Best Washington Viognier

Carole Stephens
• Monday, 04 January, 2021
• 11 min read

It’s a lot like Chardonnay, with lush taste and full body, but the natural aromatics are much more powerful in a Pioneer. Because these aromatics are easily destroyed, it takes a very skilled win maker to master the technique of making a Signer.

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Too much exposure to oxygen can damage the wine, so barrel fermentation is a delicate process with this particular variety. As you can probably guess by now, the quality of a Pioneer wine is highly dependent on climate, viticulture practices, and the winemaking process.

This grape requires a long growing season in a warm climate to fully ripen, but it can’t be too hot or the grape will develop a high level of sugar before the aromatics can develop. Combined with its delicate nature and a difficult winemaking process, this particular wine is not as common or affordable as many others.

In the legend, Vespasian destroyed the vineyards because he thought the locals were revolting as a result of drinking too much wine. When the Romans were forced to leave Gaul in the fifth century, the vines were left uncultivated for hundreds of years.

Finally, revived in the ninth century by remaining locals, it spread to the closest neighboring appellation, Château Grille. Poor Pioneer was nearing extinction after the Phylloxeridae epidemic destroyed plantings of many grape varieties worldwide.

Not to mention, there weren’t many regions throughout the world that showed any interest in growing the grapes, perhaps due to how difficult it is to cultivate. While the aroma and the color would suggest that Pioneer is a sweet wine, they are usually dry.

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Other winemakers will put the Pioneer through a galactic fermentation process to give it more weight and less acidity. New World Pioneer producers stir in lees to increase the smoothness of the wine.

While most Pioneer wines hit their peak between one and two years, some may last as long as ten. Contrail wines are often meant to be enjoyed young while Australian and Californian Pioneer can age better.

While Pioneer is a difficult grape to grow, can be prone to disease, and has an unpredictable yield, it is also very drought resistant and thrives well in a dry, summer climate. Because it flowers and ripens early, a long, warm (but not hot) growing season is best.

However, once it ripens, acidity falls rapidly, which is why it’s important to harvest Pioneer at peak ripeness in early September. It ripens naturally with high sugar and low acidity, so should be fermented for freshness rather than richness.

You’ll also notice a hint of honey and vanilla, with a lot of creamy texture. Pioneer is the only grape variety permitted in the Rhone appellations of Château Grille and Contrail.

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Located on the west bank of the Rhone River, these grapes are carefully grown to produce Pioneer wine, unabashed by other varieties. Everywhere else in France, the Pioneer grape is blended with Marianne, Role, Grenade Blanc, and Russian.

Pioneer is used at a rate of no more than 5% in these varieties, but some red wine blends in the Coterie AOC may use up to 20%. It can be found in North Carolina, Georgia, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Michigan, Colorado, Idaho, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Missouri, British Columbia, Ontario, Baja California, and Value de Guadalupe.

In Australia, Pioneer grows in clay soil and other planting areas include Clare Valley, Ankita, Murray River, Rutherglen, McLaren Vale, Natalie Lakes, Geelong, Canberra, Barons Valley, Morning ton Peninsula, Adelaide Hills, South Burnett, Geography, Chesterfield, Pyrenees, and Area Valley. New Zealand has a small amount of Pioneer in Wairarapa and Where Island.

Pairing foods with Pioneer means being aware of and respecting the very delicate, but powerful, floral notes. Focus on complementing the core flavors of the wine and make sure your foods aren’t too bold or too acidic.

The bestViognier wines will have a full, heavy mouthfeel with a creamy texture and very aromatic florals. This Pioneer from Contrail has an aroma of peach, caramel, toast, and vanilla with honey and orange cream flavors on the palate.

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The beautiful golden color is a trademark of good Pioneer, and this one will age nicely for up to ten years. Another classic out of Contrail is this Linear perfumed with peach, honey, and orange blossom.

The taste of vanilla lingers in the finish and this is another bottle that will age well for up to ten years. It’s from the Carmel Valley and features aromas of the crisp honeydew rind.

On average, Pioneer wines are slightly more expensive per bottle than something that is produced in more volume. Read the label for flavors you enjoy in a wine and keep trying bottles until you find one you like.

They also both have roughly equal amounts of alcohol. However, Pioneer features more tropical fruit, slightly more bitterness, and less acidity. While some sweet desert wines are made, the majority of the Pioneer produced is dry.

This comparison would make sense because Pioneer is crisp and refreshing, but it’s much creamier than Avignon Blanc and has a much more aromatic perfume. While production volumes are low compared to other wines produced in bulk, it’s well worth the extra money you might pay to give it a try.

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Luckily for us, the resurgence of Pioneer is still going strong, with many acres of plantings on at least five different continents. While it’s true that Washington State it still very much a frontier region when it comes wine, there are many undiscovered gems.

If you’ve been lucky enough to sip on the more nationally recognized labels like Hedges CMS, Ste. As a Washington resident, I’ve been observing the massive growth from the inside (vineyard acreage has gone from around 35k acres to over 50k) and have some useful insights to offer.

All the Ava of Washington State, including Columbia Valley, Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and more. So far, there is still confusion from within the industry about which wines excel in Washington’s high desert climate.

Sarah Holy mother of god, Sarah in Washington’s dry, high elevation climate is both busty (fruity and bold) and light on its feet (good acidity and funkiness). Several serious producers have realized this about the grape and are now turning out smoky Sarah wines from Ava like Yakima, Columbia Gorge, and Wall Wall that have some of us yelling “Northern Rhone Sarah!” and quivering with glee.

Washington is an arid, high elevation wine region with ample irrigation from snow melt. A few ambitious producers (like Anna Schaefer from Maurice) worked harvests in Argentina and noticed how similar the climate was to Washington.

