Coming to America: Viognier


Viognier, the little-known grape that produces some of the greatest white wines in the world, is enjoying a cultish popularity among wine lovers.

The haunting aroma of Viognier--variously described as honeysuckle, apricot, orange blossom and musky peach--is the attraction of cult favorites Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, which come from the Rhone Valley in Southern France.

There were only a dozen or so acres of Viognier planted in California in 1986, but that number is rising rapidly. California officials say 43 acres of Viognier were picked in 1992, but that's probably an underestimate. There may actually be as many as 125 acres, and--based on planting estimates--that figure could triple by 1995. Even so, that's not much out of a statewide total of 326,670 acres of wine grapes.

The reason is that Viognier (pronounced VEE-oh-nyay) usually produces a tiny, uneven crop of fruit that some years doesn't ripen successfully. And even when it does, quality and quantity can vary wildly from year to year.

Most table wine grapes typically produce four or five tons of grapes per acre and still make great wine. Viognier grown in cooler climes may maddeningly yield only half that and occasionally gives only a ton on an acre or less, which doesn't even cover the farming costs.

Still, demand for the grape has risen in the last few years, pushing the price for a ton of grapes to more than $1,000--putting it in the same price range as Chardonnay.

A result is that the price for a bottle of Viognier is often staggering. Many wineries are charging $20 and up for a bottle. And even if you don't mind being socked for 25 bucks, finding any is like the search for a fowl's molar: Almost all Viognier is sold in fine restaurants or quality wine shops, and usually to cognoscenti who get there early. You're not likely to find one at the local grocery.

Few wineries make more than a couple hundred cases of Viognier. Ritchie Creek Vineyards on Spring Mountain and La Jota Vineyards on Howell Mountain were the Napa Valley's early proponents of the variety and still produce small amounts of it, but neither is easy to find.

The largest acreage of Viognier in the country is owned by John Alban, who has some 30 acres planted in the Central Coast, half of them bearing fruit. Joseph Phelps Vineyards now makes more than 1,000 cases annually from its own 19-acre Viognier vineyard, and it has become one of the best in the state.

So intriguing is this variety that wine lover Matt Garretson of Gainesville, Ga., formed the Viognier Guild to give producers and lovers of Viognier a framework for tasting it.

Moreover, Thomas Groff, general manager and cellar-master at Jefferson House Restaurant in Norristown, Pa., is so convinced Viognier will be a big deal in the not-too-distant future that he recently staged a tasting of 33 different Viogniers.

Included were wines from Virginia and Europe. The 14 tasters, restaurant wine buyers and distributors, voted the 1990 Calera Vineyards Viognier as best. Second was the 1992 McDowell Cellars. Four wines tied for third--1992 Arrowood Winery, 1992 Kunde Vineyards, 1992 Calera and 1992 Sobon Estate.


Here are notes from a California Viognier tasting I recently conducted.

* 1992 Joseph Phelps Vineyards ($25)--Strikingly fruity with the scent of apricots and pears, a slightly spicy note and a creamy, soft texture. A great wine, one of the best ever made in California. 1,000 cases. * 1992 Alban Vineyards ($25)--Spiced (almost like Pinot Gris) with apple/pear and peach aromas. Soft texture, but with a crisp, rewarding finish. The best yet from Alban. Only 334 cases produced. * 1992 Arrowood Winery ($25)--More creamy and complex, not as floral as some. A rich wine with fullness on the tongue and a rich finish. About 600 cases. * 1992 McDowell Cellars ($25)--Loads of floral fruit and a trace of lees from long aging in older oak barrels. A rich, fairly dense wine (14.3% alcohol), with good crispness in the finish. About 1,400 cases. * 1992 Sobon Estate ($16)--The aroma is of fresh melons, with a taste of dried wildflowers. A leaner, more food-oriented wine, with excellent flavor and intensity. About 450 cases. * 1992 Villa Helena ($18)--Fresh, flowery aroma with hints of mayflowers and orange blossoms. A delicate, lively wine with good acidity. Just 200 cases. * 1992 Preston Vineyards ($17)--From Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, a spicier wine than some, but it seems to lack a bit of intensity. Perhaps a year in the bottle will round it out. Nicely styled, but a bit lean. About 1,100 cases produced.

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