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A Grape of Our Rhone

August 02, 2000|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I am not an especially ardent environmentalist. I like trees and all that, and I'm fond of breathing clean air and swimming at unpolluted beaches, but I don't wear my concern for rare salamanders on my sleeve. Still, I am proud of one conservationist role I've played: helping to save the Viognier grape from extinction.

French studies show that when California viticulturalists started planting Viognier back in the '80s, it had all but disappeared from its birthplace in the Rhone. At one point, some say, it was down to 49 acres. Jancis Robinson, the noted English wine writer and scholar, says the absolute low was 35 acres.

So when the grape started popping up in California vineyards and the wines it was making turned out to be so very pleasant, Viognier experienced a minor boomlet hereabout. It may be a self-serving myth that we Californians saved Viognier, but I like to think that we did and that I had some small part in it.

When Viognier wines became available in quantities sufficient to taste and evaluate, I found a new love--and a new cause. "Save the Viognier," quoth I. "This new wine tastes great, and it is not Chardonnay." (Not being Chardonnay is important, of course, because Chardonnay is the most widely planted variety in California, and we really need something else to drink once in a while.)

So I am happy to support the myth that we Californians saved Viognier and to ignore the fact that the French started replanting it in its old Rhone homelands at about the same time. And never mind that Viognier has recently become a significant variety in the expanded and upgraded winegrowing regions of Languedoc and Roussillon in the South of France.

California's latest grape acreage survey reports almost 1,500 acres of Viognier. Back in 1990, when I first tasted the available bottlings (six, at the time), there were 50 acres and only 11 were old enough to bear fruit. Viognier has come a long way from its near demise and, myth or not, I think we Californians share in its recovery.//might want to consider cutting here. This point was made twice above--mef//

Despite the recovery, there is still not all that much Viognier, and in my latest go-round with 20 recent releases, only a handful emerged whose quality and price earn them mention here. That is why you will find a bunch of Chardonnays also recommended.

Why not pick up a couple of each and try them side by side? Both grapes make full-bodied, flavorful wines, yet they are very different, as the descriptions that follow will attest.

VIOGNIER

* 1998 Castle Vineyards, California, $16. Who couldn't love this succulent wine's wildflower perfume and its rich, ripe, outgoing flavors of peach and fresh grapes? These attractions all but hide a minor note of heat that creeps into the long, tasty finish. Drink this one now while its luscious fruit holds center stage.

* * 1999 Equus, Central Coast, $20. This lovely wine from Wild Horse Winery captures all the prettiness of Viognier's aromas of jasmine, lemon blossoms and sweet pea and its elegant honey and fig flavors. It is full in body and firmly structured and, if it shows the typical prettiness of California Viogniers, it also has some of the sturdier underpinnings of its French peers.

$ * 1998 Martine's Wines, California, $11. Martine Saunier is an importer-distributor here in California. The only wine she offers under her own label is Viognier, and she sells it at an entirely inviting price. Its medium-intensity aromas and wide-open flavors are filled with honeysuckle and sweet melon fruitiness, making it one to remember as an aperitif.

* * 1999 Miner Vineyards, California, $20. Frankly, I was fooled by the fruity but somewhat simple aromas of this young wine, because it turns out to be about as deep and balanced in the mouth as Viognier can get. It is full in body, and its bright, rich flavors combine suggestions of melon, peach and creme caramel. It can only get better over the next couple of years, making it an ideal candidate for either your table or your cellar.

* * 1998 Vinum Cellars "Vista Verde Vineyard," San Benito County, $20. Generosity and range are the hallmarks of this complex wine, the first effort from a promising new producer. Its ripe peach and broad, sweet smells reminiscent of jasmine are filled out by hints of creme caramel and roasted grain. It is fleshy and substantial in texture, and its vibrant, deep flavors fill the palate from start to a stunningly long finish.

CHARDONNAY

$ * 1998 Boyer Wines, Monterey County, $15. Rick Boyer makes a bit of Chardonnay up there in Monterey County, and he has been doing it pretty well for some time now, but somehow the world has not beaten a path to his door. His latest is a bright, fruity, lively wine in which green apple and sweet lemon fruit is played off against enriching notes of oak and roasted grain. Brisk acidity enlivens the finish and makes the wine a fine choice for pairing with shellfish.

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