine Cellars, Texas Hill Country, Tio Pancho Ranch

Straw color. Pronounced and intense fruit. Sweetness from the ripeness of the fruit.

2010 McPherson Cellars, Texas.

Grapefruit notes in the nose. Peach flavors.

McPherson Cellars also provided their 2010 ‘Les Copains,’ a Rhône blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. This reminded me that one of Viognier’s most significant roles is enhancing other grapes by providing floral notes to the bouquet and fruit to the taste.

The final area tasted was California, with wines from Lions Peak Vineyards in the Central Coast. This winery has something of a Rhône grape focus as they make Roussanne and Marsanne, as well as Viognier. They showed blends of these to great effect.

One of the things that struck me was that the difference between wines from a given area was as great as the difference between areas. I had expected, for example, the Texas wines to be fruitier than those from Virginia but that (at least in this limited sample) wasn’t the case.

What I did find was a high quality level across all the domestic wines. These Texas producers were, of course, a self-selected group of the best and I think, going back to my first paragraph, what has really changed in Texas winemaking is that the amount of viticultural and vinicultural knowhow has increased to the point that the state should be included in tastings of domestic Viogniers. We deserve a place at the judges table, and that will lead to more consumers’ tables.

10 comments on “The State of Viognier Wine In Texas

  1. I agree with you that Viognier offers Texas a quality wine experience. Why, cause it can handle the warm summertime weather while ripening with a good balance of sugars and acid. It also offers winemakers a range of characteristics depending on when the grapes are harvested (degree of ripeness).

    The one weak spot is that it still buds fairly early and can be susceptible to late spring freeze event that present themselves far too often. Roussanne does much better and also ripens well here in Texas.\

    Perhaps we need more blends (not a new concept) where Viognier can contribute each year to the degree that can resist the spring weather.

    Very good article and insights.

    Cheers,

    Russ

  2. Hard to justifying playing against the odds and experimenting with TX wine versus any and all of France, Italy, CA, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and even WA state. What I really miss is a locally grown, vine ripened tomato, from some old Greek or Italian grandmother’s garden. Maybe these vintners can’t become Old World grandmothers but they may have a better future with fresh fruits and vegetables.

  3. Was there a reason why the Double Gold Viognier from Becker was omitted from the tasting. Wine Som Andrea Immer has classified it as the best Viognier she has ever tasted!

  4. Mr. Chalk, Ive enjoyed reading many of your post and several of your comments about wine and wine from Texas. I have followed you over the past year or 2 and read many of your post about Texas wines.
    But I do have several questions that arise from this article,

    1. Viognier is very new in Texas (although Becker planted it in the 80s) many people in Texas did not know what Viognier was nor how to properly pronounce it 5yrs ago. I think more time is needed before Texas can say they are quality producers. Still to this year Texas has not had 5 consecutive, quality growing seasons. I would think more time is needed before Texas should be looked at for Viognier.

    2. I did a very large tasting of Viognier from all around the world with 6 different Viogniers a month back, while I will agree domestic Viognier is better I would say that Virginia needs to be given more recognition regarding their quality. 2010 and 2011 were very difficult years in Virginia (allot like Texas 07 and 09 and 2011 for the most part) so its not a fair analysis of Virginia Viognier compared to Texas specially with 2010 and 2011 vintages. As well as there were many many good examples of quality Viognier from Virginia
    here was a small snapshot of this from “The Dallas Wine Chick” and her sampling of a few, http://www.dallaswinechick.com/a-preview-of-virginia-wines-surprises-abound-the-good-kind/
    If the Virginia Wine board would have known about this I bet there would have been allot more Virginia wines represented in the “symposium”

    3. Regarding California Viognier There are several areas of California which I have tasted some amazing Viogniers. Lodi was one region as well as the Central coast which you mentioned. But only showing 1 representation of California Viognier is very unfair. I know in my tasting the California Viognier was very much one of the better representations of Viognier with lots of peach and tropical fruits and a very nice oily and juicy mouthfeel (something you dont see allot of in Texas specially for under 9.00 retail) If I remember of my Texas Viognier tastings Alamosa’s Viognier was close to that but was oaked.

    4. Regarding Brennan 2010 Viognier I do get the “grip” that you speak of but what I am wanting to know did anyone not notice the high amount of s02 on the nose for the first 30-40 mins? it was present in my tasting and Ive asked other who sampled the bottle at around the same time and they also got that on the nose. One person who commented on this post stated that the wine was monotone.
    Mcphersons Viognier after its breathed for an hour or so has an odd confection sugar taste to it which really is odd for viognier almost like it might have been manipulated with extra sugar (possibly confection sugar) before fermentation. Some of the taste in the Mcphersons Viognier do not seem authentic compared to all the other wines I tasted. Did you guys get any of that in the tasting.

