Virginia's Special Viognier

Dennis Horton in his vineyard. Aficionados seek out his widely praised Viognier.
Dennis Horton in his vineyard. Aficionados seek out his widely praised Viognier. (By Tracy A Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Ken Ringle
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

GORDONSVILLE, Va. -- That avid wine lover Thomas Jefferson dreamed of re-creating the great wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux in Virginia. He never did so because he couldn't get French grapes to grow at Monticello. Dennis Horton has gone about things differently.

Horton, whose vineyards are rooted less than 20 miles north of Jefferson's estate near Charlottesville, set about in 1977 to find out which grapes would grow. He planted and tore up cabernet sauvignon vines. He planted and tore up Riesling and merlot. He planted and tore up at various times Semillon and sauvignon blanc and zinfandel and pinot noir, among others.

"I've torn up more vines than most people have ever planted," he says. "The pinot noir I made tasted like something that ought to run my car."

But his passion for viticultural experimentation has borne, well, fruit. Horton Vineyards is now one of the largest in the state, and it produces what some have called the crown jewel of Virginia wines: a heady-scented, peach and vanilla-flavored white wine that writer Paul Lukacs describes as "a bright June morning in a glass." Though few Americans have ever heard of Horton's Viognier, and fewer still, he says, can pronounce it (VEE-on-yay), it is so prized by aficionados that it's sold in restaurants as distant as Manhattan and Napa Valley, Calif. Lukacs, in his new book "The Great Wines of America," numbers it among the country's 40 greatest oenological achievements -- the only one in Virginia and one of only three on the East Coast.

Moreover, while many Virginia vintners hope new prosperity will follow the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting direct shipment from wineries to customers across state lines, Horton was one of the few already shipping out of state via independent distributors. At present, he says, of the vineyard's 30,000-case annual production, he ships 5,000 to 6,000 cases out of state. Most of that is Viognier, which has been Horton's star wine since the early 1990s when his third vintage, he says, "cleaned California's clock" at a celebrated series of tastings around the country.

"Dennis's 1993 Viognier is considered by many to be the finest Viognier ever produced in this country," said Bruce Zoecklein, Virginia's oenologist and past president of the American Society of Oenology and Viticulture. "And he is without question a leader in the industry. His willingness to plant varieties new to Virginia, particularly the Viognier, without any guarantee of success, has greatly enhanced the state's standing in the wine industry" nationally and internationally.

Marketing Viognier, however, was at first a challenge. Until about 15 years ago, the grape was grown only in Condrieu, a region of France's Northern Rhone valley near Lyons. "When I put in my first eight acres of Viognier in 1992," Horton said, "there were only 300 acres of Viognier growing in the entire world."

Wasn't that an extraordinary gamble?

"It's better to be lucky than smart," Horton said. But he'd also learned a great deal in 15 years of experimenting. The two major curses of Virginia viticulture, he says, are untimely spring frosts and summer humidity. The first can kill a whole season's grapes in the bud. The second can rot them on the vine.

Viognier, he says, is one varietal with the capacity to bud and fruit after a frost, he says. Its grape also grows in loose clusters that permit air and anti-mildew sprays to circulate among the individual grapes.

"And it's a sugar factory" whose potential alcohol and chemical balance, he found, remained remarkably consistent from year to year in his vineyards.

Horton was lucky in other ways as well. A number of California vineyards took the Viognier plunge around the same time, raising the profile of the obscure grape and easing the marketing challenge a bit. Then, too, "We don't get a lot of variation in quality, but the '93 vintage was really off the charts," Horton said.

"The first year we made 300 cases of Viognier," pressing the refrigerated grapes in whole clusters, aging the juice eights months in old oak barrels and two more in the bottle. "I thought we'd never sell it all," he said. But after the '93 vintage, the wine soon began to sell itself to anyone who tasted it, even at $20 a bottle.

With 28 of his 110 vineyard acres now in Viognier, he makes 3,000 cases a year and it's flying out the door. Many of Virginia's 100-plus other wineries have boarded the Viognier bandwagon as well, says Zoecklein: "It's proving the ideal wine grape for the state."

Will Viognier become the new chardonnay?

"Well, I'd like to think so," Horton said. "I think it's a more interesting wine. For example, the young wine, with its rich nose and exuberant style tends to do the best at tastings. But after a year or so, I think it's actually a better food wine. It starts to lose some of that intoxicating perfume, but it softens and gains in complexity at the back of the palate. That interesting tradeoff makes it almost two different wines."

Still, Horton is far from a one-grape vintner. With his wife, Sharon, who manages the vineyards, his winery turns out 36 different wines from such arcane grape varieties as tannat (from southern France), touriga nacional (from Portugal), graciano (from Spain) and rkatsiteli (from the former Soviet Georgia). And that's not counting his fruit wines.

Close to his heart, too, is the Norton grape, a native Virginia variety which makes a $12 red wine that is one of Horton's mainstays. The Norton grape, named for a Richmond physician who first domesticated it around 1830, was a keystone of the pre-Prohibition wine industry. But in the winery-closing wreckage of Prohibition, the Norton grape was all but forgotten until 1965 when it was resurrected and made into wine again by Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Mo., west of St. Louis.

Hermann, as it happens, was Horton's home town. He grew up among its largely German population, drinking wine at the family table and hearing from Hermann's backyard winemakers about the former glories of the Norton grape. The thick-skinned red varietal was one of the first Horton planted.

The wine it makes, mysteriously devoid of the "foxy" rankness that characterizes wine made from other native American grapes, is unique. It reminds one a bit of a California merlot that tried to bulk up into an Australian shiraz with too much time at the gym. It is dark as night, almost as thick as syrup, and for those who like chewable wines, a genuine gustatory adventure.

"It's a great grape for us, easy to grow, and it continues to grow in the bottle for at least 10 years," Horton said. "But you can't use it for blending. Even a drop makes the whole thing taste like Norton."

True, it isn't Horton Viognier, but then, what is?

Ken Ringle, a former Style writer, last wrote for Food about Knight's Gambit vineyard.

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