Viognier—deep in the South of Oregon!

In 2015, we wrote a piece for the Silkbush blog entitled: Viognier… Deep in the Heart of Texas! Both because we are very successful with Viognier on our South African vineyard, and the fact it is a wine few Americans have experienced, we remain on a quest to learn more about the grape, where it does well, and share it with the world. Therefore, when we recently read on Forbes Media “Will Viognier Become Southern Oregon’s Signature White Wine,” we were highly impressed with the author, Joseph V Micallef, and his in-depth review of the area. His modestly truncated text appears below:

Viognier is a white grape variety. Its origins are unknown. It is widely believed that it originated in Croatia and was brought to the Rhone Valley by the Romans, although there is no evidence of this. Genetic analysis, however, indicates that it is related to Freisa and Nebbiolo, two Piedmontese red grape varieties, and that it may also be either a half-brother or grandparent of Syrah. Considered one of the “noble” grape varieties, it reaches its most sublime expression in the northern Rhone Valley, where it is the only grape variety permitted for the production of white wines in the Condrieu appellation.

The variety almost became extinct. It proved to be particularly susceptible to diseases, especially powdery mildew and phylloxera, and its cultivation steadily decreased. By 1965, there were only about 30 acres left of Viognier vineyards in the northern Rhone. Since then, it has made a remarkable comeback.

Today, there are over 13,000 acres of Viognier under cultivation in France; mostly in the Rhone and Languedoc. Additionally, it is widely grown in the U.S., especially in California (3,000 acres), Oregon and Virginia, as well as in Canada, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Japan and South Africa.

Viognier is a difficult grape to grow. It’s early budding and is vulnerable to spring frosts. In addition to being disease prone, its yield is low and often variable. It requires a long growing season to fully develop its aromatic potential, but it is sensitive to high heat levels. In hot climates, the grapes can develop high sugar levels before the aromatic notes are fully developed.

According to Kiley Evans, winemaker at 2Hawk Winery, and one of Oregon’s top Viognier producers, “the picking window on Viognier can close abruptly … if you wait to pick until the berry or cluster samples are where you want them, you’re too late. Sometimes the harvest window can be only 2 or 3 days.”

Vinification is equally tricky. The skins of Viognier grapes are high in phenolic compounds that can give wines a bitter, astringent quality; hence skin contact needs to be minimized and crushing must be gentle. The distinctive aromatic notes that make Viognier so memorable can be easily lost to oxidization and excessive handling. Barrel fermentation can be exceptionally challenging.

There are more than 60 clones of Viognier that have been identified. Additionally, older U.S. plantings of Rousanne were often mislabeled Viognier. Wine expert Remington Norman, MW, has identified two distinct strains of Viognier. The “Old World” strain is most common in Condrieu while the “New World” strain is most common in Languedoc and outside of France. The two strains produce very different wines. The New World strain seems to be more heat tolerant, but produces wines that have less intensity and aroma than those produced in Condrieu.

In the U.S., newer plantings of Viognier typically utilize one or more of three clones: 642, 1042 and 1051. All three are based on selections made by ENTAV, a French organization that, “selects, grows and tests the best clones out of France.” All the selections came from vineyards in Condrieu. Most Viognier producers do not give any clonal information on the bottle.

Viognier Grapes

At its best, Viognier produces a rich full-bodied wine with pronounced floral and fruit aromatics, especially notes of peach, apricot, pear, melon and tropical fruits, along with floral aromas of honeysuckle and violet and a sweet gingerbread spiciness, accompanied by an earthy white pepper herbal quality. On the palate it can be soft, lush and smooth, especially if it is barrel fermented and gets extended time on its lees.

The acidity is usually subdued. That’s one reason why Viognier is rarely used for late harvest wines and why when picked late it can result in overly sweet, high alcoholic, flabby wines. Often times its pronounced aromatics can be accompanied by a core of minerality, although this is often lost when barrel fermented. The wine often appears sweet on the nose, but is usually dry on the palate.

Viognier in Southern Oregon

Historically, Pinot Gris has been considered Oregon’s signature white grape varietal. In the Willamette Valley, it has been joined by Chardonnay and Riesling to form a triumvirate of increasingly lauded white wines. In Southern Oregon, on the other hand, it has been Viognier that has increasingly established itself as the region’s signature white grape varietal. Southern Oregon’s long, dry summers, and the microclimates afforded by the varying aspects and elevations of the region’s rolling terrain, create pockets that are ideally suited for Viognier.

