The success stories behind distinguished New World wine regions are often related to the fact that they are known for specific grapes, so-called regional heroes. Also referred to as star grapes, these are iconic styles of wine or grape varieties that the region is known for such as Argentinian Malbec, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and Australian Shiraz to name a few.
The title of star grape in the Okanagan Valley has always been an interesting and controversial topic. In terms of reds, some may support Cabernet Franc and some might claim it to be Pinot Noir, but Merlot is the most widely planted grape. Another strong candidate is Syrah/Shiraz which is consistently producing better and better quality wines each year. What about whites? Can Syrah’s ally white grape, Viognier share this same position on the white spectrum competing with the ubiquitous Pinot Gris, classic Chardonnay, or noble Riesling? Or is it doomed to a marginal existence because of its difficult-to-pronounce name, Viognier (vee·o·nyay)?
Well, it looks like pronunciation is not the only obstacle. A cousin of the notoriously finicky grape Nebbiolo, Viognier also is a fussy one to grow. It’s susceptible to rot and yields are unpredictable. But when done right, it’s most rewarding. There are no better grapes described as seductive and hedonistic than Viognier. It can produce medium to full-bodied wine with luscious stone-fruited flavours layered with blossom fragrances and sweet herbiness. An oily texture with some inherent phenolic bitterness is a distinctive feature of the grape while higher alcohol content can give it a sense of weight. If done wrong, however, it can be overly showy displaying confected fruit and artificial cosmetic aromas with cloying, high alcohol and flabby acidity.
Regardless, Viognier is grown globally nowadays, and the best examples come from where good Syrahs are made: the Northern Rhône in France, of course, South Australia’s Barossa Valley, the Columbia Valley (including the famed Walla Walla Valley) in Washington State as well as by innovative producers in Languedoc-Roussillon.
Now let’s get back to British Columbia. According to the 2021 BC crop report, Viognier is only the 7th most planted white grape, producing just one-fifth that of BC’s most grown white, Pinot Gris, and accounting for a mere 2.3% of total wine grapes grown in the province. Yet, an interesting fact is that this rather insignificant grape is one of the highest-priced white grapes around. Perhaps this reflects how hard it is to grow the grape here, but it also implies that there is more demand than supply. Viognier, in fact, has shown a lot of promise here and we are seeing exciting examples coming out of the Okanagan of late.
So back to the question, can Viognier be the star grape of the Okanagan? The indirect answer is that it doesn’t have to be, and it is still too early to jump to any conclusions. The Okanagan is a fairly young wine region that is attracting a lot of talent willing to experiment with innovative ways of growing grapes and making wine. One thing is certain: Viognier, with its evolution of quality, can play an essential role in making wines from this valley more dynamic and diverse. Lastly, it is worth noting that there are mainly two styles of Viognier being made here: the pure, pristine fruited sleek ones fermented and aged briefly in stainless steel tanks as well as the rich and textured examples with some oak influences.
Here are four of the Okanagan’s top Viogniers for you to try:
Terravista Viognier 2021
Terravista’s Viognier is a must-try that everyone’s talking about at the moment. It’s a slimmed down, clean, crisp, and linear style fermented and aged only in stainless steel. This clever and stylish Viognier has distinctive and well-defined citrusy and zesty fruit with some tropical undertones. The current trend of lean, nervy styles of whites definitely helped boost the popularity of Terravista’s Viognier. Unlike their other Spanish cultivars grown in their estate vineyards, their Viognier is sourced from other growers so the origins of the fruit may vary each year. The fruit for the 2021 came from the Naramata Bench and the Similkameen Valley. The founders, and former owners, Bob and Senka Tennant – who also created and built the successful Black Hills brand – continue as consultants to support their talented winemaker, Nadine Allander.
Lariana Cellars Viognier 2021
Okanagan’s true garage winery Lariana, located just north of the U.S. border, has been consistently making outstanding Viognier in the valley. Starting off in the wine industry as grape growers, the owners Dan and Carol Scott continue as farmers with respect for the land. Here the fruit is much riper and more densely concentrated showing off its southernmost roots. Fermented and aged in concrete, Lariana’s Viognier is textured and weighty in style while keeping the fruit pure and pristine void of oak influences. An intriguing fact is that Terravista’s founder and consultant Senka Tennant has been consulting for Lariana as well. Avoiding a cookie-cutter style and highlighting the inherent character of the grape itself, she is clearly capable of contributing to the creation of these two quite distinguished Okanagan Viogniers.
Phantom Creek Estates Viognier
The inaugural vintage (2017) of Phantom Creek’s whites are some of my personal favourites. While hosting pre-opening tours and tastings as the brand ambassador at the winery, I poured their 2017 Viognier as a welcome wine almost every day for several months. And – it sounds weird but – it feels like the flavours of this specific Viognier are imprinted in my brain. It was a purely hedonistic wine with pronounced depth and intensity that provided immediate pleasure. It opened with orange blossom and nectarine layered with ginger spices and a touch of almond nuttiness. Varietally correct, yet distinctly Okanagan with a richly textured mouthfeel.
Le Vieux Pin Ava 2021
Talking about Rhône varieties in the valley without mentioning Le Vieux Pin would be a crime. Le Vieux Pin is best known for their distinctive Syrahs that show outstanding quality year in and year out, but their Rhône style whites are true gems as well. Their varietal Viognier is a rare one and hard to get – only produced twice and available exclusively to wine club members, but Ava, a blend of three Rhône varieties – Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne – is worth mentioning here. It’s typically a Viognier-dominant blend but the current 2021 has only 30% Viognier, yet it’s still full of Viognier’s distinctive traits. It’s packed with delicious juicy stone fruit laced with chamomile and citrus blossom floral notes as well as a tarragon-like herbal undertone. Its leesy notes are not quite noticeable on the nose, but it offers excellent textural opulence and mouth-watering saline savouriness with a lingering long finish coming from regular bâtonnage. Fairly high at 14.4% alcohol, it does not dominate the palate but instead is nicely integrated with the fruit and balanced by the freshness. The French winemaker Severine Pinte’s skillful and meticulous winemaking shines in this wine.