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On Harvest with … Mat Garretson

Paso Robles' Viognier-obsessed winemaker has reason to celebrate after a sensational growing season

Eric Arnold
Posted: October 16, 2007

During each year's harvest, Wine Spectator asks numerous winemakers to share their thoughts on the challenges of the season and the quality of the grapes they're picking. Since there are so many factors that can influence the timing and quality of the harvest, ranging from the region to the variety to even the experience or opinion of the individual winemaker, it's often difficult to get a true sense of what's happening in the vineyards. This year, Wine Spectator found winemakers who specialize in certain varieties to sound off on their individual, grape-specific experiences—right in the middle of harvest.

Mat Garretson has been enamored with Viognier since he first tasted a Condrieu, from the Rhône, in the early '80s. Convinced that he could make a name for Rhône-variety wines in the United States, Garretson packed his bags and moved from Atlanta to Paso Robles, Calif. Between his relocation there in the early '90s and his first vintage for his own wine brand, Garretson Wine Co., in 1997, Garretson founded what eventually became Hospice du Rhône, an annual festival of seminars and tastings for Rhône lovers and winemakers. While Garretson grows and vinifies several varieties, his single obsession remains Viognier. He visits the variety's home, Condrieu, every year, always looking for ways to improve his own wine. Garretson spoke with WineSpectator.com just after he'd finished the single-day pick of his Viognier crop, one that he thinks could be among his best ever.

The Grapes: Viognier

The Geography: Paso Robles

A season to remember: "If you want to get into alliteration, [it was] late, light and luscious. The crop was about a month behind where it normally is. It's about 30 percent off our estimated yields, but really, really exceptional fruit. In 14 years I've really not seen a vintage that allowed such extended hang time. We hadn't really gotten that big burst of heat we normally get early in the harvest season that accelerates the sugars … usually we're struggling with very high alcohol wine. This year we didn't really get any days that broke the high 90s or 100 degrees. It's been high 80s, low 90s. The cool periods just allowed for incredible flavor development without excessive sugar development. So I'm really excited. I think it's going to be a year that'll provide really good structure, and for Viognier, really long-lived wines as opposed to something you need to drink real quick. The cluster sizes and berry sizes were small. Flavors were just great. If I could have a year like this every year, I'd be very happy. Certainly would like a little more fruit out there, but if that's the trade-off, I'm more than willing to [take it]."

The waiting is the hardest part: "It's one of those things that when you're experiencing it, you're saying, 'What's wrong with us? Why are we experiencing this?' But I was very much comforted by friends of mine around the Central Coast who were experiencing the same thing. So I knew there wasn't abnormality or that my lab results weren't on the money. A lot of people get very nervous when that sugar spikes, but the seeds are still green and there's just not the right flavor development. Here, the sugars were just standing still and in some instances the numbers were actually going backwards a little bit. So let's let it hang and get the flavors we want. For this year, a typical day was just waiting. I kind of felt like a fireman. You're sitting around, but the bell's never ringing."

You can smell when it's time to pull the trigger: "Not having been a classically trained winemaker, certainly I use chemistry as a safety net. But for me it's all about flavors. I'm amazed how many people in this area will look solely at sugar numbers and that determines when they're ready to pick. All too often in Paso Robles that's a mistake because we typically get that heat bump where sugars race ahead of every other ripening indicator. In some of the vineyards I share with other winemakers, if they're picking, I know I have a week or two before I'm going to. If you're looking at normal sugars of 23 to 25 Brix with Viognier, typically in Paso Robles at that number some of the seeds are turning brown, but by and large they still have too much green to them and the flavors aren't there. For me, Viognier is much more of a flavor and a smell. When you go in the vineyard you can smell it and taste it and you know it's ready to go."

Stay cool: "We want to have the fruit as cold as possible. [After picking] we usually chill the fruit overnight to make sure the fruit is cold and the skins are firm. Viognier has this bitter phenolic, and if you get warm fruit with loose skins, you can leach that into the wine. [We do] whole-cluster pressing. Typically I can open up the press and grab a fistful of skins and still squeeze out a bunch of juice. [We do] very gentle pressing. Once the fermentation is going in the barrels, we put them in the cold trailer, which we keep at 40 degrees. Our primary fermentations are a month and a half to two months, sometimes a little longer. That way we're not burning through it. I liken it to making a delicate sauce: You keep it over low heat and it takes a long time, but you're getting more delicacy out of the final product."

It's not Chardonnay, so you can't treat it like Chardonnay: "I almost gave up on Viognier, as much as I love it. I just didn't think we could get it right. Too many California examples were pretty much tantamount to drinking fruit-cocktail syrup. The majority of people who are making it in California are making it because it's become trendy. With Viognier, less is definitely more. It's a hackneyed expression, but it's a grape that's truly made in the vineyard. You need to resist the winemaker inclination of manipulating it. We see in Condrieu, they tend to have a pretty good whack of new wood on it. With very few exceptions, that doesn't really work in California. We tend to make something big and lousy. I've found that for me it doesn't smell or taste like Viognier until it has 12 to14 months in [a neutral] barrel. It's kind of counterintuitive, keeping an aromatic white in the barrel three or four times longer than normal, [but] you actually get a more floral, a more complex, exotic and complete wine."

Keep looking for a good one: I think most consumers are confused by [Viognier] since they don't know what they're going to get. It's more sweet, fat—more Pam Anderson than an Audrey Hepburn kind of wine. It's important to find Viogniers from areas that are cooler. My hope is if consumers get that syrupy fruit-cocktail experience, that they search out another producer or region, because that's not what Viognier is about. It's kind of like searching for a holy grail. Once you find a good example of Viognier, it's hard to go back to anything else."

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