    5. Anyone who thought this was going to be fair should have known better as even the location was biased to Texas. This was done as a marketing push and not a real unbiased symposium.
    With Texom pairing up with Hahn PR I guess more things like this are going to be expected from many of the Sommeliers here in Texas who are being paid to push Texas wines now. (I have not been up on whether the proposal has been finalized but I do know something like that is in the works and was presented to TWGGA not to long ago) This is going to be a disaster to Texas as well as many sommeliers credibility….but only time will tell on this. Texas paying for credibility is not something that looks good to the rest of the wine world, but thats my opinion.

    Also regarding Texas deserving a place on the Judges Table, that has already happened. Look into Red Caboose and their winnings at the Jefferson Cup. No one talks about them because they are not looking for accolades like many of the wineries in Texas are. Some of these Texas wineries in trying to defend themselves will even bring up that their wine got a Gold at some competition, but we all know Barefoot has played the medal winning game simply because they entered the wines into as many competitions as possible. Medals mean nothing In my opinion.

    Honestly Texas needs to quit comparing themselves to others and just focus on making the best wines they can. I will also argue that there are more quality representations of Virginia Viognier compared to Texas. But that is from my “nerdy” research I have done about Viognier over the years.

    Mr Chalk I agree with you on your analysis of Texas Viognier however as a native Texan who is passionate about Texas wine, I want to see Texas wine grow and earn their accolades not pay for them…. or rig it in a way that they come out on top.

  5. As a native Texan also “passionate” about Texan wine, I appreciate your article focus. Disregarding the embarrassing grammar and spelling of the above comment, I happen to disagree, re: Texas comparing themselves to others. There are several wine makers and wineries throughout the entire state who have worked very hard for several years and continue to strive to have Texas recognized within the state and concentrate their efforts in showcasing how and why Texas is different- NOT by comparison. Collaboration is still necessary among wine makers and their supporters to educate the numerous capabilities and potential we have in Texas, and though “new”, Viognier’s interesting and surprising success up to this point alone, is just one of several important aspects and your symposium participation and article recognition only help us more. I agree with Mr. Kane, great article, thank you Mr. Chalk for your thoughts. I would like to note that the audacity of the suggestion above that Texas sommeliers are paid to push Texas wines is not only disrespectful to our flourishing industry but poisonous to the work done by several chefs, restaurants, wine writers, and magazines (see: Edible Austin 2011) who have helped propel several worthy Texan wines into the spotlight that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Thank you for your article and insights.

  6. Dear Kristen, Im sorry that my grammar does not suit you, however you do not realize that there is a proposal on the table that was presented to TWGGA from Texsom and Hahn Pr to market Texas wines for 420k. Im sorry that sounds very offensive to you but that is exactly what it is. Texas wine/TWGGA buying credibility from an association of certified sommeliers. The question I ask and keep asking with no answer is, “why does Texsom need to be paid why do they need money”
    If I am wrong in this statement then please explain in detail other than just discrediting me as someone who knows nothing about this matter.
    Im sorry you do not see this as I do but I know many others who are scratching their heads saying exactly the same thing. I am not the only one.
    Perhaps you need to check out TWGGA website and see the powepoint presentation for yourself.
    Regarding Texas comparing itself you are offbase. The Texas 2 sip program and the many Tx vs (the world) only created enemies sure it might help promote the wine to a few novice wine drinkers but when the compared wineries are notified of this it only drives a wedge between Texas and the Rest of the wine world. Not to mention some of the wine comparison over the past few years were very poorly chosen and many believed they were done to “stack the deck”
    Kristen apparently you did not read my last comment. I am all for Texas wines getting the recognition they deserve, I just see that the way it is being presented comes across as “Texas wine is better than your wine” And while Mr Chalk was very sensitive about not saying that in this article the 6 to 2 to 1 comparison was very very poorly thought out and the rest of the wine world was poorly represented.

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  8. James F: First, thank you for such detailed, perceptive and well-researched comments. Second, I apologize for not getting back earlier — for reasons I don’t understand, this blog has no ‘alert’ feature to inform readers when, for example, a particular post has been commented on. Therefore, one has to poll articles for comments. Third, thank you for your interest in quality Texas wines and helping bring them to the attention of a wider public.

