California is the world's second largest producer of Viognier next to France, with the state’s most significant plantings in the Central Coast. California’s ample sun, while increasing alcohol levels slightly, enables Viognier to achieve maximum ripeness, a critical component for its characteristically perfumed aromas to come forward. Hailing originally from the northern Rhône in France, Viognier has been determined from DNA profiling to have a parent-offspring relationship with Mondeuse Blanche, making it either a half-sibling or a grandparent of Syrah. This fact is not altogether remarkable, given that many producers in the Rhône’s Côte Rôtie have historically co-fermented their Syrah with a small percentage of Viognier, a technique thought to stabilize color and boost the aromatics of the finished wine.
California Viognier Timeline
Then-owner Bill Smith grafted a few Cabernet rows at La Jota Winery on Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, over to Viognier, as did Pete Minor at Ritchie Creek across the Napa Valley. In doing so, they became the first ambassadors of this Northern Rhône grape variety in the United States.
Josh Jensen plants about one hectare (just over two acres) of Viognier on Mount Harlan in San Benito County.
American growers import what they thought were Roussanne cuttings from the Rhône Valley, which were then propagated and planted in vineyards around California. In 1998, those vines were identified as Viognier, not Roussanne – a discovery which contributed two new Viognier clones for California producers to work with.
Joseph Phelps launches his “Vins du Mistral” line of Rhône/Mediterranean wines, of which his Viognier quickly became one of the most successful bottlings.
Tablas Creek imported some of their original Viognier vines from Château Beaucastel in the Rhône. The subsequent block, planted in 1992, may be one of the oldest in California still producing.
First ever meeting of the Viognier Guild, an organization of producers, meets in Virginia on May 8. ( Virginia was chosen as Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville pioneered the U.S. arrival of the grape.) At the meeting, it was estimated that there were “now 280 acres (113 hectares) of Viognier planted in the United States.” Participating California wineries included Cline Cellars, Callaway Vineyards, La Jota Vineyard, R.H. Phillips Vineyard, Qupé, Preston, and Alban).
John Alban, of his Arroyo Grande namesake winery in Edna Valley, boasts 13 hectares ( 32.5 acres) -- the largest planting of Viognier in the U.S.
Frank Prial reports in The New York Times of a dozen wineries making Viognier in California.
Ehren Jordan and Anne-Marie Failla release their first Viognier, sourced from Alban’s Vineyard.
New players enter the premium Viognier market, including Tangent, Kent Rosenblum, Pride Mountain, and Miner.
Plantings total 1,052 hectares (1,154 bearing, 8 non-bearing) i.e., 2,600 acres (2,581 bearing, 19 non-bearing) for the year ending 2019.
Originally from France, Viognier was a popular white wine grape prior to the world’s phylloxera epidemic. By 1971, fewer than 14 hectares (33 acres) remained in the French appellations of Condrieu and Château-Grillet combined. Viognier was close to extinction. Over the intervening years, however, the grape has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, in France and elsewhere, its reemergence credited with starting in the U.S., specifically in California.
The origin of the name Viognier is obscure: the most common namesake is the French city of Vienne, originally a major Roman outpost. Another legend cites the Roman pronunciation of the “Via Gehennae,” meaning the "road to hell,” possibly a reference to the difficulty of growing the grape.
For more history and evolution of the grape on Viognier, visit “The Voyage of Viognier in the U.S.” by Coravin and Wine Dharma’s “Viognier: all you need to know about this noble white wine.”