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Elin’s Wine Pick: 2011 Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier

Stags' Leap Winery Viognier

Stags' Leap Winery Viognier

Viognier was once hyped as the next white varietal in California to go boom, but over the past two decades examples have been a mixed bag. This elegant 2011 Stags’ Leap Viognier, with its luxurious texture, aromas of honeysuckle and orange blossom, and taste of white peach and apricots, is a reason to revisit the category. It is one of the really interesting California bottlings of the varietal. Many others, sadly, are not worth drinking.

Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week

2011 Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier 

Price: $26

Region: Napa Valley, California

Grape: 100% Viognier

Alcohol: 14.1%

Serve with: Scallops in cream sauce, pork or duck dishes that include fruit

The best, like this Stags’ Leap, are rich and exotically perfumed, yet also have vibrant acidity and a stony minerality. The worst are heavy and clumsy, sporting a bitter core, as well as too much oak and alcohol.

One key to quality is growing the grape in a cool enough place to preserve aromas and retain freshness. Otherwise this opulent white tastes flabby and flat. Stags’ Leap gets its fruit from vineyards in Napa’s cool Carneros and Oak Knoll districts, and it helped that 2011 was an especially cool year. The other key is not smothering the wine with new oak.

It’s hard to  believe that only 40 years ago Viognier had almost disappeared. Back in the 1960s, just 30 acres survived in the northern Rhone valley. Winemakers there often threw the grapes in with Syrah to give red wines like Cote-Rotie a rounder texture and more expansive aroma.

One of the first to bring the grape to California was Pinot Noir pioneer Josh Jensen of Calera. Then it got a big boost from the group of winemakers known as the Rhone Rangers, who started planting the grape in the late 1980s. By 2010 there were 3,000 acres, a minuscule amount compared to nearly 100,000 of Chardonnay.

So there’s no chance Viognier is going to turn into a major ABC — anything-but-Chardonnay — alternative. And did I mention how difficult it is to grow?

After Rhone Rangers give Stags’ Leap Viognier a lift

Stags’ Leap has followed the Rhone example, adding Viognier to its final Petite Syrah blend, the red for which the estate first became known. Only in 1998 did the winery start bottling Viognier on its own.

The winery is one of the Napa Valley’s historic late 19th-century estates, revived in the 1970s by Carl Doumani, who sold it in 1997. Now it’s owned by global wine company Treasury Wine Estates. I applaud not just their terrific Artists in Residence program, but also this 2011 Stags’ Leap Viognier.

Top photo composite:

A view of Stags’ Leap District and the label for Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier. Credit: Courtesy of Stags’ Leap