"Working the Land" (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Viognier At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Viognier is a low-moderate vigorous vine, but it can be productive under vigorous conditions
Capable of producing quality fruit in a wide variety of terroirs especially sandy soils, limestone, and generally acidic soils. The grape is considered capricious and hard to predict.
Yield (potential)
Variable, but generally low to moderate, depending on soils and growing conditions
Growth Cycle
Early budding (risks spring frosts). Mid- to late-ripening (style-dependent)
Somewhat prone to rot. Its late-ripening nature makes it susceptible to birds and other fauna who love the grapes! Can be prone to powdery mildew

Growing and Making Viognier (in California)

Is Viognier an answer to climate change? Maybe ... maybe not. But it is drought-resistant and thrives in a dry, summer climate. Moreover, it flowers and ripens early. A long, warm (but not hot) growing season is best. So, is it a solution to climate change? Well, yes … if it were predictable. But of all the white Rhône grape varieties, Viognier has the greatest tendency to go off the rails, perhaps because it can easily turn from an opulent, fun-loving lug box of pure nectar into a dull “meh.” So, it goes with the Viognier quest.

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of terroir, the natural environment in which vines grow, along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at UC Davis, California’s premier wine school and research facility, conducted a study on the topic. Though based on Chardonnay grapes, it concluded that the following holds true for all wine grapes: “No outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste). They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

The subject is most certainly up for further debate. That said, here is a brief review of how Viognier, according to the classic view, expresses itself in the glass, based on the type of soil in which it is grown.

Limestone Soils

Limestone offers beneficial nutrients that help produce better, sweeter grapes. Limestone is special because it retains moisture in dry weather, but also offers good drainage in cool weather. One negative effect is that it causes iron deficiency in grapes, which means viticulturalists working with soils with a high lime content must fertilize frequently. In limestone, Viognier is particularly expressive and can show mineral notes.

California locations: Central Coast, between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south.

Granitic Soils

Granite is a soil type composed of cooled quartz and magma. It is found all over the world and comes in a variety of textures and compositions. Granite tends to have a high pH level and a rather porous make-up, which creates high-acid fruit and allows vines to dig deep into the earth. The Northern Rhône is home to some of the wine world’s most highly regarded granite soils. It’s not just Syrah that loves granite -- so does Viognier!

California locations: Amador/El Dorado/Sierra Foothills. Temecula, Paso Robles

Sandy Soils

Sandy soils are acidic -- which is to say they have a pH of less than 7 (neutral), and it is known that acidic soils generally bring out more of Viognier’s perfume and aromatics. Sandy soils are also well-drained, retain heat and are  low in calcium and magnesium. Sandy soils specifically tend to bring out more tropical flavors in Viognier.

CA locations: Contra Costa’s Oakley, southwest Santa Maria Valley, parts of Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, Lodi

Viognier is decidedly mercurial. If the crop is harvested too early, it loses all its flavors; if it is harvested too late, it risks becoming  too oily, and lacking in natural floral and ripe stone fruit aromas. Viognier tolerates climates from warm to cool. The fruit however develops much of its flavor characteristics as a late-season grape; It must be harvested at peak maturity to display its unique flavor and aroma. As those who love it know, Viognier is renowned for its deep yellow color, intoxicatingly perfume, and is high-octane (generous in ABV) when fully ripened. 

All original Viognier clonal selections come from France. Over time, as vineyard selections from the U.S. have been isolated for their features and propagated, this population has increased. In California, there are 14 different clones of Viognier registered with FPMS (Foundation Plant Materials Service) and UC Davis. Of those, the split is eight from France, and the balance of propagated selections from California vineyards including Bonny Doon (clones 02 and 02.1) and Hyde Vineyard (08 aka Joseph Phelps clone, isolated in the 1980s).  

In the U.S., Viognier is generally planted using trellising methods with horizontal wires spread between stakes. The most popular is Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP). The canopy is somewhat open, with slender canes that need support. Since the vines are only moderately vigorous, close spacings are suitable: in moderate soils plant 4 to 6 feet in row, and in deep soils plant 1.2-1.8 meters (6-8 feet) in row.

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Sustainability and California

As an agricultural industry, the California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world, and– together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state– has made California wine a leader in addressing climate change.