According to Bree Stock, MW, the Education Manager at the Oregon Wine Board:“The growing climate of Southern Oregon becomes remarkably cool in September and often stalls fruit ripening. The combination of high UV and huge diurnal temperature shifts in the Rogue Valley also promote those cool climate peppery aromatics.” It’s still a work in progress however. When Southern Oregon’s Viognier is good, it is world class good. It can also be lackluster, lacking the distinctive aromatics of the varietal and more akin to a mass-produced, budget Chardonnay. Vineyard location, vintage and winemaker are the key to distinguishing the exceptional from the common

New Silkbush Accolades!

As our friends in Texas oft say, “If you are telling the truth, you ain’t bragging!” So on that note, we want to brag, er, tell the truth about our recently released Silkbush wines. Below are the two recent accolades our Silkbush wines have received in South Africa. Further, I would like to expand on our recent Michelangelo awards a bit.

  1. This 20-year-old Michelangelo International Wine Awards competition is the largest, most competitive in South Africa. This year, there were 1,829 entries. Silkbush entered just three wines: Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and our proprietary red blend, Altitude and gold medaled with two of them.
  2. We don’t know how many Viognier entries there were but six other highly regarded wineries entered wines that won three Golds and three Silvers. These included the Saronsberg, Anura, and Lourensford cellars. But Silkbush beat them all with our Double Gold Viognier!
  3. Our Sauvignon Blanc received a Gold Medal, one of 271 given out, representing under 15% of the total entries in the competition. Certainly all Gold winners were highly deserving, as virtually no wineries enter ordinary wines since the competition is known for being highly competitive, and 75% of the judges are wine experts from overseas. (No hometown favoritism!)
  4. Altitude, our red blend, while a terrific wine, in my opinion is perhaps a young A- today, composed of five 2014 vintage red cultivars, and was competing against a great many excellent red wines of older vintages. Give it another year, and we expect it to be a sold A, Gold Medal qualifier, if not better.
  5. Lastly, while we did not enter our excellent Pinotage, the Flagstone 2014 Writer’s Block Pinotage was one of 18 Platinum winners, requiring a score of at least 96. For the past 12 years, Flagstone Writer’s Block Pinotage has come from 100% Silkbush grapes, and almost always is chosen as one of the Absa Top Ten Pinotages. The other championship awards for this wine in other competitions are manifold, and a record of which honestly few other wineries can only dream.
  6. Silkbush Pinotage is a superb wine, normally priced at retail at about 50% that of Writer’s Block. However, we will likely import the Pinotage only when we know we have retail demand for commercial quantities. Sadly, the US wine market for Pinotage is still in its early stages, no matter how high the quality.




Viognier… Deep in the Heart of Texas!

Noted Texas Winemaker, Kim McPherson
Noted Texas Winemaker, Kim McPherson

As expressed in my earlier blog post about Texas Hill Country wineries, my growing curiosity had been triggered largely because of the relatively recent adoption of warmer weather grapes by Texans. These wines from lesser known grapes (to most Americans) have usually reposed in the “Imports” section of the local wine shops and liquor stores, and have drawn little attention. The varieties were known chiefly to consumers with advanced knowledge of wines from Spain, Italy, and the Rhone Valley of France. The unsurprising and honest truth is few Americans take a chance on buying a bottle of wine they have never tasted. Fortunately, the growing proliferation of TX wineries and their tasting facilities are introducing many, even many experienced, American wine drinkers, to new (to them) wines. This enables Texan winemakers to make a “hands-on” differentiated presentation with grapes uniquely suited for their warmer weather. Everybody becomes a winner, as happier Texan wine drinkers become advocates/ambassadors for reds such Tempranillos, Riojas, and some delicious whites such as Viognier.

We are especially pleased they are starting to champion Viognier, as it is one of the few white grapes we also grow and produce on Silkbush in the Cape. But even in South Africa, Viognier is just becoming known as a superior white wine, far behind the historically dominant Chenin Blanc and the most recently very popular Sauvignon Blanc and rising Chardonnay. [Actual Viognier planted RSA acreage is only 2,144 acres, or 7th most popular white.] Most Viogniers are intended to be consumed young. Viogniers more than three years old tend to lose many of the floral aromas that make this wine unique.

