Saturday, December 31, 2011

Viognier and a Founding Father's Dream

 (originally published June 29, 2010)

“We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”  - Thomas Jefferson, American president and Renaissance man, (1743-1826)

Wine making in Virginia, like many things in the Old Dominion, dates back to 1607 with the settlement at Jamestown. For most of the following 400 years, Virginian winemakers would toil in their endeavor to create a thriving Virginia wine industry.  Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington planted and tended to vines with nary a bottle produced. It would not be until the 1800’s that Virginia winemakers would see their first success when they turned their attention from struggling to grow European grapes to the native North American grapes, particularly the Norton red wine grape. At the Vienna World Fair in 1873, a Virginia Norton red wine was named “best red wine of all nations.” Later, at the 1889 Paris World Fair a Norton wine  received a Gold medal. With later  discovery that  European grape vines could be grafted onto American root stock and thrive, the Virginia wine industry finally began to experience growth. Any growth that was achieved, however, was soon dashed by Prohibition where thereafter it would take several decades for the Virginia wine industry to stage a comeback. Recovery finally took hold in the 1970’s with the establishment of six new wineries. Today, Virginia boasts over 140 family owned vineyards and has six American Viticultural Areas (“AVAs,” being Eastern Shore, Monticello, Northern Neck, North Fork of Roanoke, Rocky Knob and Shenandoah Valley).

To celebrate Virginia’s increasing success and popularity in the world of wine, I decided that the focus of my first article would be one of the grapes that has enjoyed a starring role, Viognier. My first encounter with this varietal was in 2005 at the Mt. Vernon Spring Wine Festival. At that time, I was a devout red drinker and shied away from most white wines. I was coaxed into taking my first sips of Viognier by a proselytizing vintner who was so passionate about his wine that it was infectious. From that first sip, a passion for Viognier quickly developed. I wanted to know as much as I could about this wine (of which I had been previously unaware). In the course of five years I have come to learn that it is generally accepted that a well-crafted Viognier smells of jasmine, honeysuckle, peach blossoms and, at times, apricots and vanilla.  If a winemaker elects to adhere to  a traditional Old World style of winemaking (such as, a la Condrieu in the Rhone Valley) the Viognier wine will be delicate, subtle and lean rather than  lush with a plump fruit forwardness which is characteristic of what is deemed a New World style of winemaking. In Virginia, Viognier represents both styles and personal preference ultimately dictates which wins.  Viognier thrives in Virginia because it can survive the region’s late frosts of early spring and seeks the heat and humidity of the summer. Due to its adaptability to the region’s climate, Viognier has definitively put Virginia on the Wine World’s map.
To show off the prowess of Viognier in Virginia, I chose to feature  Horton Vineyards (“Horton”). Located near Charlottesville in Orange, County, Virginia, the winery initiated its first plantings of the Viognier grape in 1992. Horton’s owner, Dennis Horton, took a gamble planting his first eight acres of Viognier  when only 300 acres of the grape were growing in the entire world. . Established in 1977, Horton Vineyards is now one of Virginia’s largest wineries.  Horton Vineyards released Viognier in 2008 under two labels: Horton Vineyards and The Tower Series. Additionally, Horton Vineyards produces a NV Sparking Viognier. Given the diversity of the winery’s offerings, all three examples of Horton’s Viognier were featured for this article to demonstrate the grape’s versatility.

Inspired by that winemaker from five years ago, I invited a few close friends over for this wine and food pairing. These friends, like me many years ago, were staunch red wine drinkers who shied away from many white wines unless they were quite sweet. Confident that I could demonstrate that  wine (regardless whether red or white) paired with the right food could be delightful, I embarked upon the task of dispelling my guests’ generalized notions of wine preferences. Yes, my wine and food reputation within my circle of friends was on the line.

First course, an herb infused cream cheese and goat cheese spread with fresh baked lightly salted pita chips paired with  Horton Sparkling Viognier NV. 

Goat Cheese is a natural pairing with Viognier. My intent with this pairing was not to overpower the wine with the herbs (which is easier said than done). The herbs in this particular spread included garlic, shallots, chives, basil and dill. Dill is the tricky herb to include  as it can be quite overpowering. The Horton Sparkling Vioginer is a Brut (meaning, “dry”) and made in the Methode Champenoise tradition. It is a bright, crisp tasting wine with hints of citrus with predominant notes of lemon. Given that it is a dry sparkling wine, it does not  overpower the palate yet adeptly brought out the earthiness of the goat cheese and texturally paired well with the softness of the cream cheese. This sparkling wine will pair well with light appetizers that are not overtly spicy. It is an easy drinking festive wine that can easily be enjoyed by itself.    

Second Course, ) Grilled Fresh Asparagus wrapped in Prosciutto paired with  2008 Horton Vineyards Viognier. (insert photo 3)

I choose to experiment with this pairing. I had been reading how some Viognier fans had been pairing foods that focused on the contrasts that the wine could solicit from food. One bite of the prosciutto wrapped asparagus and one was almost over powered by the prosciutto. After taking a sip of Horton Vioginer, however, the bold and spiciness of this wine contrasted beautifully with fattiness of the prosciutto and complimented the nuttiness of the asparagus. Quite honestly, I did not expect such a delightful outcome, not because of the wine but because I chose to pair it with a plate that was not an intuitive pairing for Viognier.  The 2008 Horton Viognier is quite an aromatic wine setting forth most notable scents of honey and citrus. The wine isvery drinkable and is styled to  hint of its classic Rhone style roots. This wine can be easily sipped by itself or paired with any of the classic Viognier pairings (such as goat cheese, shellfish, salmon, or white meats).

Third Course: Honey and Almond Glazed Salmon (Baked) over spinach paired with the 2008 Tower Series Viognier. 
For this pairing I returned to the more traditional food paring that can make Viognier truly shine. The 2008 Tower Series Viognier was a slightly subtler wine than the one with the second course. The aromas were very light and delicate.  Citrus notes were predominate but you did pick up slight oak.  To the eye this wine seemed light, but on first sip I was surprised that is was more  medium-bodied than I expected. On the palate the citrus notes were strong and as it finished,  hints of vanilla could be detected. After taking a bite of the salmon, the honey glaze brought out more of the other floral notes that are common for Viognier and hints of apricots and peaches emerged. The medium body of this wine balanced nicely with the salmon and complimented the earthiness of the spinach.

The result at the end of the evening is that I may have just converted  more people into being fans of Viognier. To that proselytizing winemaker from 2005, I tip my hat to you and say thank you so very much.