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Our Search for the Best Viognier Under $20

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[Photograph: Anachronist via Wikimedia Commons]

My boyfriend's best friend from high school recently got married to his girlfriend of 5 years, and they asked me to pick the wines for their wedding. I haven't known them for that long, and I guess they want to "stay together forever" or some nonsense like that, so this was kind of a one shot deal—talk about pressure!

They had their hearts set on Malbec for the reds, and gave me more freedom, with the whites, so I needed to find something that was "cool" and "fresh" (the wedding was in LA after all), that would go well with food and not break the bank. Value Viognier to the rescue!

Viognier is one of my favorite affordable-wine options because it makes some pretty interesting wines that can please a lot of different people. For hard core, manly men who prematurely decide white wine is too feminine for them (I've seen many of those in my day), Viognier offers a rich, medium to full bodied white that can stand up to pork and other hearty food. For people who like their wine on the sweeter side, there are some options that are round, floral, and a little sweet. You'll find both New and Old World examples.

What to Expect

Overall, you can expect Viognier to be rich with floral aromas and a finish that leaves you wanting more. Viognier is naturally low in acid, so some winemakers try to do all that they can to preserve as much tartness as possible. One way of doing this is to prevent a process known as malolactic fermentation, where bacteria in the wine converts the stronger malic acid (lower pH, green apple-y flavors) to the milder lactic acid (higher pH, creamy dairy flavors). Although this process occurs naturally and is almost always used with red wine just to make it drinkable, the extent to which malolactic fermentation is used/allowed with white wine is up to the winemaker. To stop this process from occurring, winemakers can remove or kill off this bacteria, or control the temperature to prevent their activity, leaving the crisp acidity preserved in the liquid.

Especially in warmer climate regions, where the acid is relatively lower than in colder areas, preventing this process is even more important, so let's learn a little bit more about where Viognier is produced.

Where It's Produced

Viognier's origins are a little muddy. Some claim the grape originated in Australia, others posit Croatia is Viognier's motherland and more recent studies have genetically linked it with northern Italian grapes. Whatever the case, it's not surprising that Viognier is currently produced in an array of sites across the globe.

In France, southwest winemaking regions—Rhone Valley, Provence, and Languedoc—are the major names you'll see on wine labels. Many of these wines are blends of Viognier with other French white grapes (such as Marsanne and Rousanne.)  In northern Rhone, Viognier is produced as a single varietal wine in Condrieu and Grillet, but these bottles can be on the pricey side (i.e., starting at $20-$30, with many above the $100 mark). Another main use of Viognier in France is to soften the smoky, tannic Syrah produced in these regions, as we learned earlier.

In the New World, California is one of the most common Viognier-producing states in the US. Because of the warmer temperatures there, you will often find higher alcohol in California Viognier compared to French examples. Other states that produce Viognier include Washington, New York and Virginia, among others.

Moving to the southern hemisphere, Mendoza in Argentina and Casablanca and Maule Valleys in Chile are a few regions to keep an eye out for.

Last but not least, Australia is another major producer.  Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills are a few regions where you will find Viognier made as a varietal wine.

How to Serve Viognier

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[Photo: Seema Gunda]

Even though we're talking about white wine here, because there are a lot of aromatics and complex flavors to be had, Viognier shouldn't be served ice cold. A slight chill to 55 degrees or so (basically about 30 minutes to an hour in the fridge) should get you to a good serving temperature.

Viognier is a great food wine, and there are so many ways you can go—salty hard cheeses, tart goat cheeses, seafood, poultry, pork, and even (sometimes) dessert.

We tasted through 7 bottles under $20 and found a good assortment of options to recommend for this summer's sipping.

If You're Looking for Clean and Refreshing...

While the Domaine de la Bastide Cotes Du Rhone Blanc 2010 ($13) was actually a blend of 70% Viognier with 20% Roussane and 10% Bourboulenc, you still get the characteristic floral aromas of elderflower, lavender and roses with a gentle sweetness and hint of caramel (though it's made in stainless steel.) The bright acidity nicely balanced this wine out, making it easy to drink on its own, or as a happy partner to light meals.

Another French option from Provence, the Domaine Triennes Saint Fleur 2010 ($15) offers scents that reminded us of nectarine. It's on the lighter side for Viognier, and its creaminess balanced with tart, juicy apple flavors made it a favorite. The mouth-watering acidity of this wine would pair well with something with a little fat—try salty sausages.

Substance Viognier 2010 ($16), hailing from Washington, smelled juicy and sweet but tasted surprisingly dry, if not as complex as the others we tried. This tart, mineral wine would probably be better with a little food—try pasta salad with feta.

Hailing from Mendoza, Argentina, Vientos del Sur Viognier 2010 was neither very expensive (at $9 a pop) nor very impressive. Though it smelled exceptionally sweet, like peach candy, it was pretty earthy once you tasted it. The stone fruit popped up again as unripe nectarine with a little tangerine citrus.

If You're Looking for Complex...

Trying two different bottles of the Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier ($16) within a week was an interesting experiment. Although the 2009 was interesting and quite tasty, I have to admit, that many tasters initially found the smell off-putting. I've heard the phrase "cat piss" thrown around a lot in the wine world with reference to Sauvignon Blanc, which didn't really make sense to me, but most of us agreed this was a pretty accurate description of the scent on this one. But once we tasted it, the wine had a creamy richness and a nice earthy bitterness on the finish that kept us going for more. If you like Scotch, you may want to give this wine a whirl, as the unique, almost-peaty flavors could be right up your alley.

Just one year younger, the 2010 Yalumba Eden Valley is a very versatile wine that could match up well with anything as fancy as a chicken-topped salad to as low key as a bag of salty potato chips (my pairing of choice). The scent was citrusy-sweet, and flavors followed through, hinting at Meyer lemon and nectarine, along with bready, biscuity flavors that probably resulted from the 10 months this wine spent on the lees. (In other words, resting on the sediment of dead yeast cells, as we saw with some bottles of Muscadet).

We were also impressed with the complexicty of Melville "Estate-Verna's" Viognier 2010 ($20) from Santa Barbara County in California. This rich wine had vanilla and dried honey flavors (although only neutral oak and stainless steel was used here) balanced by an earthy savoriness. This was a full wine, and can easily stand up to food.

Recommend Your Favorites!

Are you a fan of Viognier? Got any favorite bottles to recommend—particularly in the sub-$20 range? Let us know in the comments!

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

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