I realized that I was in a red wine rut a few years ago and made a practice to try unfamiliar white wines at tastings. I quickly discovered Viognier, a medium bodied white wine, perfumed with apricots, peaches and white flowers. This stuff is amazing - delicate, yet heady; I can sit for hours just enjoying the aroma. The taste is a revelation – the silky smooth texture hits first, then the fruit and flowers explode. It’s quite wonderful.
I use this wine to persuade anyone who claims to not like white wine to try it. A couple of years ago, I was put in charge of a company party at the office in May. With no cooking facilities, I had to use a caterer, so all the food was going to be cold or room temperature.
As I worked with the caterer to create a filling meal to fulfill our diverse group (vegetarians, vegans, Muslims, Jewish, and several allergies), I found myself selecting interesting brightly flavored ethnic and seasonal dishes – Thai, Indian, Caprese Salad, poached salmon, grilled vegetables – what wines would go with all of that? Viognier turned out to be perfect. It has medium to medium plus acidity, making it a good match for vegetables, and those floral tones flatter spicy Thai and Indian food. It’s especially good with curries. Everyone asked what the wine was, and many of them went out to buy it the next day.
I knew that Viognier was a Rhône varietal, but it turns out that we’re making it in Washington State as well. Viognier thrives in the Horse Heaven Hills appellation, between the Columbia Valley and Columbia River at the south edge of Washington State. The steep hills allow for the heat that Viognier needs, but the well draining soil and cool nights give the wine structure.
This is a wild, empty area with rounded, windswept hills that is serenely spectacular. From certain vantage points, you can see the wide Columbia River as it rushes to the sea between steep cliffs. It reminds me very much of Scotland, and I love it.
Last summer I was given a bottle of Alexandria Nicole Cellars 2006 Estate Viognier Reserve from Horse Heaven Hills. Damn, this was tasty! Smooth, rich and a bit rounder than other Viognier I’ve had, it had tropical fruits and jasmine in it. We’d had dinner, but this made a delightful sipping wine as we sat on our Seattle rooftop and watched the sunset over the Olympic Mountains. For a few brief moments, everything was peach – the wine in our mouths, the air we breathed, and the colors suffusing the sky. Magical.
The other night I was at an indulgent dinner at a private supper club here in Seattle. One of the courses was salmon gently cooked under a “crust” of smoked salmon pieces. Accompanied by pureed celeriac, yellow fava beans and a ginger pinot gris emulsion, the dish was an ode to springtime. The sommelier paired it with another Horse Heaven Hills Viognier, from McKinley Springs. This time, the wine had a touch of malolactic fermentation and neutral barrel fermentation, which added body and depth to the wine. It had more weight, a smoother mouthfeel, and the fruit took a little longer to emerge – a beautifully structured wine that went very well with the fish and ginger emulsion.
Everyone makes a big deal out of pronouncing Viognier (vee-on-yay), but it’s so easy to drink, it’s worth the effort. It’s become popular in the last couple of years, so give it a try. After a winter of red wines, jump – start your spring with a bottle or two of Viognier. It’s the perfect way to get your palate ready for those lighter spring and summer foods.