Virginia Viognier Blind Tasting Showdown

Viognier is one of the grapes that helped put Virginia wine on the map. Before petit manseng was cool, before petit verdot was appreciated as a stand-alone varietal, it was a 1993 viogner (pronounced VEE-on-yay) from Horton Vineyards that caused international wine critics to first take notice of Virginia.

Dennis Horton, one of the pioneers of the Virginia wine industry, brought this Rhône Valley varietal to Virginia in 1989. At the time viognier was essentially dying out. When Jancis Robinson wrote Vines, Grapes & Wine in 1985 she could only identify records for 80 acres planted in the entire world, most of it in viognier’s home of Condrieu.

According to Dennis’s granddaughter, Horton Vineyards winemaker Caitlin Horton, “My grandfather really didn’t like chardonnay. He wanted a heavier white that he could go with heavier food. While traveling in France he found viognier in the Rhône valley and fell in love with it. So he planted 14 acres off the bat – didn’t even do a test planting. People thought he was crazy.”

Of course, Dennis’s desire to find a varietal outside chardonnay was only one piece of the puzzle. Viognier fits Virginia’s terroir because it has thick skin and loose clusters; important factors to resist pests and mildew. His 1993 viognier became famous as one of the best wines the state ever produced. The recognition it received – such as being the first (and to date, only) wine poured at the French Laundry – was enough to encourage winegrowers around the Virginia to follow his lead.

This success and a desire to find an identity around which Virginia could focus its marketing efforts led the Virginia Wine Marketing Board to designate viognier as the state’s “signature grape” (but not “official state grape”, as sometimes reported) in 2011.

But as the quality of Virginia wine improved and newer varieties gained traction, viognier gradually faded in popularity. According to Virginia’s Commercial Wine Grape Reports, it went from a high of 340 acres in 2015 to 301 acres in 2021 even as plantings of other varieties grew significantly. Its special designation was quietly dropped around 2018 as marketers realized Virginia didn’t need a signature grape to rally around after all.

Viognier has other challenges. It’s a low acid grape, which means it’s often at risk of tasting flabby. Viognier is also low yielding and not as consistent in the vineyard as other grapes available to Virginia growers. Its heavier body, perfume nose, and somewhat oily nature are sometimes love-it-or-hate it qualities to consumers.

Regardless, a group of friends joined me to taste 12 viogniers from around the state in a blind tasting to see for ourselves what may have sparked the viognier trend.

The Contenders:

  1. 2016 Linden Vineyards. Winemaker and grower Jim Law. Fruit from Boisseau Vineyard, near Front Royal. Barrel fermented in neutral French Oak.
  2. 2020 The Winery at Bull Run Lilly’s Viognier. Winemaker Ashton Lough, fruit from Rappahannock County. Made mostly in steel but with 20% acacia barrels.
  3. 2020 Barrel Fermented Horton Vineyards. Winemaker Caitlin Horton, fruit from Orange County.
  4. 2019 Ingleside Vineyards. Winemaker Mark Misch, fruit from the Northern Neck AVA.
  5. 2020 King Family Vineyards. Winemaker Matthieu Finot, fruit from the Monticello AVA.
  6. 2020 Iron Will Winery. Winemaker Nate Walsh, fruit from Iron Will’s estate vineyard in Waterford.
  7. 2019 Jefferson Vineyards. Winemaker Chris Ritzcovan, fruit from the Monticello AVA.
  8. 2020 Rosemont Vineyards. Winemaker Justin Rose, fruit from Zephaniah Farm.
  9. 2020 Philip Carter Vineyards. I believe the winemaker was Tony McDonnell. Fruit from Fauquier County.
  10. 2017 Bluestone Vineyards. Winemaker Lee Hartman. I believe the fruit came from the Shenandoah Valley AVA.
  11. 2019 DuCard Vineyards. Winemaker Julien Durantie. Fruit from the east side of Shenandoah National Park near White Oak Canyon.
  12. 2020 Delaplane Cellars. Winemaker Rick Tagg. I believe the fruit was from Loudoun County.

A big thank you to Delaplane, DuCard, Horton, Philip Carter, and Rosemont who graciously provided the bottles for inclusion in this tasting. Other bottles were procured at the wineries or local shops and brought from the taster’s cellars.

Flight #1:

First off, I noticed fairly limited variation in the colors. This was true across multiple rounds.

Wine 1: 2016 Linden Vineyards. Our oldest vintage of the evening. We felt it had a perfume-y nose, with various descriptors of white peach, dried pineapple, and lime zest. We thought it would taste sweet based on the nose but it was a dry wine.

On the palate it was a tad bitter, with notes of lime, white blossom and cream.

Wine 2: 2020 Bull Run (Round Winner) (4 votes, 1 half vote). Great balance and good complexity; we knew this a contender as soon as we tasted it. Very floral aroma, with abundant notes of lemon zest and nectarine which hit you immediately.

