August 27, 2019
by Susan Evans – winemaker, Shadow Run Vineyards & Winery
My assessment of any winemaker’s talent is always enhanced
tenfold when I discover that she or he can create a beautiful white wine. Creating a luscious, nuanced white is a thin
cord balancing act built on both science and art. The natural delicacy of a white wine quickly
reveals flaws that cannot be smoothed away by time in oak, or softened with
age. Guiding a white wine to maturity requires
a refined approach: a constant vigilance
to retain the delicate flavors and the fruit and floral nose that are the
hallmark of a great white wine. And when
the flavors are layered and complex, with each sip revealing yet another hue,
then I am in white wine heaven.
I have the great fortune to work primarily with Viognier,
also known as the winemaker’s grape for its elusive qualities. A great Viognier should reveal layers of
stone fruit including apricot, white and yellow peach, perhaps lychee, or honey. The characteristic Viognier nose is floral, with
scents of honeysuckle and white flowers.
My favorite wine writer, Karen MacNeil describes Viognier as “Chardonnay’s
ravishing exotic sister.” So true. But when Viognier grapes are allowed to ripen
too long on the vine, the result can be a wine that is oily, with high alcohol
and insufficient acid to balance the rich flavors. Harvest too early and the resulting wine
shows more citrus and acid, resembling a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from
California’s Monterey County (a lovely wine, but not the flavors we want in a
Viognier). That precise harvest moment
seems to arrive and depart very quickly, and missing that perfect balance of
flavors and acid can leave the winemaker with less than ideal grapes and dreaming
about the next vintage, another chance for the dream wine.
Viognier’s fame originated in the tiny appellations of Condrieu
and Chateau Grillet located in the Northern Rhone region of France. Combined, these two appellations cover about 280
acres. Today, California is the largest
producer of Viognier, with approximately 3,000 acres planted. Compare that however to the acreage of
Chardonnay planted in California (approximately 93,000 acres) and it is quickly
apparent that Viognier remains a rare find.
Frankly, I work harder and spend more capital on our white
wines, specifically our Viognier. I think
about them more, I worry about them more, I love them more. Our Viognier is fermented in huge French oak
puncheons in a cold environment and then aged on the “lees” that is, on the
spent yeast cells. While the wine is
aging in barrel, we stir the lees three times a
week to enhance the body and mouthfeel of the wine, hoping to again capture
that creamy mid palate that has become a hallmark of Shadow Run whites.
Viognier is my passion. And the search for the best expression of this beautiful wine never ends. Each year I have the chance to try yet again to create that wine that will satisfy my dreams of the perfect Viognier. Happily I will never make the perfect white, so I am driven to try again and again.