Like many grapes, the origin of the Viognier grape is unknown; it is presumed to be an ancient grape, possibly originating in Dalmatia (present day Croatia) and then brought to Rhône by the Romans. Once common in France, by 1965, the grape was almost extinct as there were only somewhere between eight and 30 acres remaining in the Northern Rhône. This may have been due to Viognier at times being a difficult grape to grow because it is prone to powdery mildew. Its decline also reportedly has much to do with the inadvertent and disastrous introduction of phylloxera aphids from North America into Europe in the mid- and late-19th century, followed by the abandonment of many vineyards due to the chaos of World War I. In France, Viognier is the single permitted grape variety in the Rhône appellations of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet which are located on the west bank of the Rhone River, about 40 km south of Lyon.

Viognier prefers warmer environments and a long growing season; it has low and unpredictable yields and should be picked only when fully ripe. When picked too early, the grape fails to develop the full extent of its aromas and tastes. In the Cote-Rotie AOC of France, red wine blends can include up to 20% of Viognier though most growers add no more than 5%. Since Viognier ripens earlier than Syrah, the grape is normally harvested separately and added to the Syrah during fermentation. One of the benefits of adding Viognier is that the process of co-pigmentation stabilizes the coloring of the red wine. Since the late 1980s, plantings of Viognier in the US, Canada, and elsewhere have increased dramatically. California’s Central Coast is the leading producer with over 2,000 acres of the grape planted. Californian Viogniers are noticeably higher in alcohol compared to other wines made from the grape. It has also received international attention growing in Virginia, and in 2011 was named Virginia’s signature white grape.

So much for the lecture on Viognier’s history… What does the wine taste like in Texas? Pretty damn good is our overall summary and perhaps much more consistent in taste, if not better, compared to our experience in Virginia. Here are some of the ones we liked the best:


2014 Pedernales Cellars Reserve Viognier $40 Stonewall, TX Likely the most impressive, and certainly the most expensive Viognier we tried; it reflects skilful use of oak. Pedernales has a wonderful tasting facility with great, sweeping views.


2014 Bending Branch Winery Viognier $34 Comfort, TX (First release of Viognier) Bending Branch is perhaps the closest actual winery to San Antonio, just a bit SW of Fredericksburg, and off I-10 a few miles. Very pretty. Definitely a cutting edge winery now also making wines for other TX wineries. Their Italian mobile “flash détente” machine has to be seen to be believed.  About 12,000 cases/year.


2014 Kuhlman Cellars Viognier $27, Stonewall, TX Very attractive and well arranged pairing of small servings to complement their wines. Jennifer Beckmann, Marketing Director, really knows what she is doing.


2014 Becker Reserve Viognier $22 Stonewall, TX Becker is one of the largest TX wineries, with current production in excess of 100,000 cases/year. Always a pleasure to visit with a very wide range of wines available.


2014 McPherson, Viognier, $16 Lubbock, TX; ALC13.9% Fermented entirely in stainless steel. (1600 cases produced)


2014 Brennan, Reserve Viognier, $25 Comanche, TX ALC 14.5%


Note: The McPherson and Brennan wineries are located in “way out west Texas” but share a large comfortable tasting room with another winery at 4.0 Cellars near Fredericksburg on Highway 290. Both their Viogniers were lovely wines.

Because we grow, produce, and import Silkbush Viognier to the US, we were not compelled to stock up on the Texas wines. However, we purchased four of the less expensive wines and have enjoyed them. Our Silkbush Viognier normally retails in the $15-$18/bottle range, and we think any well made Viognier may find widespread acceptance in the US in this range. (We note the Horton Viognier from VA is nationally available at $16 from Total Wines.) Nevertheless, the $40 Pedernales Reserve wine, if you can find it, is definitely worth a Special Splurge sometime.

But above all else, Texas is now making some very nice and worthwhile white wine, lead by Viognier. Once you have had enough of UT or A&M football, enough San Antonio River Walks, and almost enough Austin City Limits country music, get out and do some winery touring. You’ll be glad you did, and definitely check out the Viogniers. They will only get better as the years go by; the French say the vines need to be 15-20 years old to really hit their prime and they should know!