On the palate we found it tasted of honeysuckle, nectarine, and petrichor (a scent associated with how it smells before it rains).

Wine 3: 2020 Horton Vineyards Barrel Select (2 votes, 1 half vote). Little herbal on the nose, heavier on the hay instead of viognier’s traditional honeysuckle. Also notes of chamomile and apricot.

On the palate we found strong notes of lemon juice, as well as apricot and orange zest. It was also a tad more acidic than its counterparts.

We liked this so much we later gave it a wild card to the finalist round.

Wine 4: 2019 Ingleside Vineyards. The funky nose was noticeable. It’s not a bad quality (after all, Bordeaux can have funk) but it stood out from the rest. You might say it had an almost fuel quality to it.

Flight #2:

Personally I thought this was the strongest round of the evening, although I’m biased since I loved the King Family as much as the Iron Will.

Wine 5: 2020 King Family Vineyards (half vote). Very complex nose, with peach, orange blossom, lemon tart, and a finish of grass at the end. On the palate we also detected grass, and it had a tannic yet creamy quality to it. It may have had some lees contact as well.

I will say this was one of my favorites of the day, although I was torn between this and the following wine.

Wine 6: 2020 Iron Will Winery (Round Winner) (5 votes, 2 half votes). Very pronounced nose with lots of great qualities; rose and almond were mention. On the palate we found it was orange-y, as well had notes of ripe nectarine and papaya. Others mentioned notes of lime and a creamy note.

Wine 7: 2019 Jefferson Vineyards (half vote). Softer nose, with an herbaceous, savory quality to it. Lemon and lime were also mentioned.

On the palate we found the fruit was pronounced; one taster mentioned it had an almost citrus or yogurt quality to it. There was also a tea quality on the finish, like drinking tea that had been out too long. This wine was a bit more divisive than others we tried, since some especially loved it as it opened up while others never fell for it.

Wine 8: 2020 Rosemont Vineyards. Slate or lemon grass on the nose; this was the only time slate was mentioned during this event. I wouldn’t have guessed this was even a viognier; maybe more like a sauvignon blanc?

Flight #3:

Wine 9: 2020 Philip Carter Vineyards. The lime on the nose was almost overwhelming here. White pepper or spice on the finish; white peach was mentioned. Lots of minerally as well.

Another viognier that didn’t strike us as viognier-y. In fact it had an almost albariño quality to it.

Wine 10: 2017 Bluestone Vineyards. Another one that was reminiscent of a sauv blanc. Herbal nose, like fresh grass after it’s been mowed. On the palate we had notes of quinice and under ripe peach. Tart as well, and maybe a little tannic?

Wine 11: 2019 DuCard Vineyards (Round Winner) (7 votes). One of the easiest drinking wines of the day. This was also the only time the group was unanimous in our voting.

Peach (blossom, fruit, or flower; take your pick) and gooseberry on the nose, also some orange peel. On the palate we find a hint of ginger and under ripe peach.

Wine 12: 2020 Delaplane Cellars. Very “pretty” nose; one of the nicest aromas of the evening, in fact. On the palate, it had a fairly short finish with notes of green apple and herbs.

Finalist Round

After a brief discussion on previous round favorites that weren’t selected as the round favorite, we decided to wildcard Horton Vineyards into the finalist round. I personally thought Wine #5/King Family was a sure-thing for a wild card advance, but I was outvoted.

The result ended up to be a tie! The bottle from Bull Run was an all-around classic example of what a Virginia viognier should be, honeysuckle and all. One of the best-balanced viogniers I’ve had in a long time.

If the Bull Run was a classic example of what viognier often is, then Iron Will was an example of what viognier could be. On the nose, white flower, vanilla, white fruit abound. It was creamy and had maybe a hint of lime on the palate. This was also the second time in a row that a wine made by Nate Walsh won one of my events (including chardonnay).

Wine 2: Bull Run: (Tied for winner of the day) (2 votes, 2 half votes)

Wine 3: Horton: 1 vote

Wine 6: Iron Will: (Tied for winner of the day) (2 votes, 2 half votes)

Wine 11: DuCard (no votes)

So – what did we learn?

In a nutshell, I think the biggest take-away was this: viognier has range.

I fully expected to find overwhelming honeysuckle every time, but that was actually only true of a few examples. I thought the barrel fermented versions were done especially well.

I was also surprised to find several viogniers were distinctly not very viognier-y. A few felt more like sauvignon blanc, or even albariño. While viognier is known for having a heavy quality to it, most were medium bodied. A few I’d say were even light bodied. The oily texture I was expecting wasn’t always there.

I’m not sure how to explain the variance. I’d have thought there would be more consistency but apparently there is more variation than I expected, beyond Virginia’s normal vintage-variation.

Next up: Virginia vs France.