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Washington Male is dense and fruity, but because of the cold nights, it’s able to retain ample acidity (super important with this particular variety). If you need more convincing (I don’t believe me either), listen to a smart person such as Master of Wine, Bob Beta, talk intelligently about the potential of Washington’s Petite Vermont on a podcast from Guild of Smelters.

Bordeaux Blends A string of 100-point wines out of the esoteric Horse Heaven Hills AVA during the mid 2000s caused everyone to start snooping around Washington State for more Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends (the blend includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Vermont and Male). And while Washington Cabernet Sauvignon –as a single-varietal wine– doesn’t seem to have the same balance as Napa Valley, the Bordeaux-style blends are phenomenal.

If you think about the vine’s traits: drought-resistant, savory flavors, ability to handle American oak, etc., it holds major potential in Washington’s soils. Dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer Both of these varieties seem an odd choice for the warm climate, but given the cold nights and cooler growing areas (closer to the Cascades), we’ve seen some surprising Riesling and Gewürztraminer from Washington’s soils.

Riesling is definitely one of the most important grapes planted in the state, and given the large Asian and Indian populations around Seattle, it ends up matching really well with the everyday Seattle foods of for, samosas, and pad Thai. Nebbiolo: All it takes is one producer trained in the style of Harold to show us the potential of this grape in Washington.

Chen in Blanc: A chameleon grape that can be either lean or rich, sweet or dry. Limburger: (aka Blaufrankisch) A German grape that produces a fruity, low-tannin wine that’s kind of like if Pilot Noir and Sarah made a baby.

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In Washington’s earliest days as a grape-growing region, the state was thought too cool to successfully ripen many warm-climate red grape varieties. Subsequently, cool-climate white grapes, especially Riesling, dominated production and brought early acclaim.

But as the industry developed, successful cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sarah and others showed that red wines could also excel. This led to increased plantings, so much so that by 2013, for the first time, the majority of Washington’s grape production tilted from white varieties to red.

Today, 50 years into the state’s development as a wine producer, white bottling seem both imperiled and ascendant. And the exceptional 2017 vintage illustrates just how good the state’s white wines can be.

Its white wines don’t typically command as much money or regard as their red counterparts, and it becomes harder for growers and producers to turn a profit. Because of this, white grapes often don’t receive the same amount of care in the vineyard and winery as reds.

“Small wineries focusing on reds can sell them for fairly substantial price points and make a living at it. Some old-vine varieties, Chen in Blanc in particular, have even been pulled out to plant more profitable offerings.

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“We’re fortunate that in the early days of viticulture in Washington State, there were a lot of whites planted,” says Club. Though the state’s larger producers have long championed the category, white wines have often been nearly ignored by Washington’s army of small wineries, which includes some of its most iconic brands.

While Chardonnay, Riesling and, to a much lesser extent, Avignon Blanc, still dominate production, more wineries are experimenting with alternatives. At Syncline, Antone focuses largely on traditional white Rhone grapes.

“Now you’re seeing much more intentional farming to shape the white wines in the direction that you want them to go: more cover, less sun exposure, paying attention to crop load.” More than 30 white varieties are planted, and they produce high-quality examples of everything from Chardonnay to Riesling, Pistol, Pruner Jetliner, Avignon Blanc, Rosanne, Sémillon and beyond.

The wine’s aromas are arresting in notes of lemon pith, herb, stone fruit, fig, spice, mineral and citrus. Full-bodied, layered and exquisitely balanced fruit flavors follow with a zing of electric, lemony acidity stitching it all together.

All the fruit for this wine comes from Antoine Creek Vineyard, north of the Lake Chelan appellation. Aromas of lemon balm, white peach and honeysuckle are followed by generous but still sleekly styled fruit flavors that show beautiful depth, balance and tension.

It brings a beautiful sense of acid balance with an impressively long finish. A blend of Pioneer (66%), Rosanne (18%) and Marianne, the aromas are vibrant in notes of honeysuckle, pear, tangerine and wet stone.

The palate is redolent with sleek, lively stone-fruit flavors that show a dazzling sense of purity and linger on the finish. In addition to the winemaking and viticulture advances, unique factors made the year outstanding for white wines.

Early wet weather, an anomaly for ever-dry eastern Washington, led to significant canopy growth and mildew pressure in white grapes. While many winemakers avoid the mention of smoke to prevent concerns about potential taint, the conditions appeared to have possibly helped protect the grapes.

“It slowed down ripening a lot,” says Leighton of the smoke that was in the air for stretches in August and September. When the smoke cleared toward mid-September, moderately warm days and cool nights took root.

“There’s that ripe fruit character, but there’s also an elegance to the balance of the wines and the acid structure,” says David Rosenthal, white winemaker at Château Ste. Michelle 2017 Dry Riesling (Columbia Valley) / Photo by Meg Maggot White varieties made up some of Washington’s earliest plantings, yet many believe it’s still early in their development.

“I think that we’re just kind of at the beginning of Washington’s white wine phase, even though we’ve been making Chardonnay and Riesling for a long time,” says Antone. “As good as the wines are in Washington, now that we’re getting into this next generation of winemakers and winegrowers, we are really figuring out what grows well and where,” says Rosenthal.

While Leighton believes the state’s white wines often fly below the radar, he agrees that the best is yet to come. This wine is equal parts fruit from Cello and the winery’s Estate vineyard.

Seeing a kiss of 20% new oak from Burgundy barrels, the aromas draw you into the glass, with notes of spice, lemon curd, pear, mineral and apple. Sleek, seamless flavors backed by bright, lemony acidity follow.

The palate brings a lovely sense of texture, with notes of honeycomb, fig and tropical fruit. The bouquet of this wine pops with aromas of rubbed lime leaf, citrus, white peach and cut green apple.

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