    To address some of your specific points:

    I think Texas Viognier should ultimately be judged by what is in the glass. This trumps all other metrics. Notwithstanding that, vintage variation should be expected. What grape growing areas in the world get five consecutive quality growing seasons? I suspect the northern Italians would kill for that! What we do need is still more know how (human capital) in viticulture and viniculture. Although I remarked on the great strides in that area there are still start up winemakers making their first few vintages from books. That is possible, but it will take a decade to learn. For better to put the capital into a consultant, for the start up phase, whose involvement is gradually withdrawn over time (e.g. 3-5 years).

    Virginia: Completely agree, and I base it on the impressive Rappahannoch wines I referred to above. I have not tasted others from Virginia but want to.

    California: The comparison in my article was based on the one California representative at the symposium. It was not meant to be a “State of The State” comparison of California Viognier. A better comparison will come with my Universal Tasting of all Texas Viogniers (shortly). If you have any California benchmarks you would like to suggest i would welcome them.

    At the symposium I did not notice any SO2 notes in the Brennan or odd sugar in the McPherson. i will let the wineries comment further on what might have caused this in your samples. I do not regard SO2 as a flaw. It blows off after 20-30 minutes and is there as an ingredient in the wine making process.

    This particular symposium was almost totally free of wine marketing banter. As noted, It was organized by the Grayson County College Viticulture and Enology Program and most of the speakers were winemakers. Not a single marketing representative spoke, nor did I meet a single one during our day together.

    I have not heard of the program you describe to pay sommeliers to act as shills for Texas wine. It sounds like a thoroughly grubby and counterproductive use of funds. Far better to get sommeliers to an annual Texas wine symposium on “Viognier and Tempranillo – Texas Wines Worth Drinking” to bring them up to date on the fast-moving industry.

    Finally, I think Texas wine makers (the aspirational 10%) are focused on making better and better wine. Comparisons are however valuable — they are the measuring rod of technical success.

    Once again. Thank you for your comments. Keep them coming.

  9. Mr Chalk, Thank you for your response. I am interested in hearing your total analysis of Texas Viognier that you Speak of. I do trust your palate and have heard from others of your unbiased credibility. My comments about the industry were not directed to you in any way and I want anyone reading these comments to know this.
    If you can still find a bottle, I discovered Loredonna 08 Lodi Viognier to be one of the best representations of Viognier from California, not to mention an amazing value for 8.99 retail. I know you may laugh at me about this but I beg of you to try it before you make your decision. The 2010 is the current release but It lacks much of that oily, juicy character I discovered from the 08. Perhaps with a little more time in the bottle….

    My Friends in Virginia will attest to Keswick and Rappahannoch being 2 of the best Virginia Viognier producers. I sampled Keswicks 10 and 11 Viogniers which were of unique character compared to Texas but was told that I need to get my hands on an 09 vintage from either of the 2 producers.

    I noticed your comment “This particular symposium was almost totally free of wine marketing banter” And had to get a chuckle out of “almost totally free.” While this may have not been a marketing attempt. It very much looked like one that many of the previous Texas wine PR programs have done. That was the reason why I was skeptical, I am glad to hear that this is not the case. I asked many questions before hand but no one would give me straight forward and honest answers.

    2 producers I notice that you have not visited which I would say you would be pleased with their endeavor is Tara in Athens, Tx and Red Caboose in Meridian. I have spoken with both the winemakers and visited their location several times. I would love to get your opinion. These guys are not focused on awards or metals but on making wine and growing what will work. You should talk with Gary and Even at Red Caboose and Patrick Pierce at Tara where you will get the passion you speak of to make “the best wine they can”

    I agree with you regarding the use of funds to promote Texas wine.
    Texas needs more people who know what is out there and are passionate about it. Not to mention people who can say “not all wines in Texas are good, but there are a few good ones the wine world needs to try”

    My passion sometimes gets mistaken for craziness but I see Texas wines being a very very political mess where many people as you might have pointed out are not in the industry to “make the best wines they can” They are only trying to make a $ or 2 off the industry. Right now at this present time Texas has way to many Entrepreneurs and not enough vineyard owners. Not to mention many out there talking about Texas wines are only kissing up to winemakers and producers, making everyone like them, always giving good reviews and deleting opposing view point on their blog to make themselves look better. These people could be a major useful tool in the industry to improve the quality of Wine here but they are so caught up in the world they have created that they refuse to see what the real state of Texas wine is. And whats very bad, a majority of the Texas Wineries love these guys.
    Passionate people like myself who are armed with as much knowledge as possible (although sometimes not 100% accurate) get discredited, just as you saw on this post, by people not fully aware of the state of the Texas wine Industry, I keep saying, Passionate people like me are not who Texas wants to run off.

    I agree with your perspective Mr Chalk and I Look forward to your next post about Texas Wine.