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The Rhone Not Taken


American wine drinkers eager for alternatives to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are increasingly turning to wines made from grapes traditionally grown in the Rhone Valley of Southern France.

The region's red wines--Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan and Grenache--have been blended and made as single-variety wines in California for the past few years, but recently it is the white wines that have been getting attention.

The most expensive white wine of the Rhone Valley is made from the Viognier grape, which is extremely difficult to grow. It yields a tiny amount of fruit per vine, and many vines often give no fruit at all. The result is production that is charitably called poor. In some years no wine at all can be made from an acre.

This, of course, raises costs. An acre of land cultivated with Viognier might never become profitable unless the wine sells for $20 a bottle. The French Viogniers come from Condrieu in the north of the Rhone Valley and from the neighboring Chateau Grillet, a 6-acre property that is the smallest Appellation Controlee in all of France. Chateau Grillet is one of France's most expensive wines; even among less select makers it's difficult to find a Viognier for less than $15.

The aroma of great Viognier is delicately perfumed, flowery and slightly spicy. But few of the American wines on the market exhibit much of this character, since most of the wineries now making Viognier have chosen to put the wine through a second fermentation.

This procedure, malolactic fermentation, converts the malic acid, which is fresh and smells more like apples, into lactic acid, which has a more milky or creamy aroma. The result mutes the fruit of the wine and gives it richer notes.

There's nothing wrong with this, but the combination of a second fermentation and further aging in new oak barrels can make Viognier a kind of imitation Chardonnay.

Pete Minor, owner-winemaker at tiny Ritchie Creek Vineyards atop Napa's Spring Mountain, says the great charm of Viognier is its fruit. He thinks that doing anything to diminish it is to dilute its greatness. Consequently, he is one of the few Viognier makers who does no second fermentation.

Minor made no Viognier in 1991; the wine turned out poor, "so I poured it down the drain," he says. But the 1992 crop looks large.

One of the best American Viogniers on the market is from Napa's Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Phelps made a stunning 1990 Viognier ($15) that is wowing wine lovers with its fruit and depth. The wine is creamy textured, but has crisp acid for its backbone.

Another wine in the same mold is the 1990 Preston Vineyards Viognier ($15), with a slight citrus note adding appeal to the fruit.

Even richer are the Viogniers from Calera Winery in the Central Cost and La Jota Vineyards atop Howell Mountain. Both make a small quantity of this wine, which always sells out fairly quickly.

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