When we decided to do a class on viognier, there was really only one person we thought of it to discuss it: Morgan Clendenen, owner and winemaker at Cold Heaven Cellars. In addition to her signature syrah and lovely pinot noirs, she makes awesome viogniers, delicious wines with beautifully balanced fruit and acids.
Clendenen has been making wine since 1996.
“I was in sales and marketing for a distributor in North Carolina,” she said. Then she married Jim Clendenen, who went on to found Au Bon Climat. The couple has since divorced, but her marriage did start her new career. “That is what got me into winemaking. Like Jim, I learned hands on.”
Viognier (pronounced vee-oh-nyay) is a white wine grape commonly known as one of the varietals grown in France’s Rhône Valley.
“It was originally brought in from Yugoslavia by the Romans,” Clendenen said.
But as the centuries passed, the grape became less and less popular and almost became extinct until 1965, when there were only 30 acres planted. Since then, the grape has come back slowly, with the Clendenens planting the grape in Santa Barbara County in 1998.
“It’s interesting – when I first started out, it was a hard sell,” Morgan Clendenen said. Part of the problem is that with California’s warm climate, the grapes would get very ripe and the resulting wine was high in alcohol, unctuous and cloying. “So viognier got a bad rap.”
But Clendenen persevered and started working on making viognier with more acidity, which increased its popularity.
When you’re looking at a bottle, be aware that the wine could be fairly heavy. However, a good viognier usually features apricot, peach, honey, toasted nuts and vanilla in its flavor profile. Clendenen recommends serving it cold with Japanese and Mexican foods – anything with a little spice or heat.
“You have your classic pairings like scallops and white fish and the richer things like lobster,” she said. “But the ultimate pairing, in my opinion tends to be goat cheese. Goat cheese and viognier is like peas and carrots.”