WHAT: From humble, obscure origins viognier has climbed to the heights, generating excitement in wine drinkers all over the world.
Just 25 years ago few people drank viognier, and even fewer could pronounce it correctly (VEE-ohn-yay). Now it is celebrated worldwide as a refreshing, fruit-forward wine. In the past 10 years, there has been a massive increase in production and popularity, and it has become the most-planted white Rhone varietal in the United States.
Because it is a smooth, mellow wine, people who think they don’t like wine will often find it pleasant. Experienced wine drinkers like it because there is so much complexity with the fruit and floral components.
The Wild Horse viognier is a great example of this varietal, full of floral and fruit aromas and peach and lemon flavors. It is a nice sipping wine, but it is even better with food.
It is a gorgeous golden yellow in the glass, with powerful aromas of stone fruit, citrus and violet. The first sip reveals peach and lemon zest that finishes with bright, crisp mineral flavors.
The grapes come from three Central Coast sites especially suited for viognier: Wild Horse Estate and Wild Rose Vineyard in Paso Robles and Boekenoogen Vineyard in Carmel Valley. As it was picked, each lot was delivered to the winery in half-ton bins and crushed immediately.
Free-run juice was separated from the press juice, fermented in steel tanks and then transferred to all neutral French oak barrels to complete primary fermentation. The wine was aged on the lees in the neutral oak for five months before blending and bottling.
Grenache blanc (15 percent) was added to contribute to the wine’s bright acidity and minerality.
An outstanding growing season of perfect temperatures and conditions helped bring out the best in the grapes in 2014. The warm, dry days and nightly coastal chill of the Central Coast vineyards are ideal for developing flavor in viognier.
The historic home for viognier is the northern Rhone valley of France. It is best known in the appellations of Condrieu and Château Grillet. No one knows the exact origin of the grape, but many believe it dates back to the Roman Empire when one emperor brought grapes from what is now Croatia to replace vines that had been pulled up by the previous emperor.
The fortunes of viognier rose and fell over the centuries, and by the 1960s the grape had nearly disappeared. There were just a few acres in Condrieu and scattered plantings elsewhere in the Rhone.
As interest in varietal wines increased, viognier was planted in California, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It is now found in many countries. The grape is somewhat difficult to grow, but it is drought resistant, making it well suited to Paso Robles.
Besides the usual dry style, you will find sweet, late-harvest viognier. It can be a dramatic dessert wine.
WINERY: Wild Horse founder Ken Volk bought his first vineyard in 1981 and produced his first wines two years later, starting with pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
The winery is best known for pinot noir, chardonnay, viognier, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and zinfandel. They also produce many other wines, both single varietals, single vineyards and blends. Some of the varietals include syrah, blaufrankisch and verdelho.
The grapes come from more than 50 vineyards throughout California’s Central Coast. The diversity of soils and climates also allows the winemakers to work with virtually any grape variety they wish. In 1999, for instance, Wild Horse crushed 30 varieties.
The winery’s motto is “Live Naturally, Enjoy Wildly.” The winery lives up to that motto by practicing sustainable farming and letting the diversity of the region show through in its wines. The winery calls its approach “attentive neglect.” That means staying out of the way whenever possible.
One example is the weed abatement program that includes llamas named Floyd, Dolly and Salvador Dali, who protect the weed-eating sheep herd. A combination of grape skins, stems and seeds left after pressing wine is mixed with manure to produce a high-quality compost material. Spread among the vine rows, this compost adds beneficial soil material while smothering weed growth.
The name of the winery comes from the wild mustangs once found east of the estate vineyard in Templeton, just south of Paso Robles.
The mustang on the label also happens to be the mascot of Volk’s alma mater, Cal Poly.
The winery in Templeton is open for tours most days of the year except for a few major holidays.
GOES WITH: My wife, Teri, and I shared this wine with our friends Sandy and Steve when they came over for dinner. We had fried chicken, wild rice, creamed corn and lima beans. It was a delicious combination.
Viognier is such a good food wine you can pair it with many things, but it seemed to go particularly well with the fried chicken. The fruit balances off the spices nicely.
Teri especially likes viognier, and Sandy said the Wild Horse viognier might be one of her top three favorite wines. Steve and I liked it a lot, too.
This wine also would pair well with grilled salmon, seared scallops, Chinese dishes, Pad Thai, Mexican dishes, aged cheeses or an apricot tart.