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Stephen Barnard
April 2, 2013 | Winemaker's Blog | Stephen Barnard

Is Virginia Viognier "Authentic"?

By technical definition, authentic, or authenticity refers to something being "real" or "genuine", the origin of which is supported by un-questionable evidence. One can easily apply this definition to a document, which has been authenticated or to as something as simple as a restaurant, where the food served could be deemed authentic. How does this apply to wine though, and more specifically to Virginia, and Viognier?

The reason for this conundrum, is that of late there has been much discussion of what Viognier's produced in Virginia should taste and smell like, to be truly thought of as being authentic. This in truth is a notion that I have long struggled with, having made wine in this fine State for over 10 years now. Is it merely enough to say that wine made from that particular varietal in this State, satisfies the notion of authenticity, or do we delve deeper and develop a style of wine that speaks of authenticity. How do we define that style? How do we create this style year in and year out taking into account the vintage variation that we experience? More importantly what is the style of Virginia Viognier that may satisfy the customers notion of authenticity? But what of the climate, soils and age of vines that inherently affect the taste and smell of the wine, the much maligned concept of TERROIR.  The set of special characteristics that the geography, geology  and climate  of a certain place, interacting with the plant's genetics to produce a product [in this case wine] of unique and UN-replicable characteristics.

So what the heck do we compare our wines against? To even begin to answer that question, one should probably have a benchmark of what Viognier should smell and taste like, a control if you like to compare our wines to. Historically speaking, Viognier is an ancient grape possibly originating from Dalmatia [present day Croatia], brought to the Rhone by the Romans. Viognier is the single permitted grape variety in the appellations of Condrieu and Chateau Grillett, which are located on the west bank of the Rhone River, about 40 km south of Lyon. This could be an ideal benchmark for Virginia right? Is there something specific about the grape that is consistent with other wine-producing regions? Could there be similarities in aromatics, texture, longevity that discount that above mentioned intangibles? So let's take a look at the chemistry of Viognier to further try to answer this question. The grape is generally very floral due to terpenes, similarly found in Muscat and Riesling. Terpenes and terpenoids are the primary constituents of the essential oils of many types of plants and flowers. An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic  liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. So essentially speaking, there should be some aromatic characteristic that may link French, Californian and Virginian Viogniers. Having tasted my fair share of wines from all the above mentioned regions, I did find some common threads. Many times my notes included descriptors of peach or apricot, honey suckle and stone fruit which speaks more of varietal correctness than of authenticity.  A wine made in California that is barrel fermented versus a wine that is tank fermented will inherently taste and feel different in the mouth, none less authentic than the other despite the variations in style.

So to come back to the notion of "Authenticity" and whether us Vigneron's in Virginia can claim to be authentic. I say with the utmost confidence that we can, although we make stylistically different wines than many other wine-producing areas. Our Viognier's can be razor like with their acidity, with underlying mineral and stone fruit characteristics. A wine that may be a touch lighter, but arguably more food friendly and often times more drinkable in its youth. Our Viognier's can also be rich and flamboyant, coating the mouth with their oily textures and subtle hints of oak. These are fatter wines that change with time in the bottle. We also make wonderfully sweet "stickies"; dessert wines with gorgeous aromas that satisfy the sweetest tooth when the occasion beckons.  Each style of wine has commonalities that make it distinctively grape specific, each authentic in their own right based on "terroir" or winemaking preference. For those that are still not satisfied with this concept, or the inability to define it,  be at least assured that we as winemakers are also trying to answer that question, but that it will take some time and work to truly grasp this concept, if we ever will. For we have only been at it for 30 odd years, and we have many years to go before we can begin to understand and communicate this concept.  Enjoy, as I do, the characteristics of the vintage, the deft touch of the winemaker or the personal  preference of the consumer, all of which reflect the notion of "Authenticity".

Perhaps we could change the definition to that of "If the wine reflects and portrays everything we hoped it would, and brings joy to those that consume it", it could lay claim to the notion of Authenticity. I would be happy to say that our wines have successfully fulfilled those criteria.


Stephen Barnard

Winemaker and pursuer of authenticity at Keswick Vineyards


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