Viognier has always been Anthony Schroth’s favorite wine.
“You either nail it or you don’t,” he said.
This year Schroth, Jackson Hole Winery’s vintner, or winemaker, nailed it. He won a “Best of Class” award for his favorite varietal at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, the first time he ever entered the competition with that wine.
“That’s a big deal,” Schroth said.
This year the Harvest Fair pitted 300 or so wineries against one another with one major stipulation. The wines they submitted had to be made from grapes grown in Sonoma County: pinot noir, chardonnay, viognier, pinot gris and the like.
“Sonoma County and the Russian River Valley is considered one of the top regions in the world for producing a lot of these varietals,” Schroth said. “So to be in the mix with these wines that are consistently considered the best in the world for their varietals is huge.”
Schroth and Jackson Hole Winery are no strangers to the Harvest Fair’s “Best of Class” awards.
The first time they submitted their pinot noir, Schroth said, they won.
But doing so isn’t easy. Each of the 15 or so judges judging a given category — in the viognier’s case, white wines in the $24 to $32 range made with varietals other than grapes like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio — have to give the wine a gold rating. That pushes it into the “Best of Class” competition, where the judges have to pick from the best of the best.
Schroth said Jackson Hole Winery’s viognier, which is dry with hints of apricot and other fruits, has always been popular at home, but this was the first year the winery has had enough stock to enter the competition. But that down-home popularity doesn’t mean the wine has always been a winner in the larger world of wine.
In the ’80s, Schroth said, viognier almost fell out of favor entirely, with only 80 acres of the grape planted across the globe. Most of that was in the northern Rhone region of France. By 2011 that number had risen to about 400 acres, according to Jackson Hole Winery. By 2015 the Chicago Tribune reported that number had risen to nearly 11,000 acres in France alone.
Schroth said viognier kept being planted because it was a perfect pair for syrah grapes.
In the Rhone region, where viognier was still grown, winemakers were having a hard time pushing sugar content high enough in their south-facing rows of syrah. To compensate they planted viognier in another location and found the sugar content in those grapes high enough to co-ferment with the syrah. A 3% to 6% blend of viognier produced the result they wanted.
The viognier “will completely change the aromatics of the syrah and make some really sexy and exotic wine,” Schroth said. “Those two varietals are really a match made in heaven.”
Viognier’s commercial resurgence, Schroth said, was due in part to wine lovers discovering it and winemakers “starting to make it the right way.” Jackson Hole Winery splits the vineyard where the viognier is grown in Sonoma with a few other wineries, but Schroth’s is always the last to pick the grapes.
“We’re waiting for those flavors” like the fruity apricot taste “to come out,” he said.
Despite viognier’s resurgence, “a lot of wineries don’t produce it because most people don’t know how to pronounce it,” Schroth said. “They see it on the restaurant wine list and they call it ‘vee-og-ner’ and they go, ‘I’ve never heard of vee-og-ner’ and they don’t order it.” (The correction pronunciation is “vee-own-yay.”)
Still, the viognier has been a staple for Jackson Hole Winery. When Schroth spoke with the News&Guide he said they were “pretty darn close to sold out” of the 270 or so cases they produced. The winery used to produce about 150 cases a year, but demand kept them pushing production higher and higher — and still is.
“We’re making more this year,” Schroth said, “and then we’re going to make more next year.”
More information about the viognier and wine tasting sessions can be found at JacksonHoleWinery.com. ￼