I can’t help but wonder if the reason more Viognier doesn’t get bought'especially in restaurants'is that people aren’t sure of the pronunciation. So let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. It’s: vee-on-YAY. Leave if to the French to try to trip you up.
I dwell on Viognier in the waning weeks of summer particularly because it’s such a pleasing warm-weather varietal. That said, I have to admit that there’s really never a time I don’t value Viognier. At its best'which usually means in France'Viognier reminds me of a modern dancer. It’s a wine with great flexibility and agility, but also has plenty of power and muscle.
Not much Viognier is planted in France, although that’s changing somewhat thanks to the steadily increasing popularity of the varietal. One of its most luscious offspring is Condrieu, produced in France’s Northern Rhone. The body of Marcel Guigal’s current vintage is smooth, silky and lush with a distinct golden color. The powerful aromas are Viognier to the hilt: peaches, melon, apricots, lychees and lilacs with a splash of Asian pear thrown in for good measure. Beneath all of that is a pleasing minerality and enough acidity to provide a beautiful, fragrant finish. You can’t get much further away from Chardonnay than this.
Unfortunately, a bottle of Guigal Condrieu 2003 will set you back about $60 at the wine store. On the other hand, that’s probably not such a bad price, given that the Rhone heat in 2003 resulted in a very small, but sought-after vintage for Guigal Condrieu. Most experts'Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine & Spirits, etc.'rate the 2003 vintage from 91-93 points. No doubt about it, this is a stunning, complex wine that is programmed to please.
Viognier was all but extinct as recently as 1965, with less than 35 acres planted in all of France. Although it’s very difficult to grow, Viognier has made a comeback since the 1960s, with a big increase in Viognier grapes planted worldwide during the past decade especially. There are more than 2,000 acres of Viognier now growing in California; countries like Australia and even Brazil have recently gotten in on the Viognier act.
Thankfully, not all Viognier is expensive. In fact, most of the Viognier available in Utah is quite inexpensive. Although like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier tends to run the gamut these days in styles and appeal, it’s a fun wine to experiment with. Almost no two are alike. I think a particularly good bargain is Smoking Loon California Viognier ($7.95), with plenty of pineapple and passion-fruit flavors, along with France’s Tortoise Creek Chardonnay-Viognier blend, with its flowery nose and white peaches on the tongue. Renwood Winery’s Select Series Viognier ($9.95) combines 89 percent Viognier with a splash of Semillon and a hint of Marsanne for the pleasing, inexpensive domestic Viognier that won this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition Gold Medal.
At the higher-price end of the New World Viognier spectrum, there’s the scrumptious Viognier-based Tablas Creek Cotes Blanc from Paso Robles'one of my favorites at $19.95'and Fess Parker Viognier ($19.95). The latter is brimming with tropical flavors of papaya, mango and an unusual dash of white chocolate in the finish.
For food matches, I’d suggest trying Viognier with foods that would normally make you reach for GewÃ¼rztraminer. I’ve enjoyed it with everything from foie gras, curries and Asian fusion dishes to seafood and fish matched with fruit salsas.
Sips: Came across a very nice California Sauvignon Blanc last week at Zola called Pomelo. Wonderful grapefruit flavors. $29 at Zola; $10.95 retail.