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Vivacious Viognier Makes a Splash

Up until only a few years ago, California wine was defined largely by grape varieties from France's two premier regions for dry table wine, Burgundy and Bordeaux. From Bordeaux, we got the red grapes cabernet sauvignon and merlot, as well as sauvignon blanc, a white variety. From Burgundy, we got chardonnay and pinot noir.

In the 1990s, the varietal field has grown more and more crowded, as relatively obscure grapes from Alsace and the Rhone Valley in France, from Italy and Germany and elsewhere have found homes in California. Among the new white varieties, none is more intriguing than viognier (veeoh-nyay).

In fact, viognier isn't new at all. It is responsible for the prized and pricey dry white wines from the tiny Condrieu and infinitesimal Chateau-Grillet appellations in the northern Rhone Valley. The grape is notoriously difficult to grow, but the result is a wine with exotic fruit and floral essences in the bouquet and beautifully subtle flavors on the palate. Except perhaps for gewurztraminer, no other white grape variety produces such a distinctive sensation.

Awhile ago I attended a dinner at Stage Left: An American Cafe, in New Brunswick, where nine viogniers were served--four from France and five from California. The French selection included two bottles from one of the very best producers in Condrieu, Yves Cuilleron, but the California wines were no less impressive. Indeed, my tasting notes for the 1991 Calera viognier include this observation: "One of the best white wines I've ever tried."

A generation ago, viognier, for all its potential to produce great wine, was arguably the most obscure grape variety on earth, at least among the major wine regions. In 1968, according to the "Oxford Companion to Wine" (Oxford, $49.95), there were a total of 35 acres of viognier vines in all of France, which meant in all the world.

In the early 1980s, a handful of California winemakers, led by Josh Jensen of the Calera Wine Co., began experimenting with viognier, planting one or two acres here and there. "Josh was real fond of viognier," recalls Diana Vita, Calera's manager. "He worked in Condrieu and brought some (vine) cuttings back with him."

At the time, fewer than five winemakers in California had ever thought seriously about viognier, Vita said. Since then, the viognier grape has taken off, relatively speaking.

The Wine Institute, the trade group of the California wine industry, reports that as late as 1990, only 50 acres of viognier vines had been planted in California (compared, say, to some 50,000 acres of chardonnay). However, by 1993, the number had grown to more than 160 acres.

Today, Vita estimates, viognier is being made by about 40 wineries in California. "Five years from now, there will be 50 to 60 viogniers on the market," she said.

Viognier is very expensive to grow, partly because it produces little or no usable fruit when the vines are young. As a result, the wines tend to be very expensive. Most of the California labels sell for $20 to $30 a bottle retail. The price range for Condrieu is more like $30 to $50 a bottle.

And since most wineries grow relatively little viognier, the wines can be hard to find. Calera, for example, started out with just two acres of vines. The winery's first commercial vintage, 1988, produced a total of 300 cases - a miniscule amount by California standards. Today, Calera has five acres of viognier and releases about 1,000 cases each year, still a tiny quantity. The winery is already sold out of its 1993 viognier, which was released in May 1994.

Meanwhile, the popularity of viognier has grown in France as well. Today, the Condrieu appellation has about 200 acres under vine, with another six acres in the adjacent appellation of Chateau-Grillet. Among the smallest appellations in France, Chateau-Grillet is what is known as a monopole - a geographically distinct vineyard with a single owner. Chateau-Grillet is by far the most famous viognier and the most expensive, with prices approaching and exceeding $100 a bottle, depending on the vintage.

For pure, eye-popping pleasure, however, it's hard to beat the better California viogniers. I can especially recommend the 1992 R.H. Phillips "EXP," something of a bargain at $15 a bottle; the 1993 La Jotta Vineyard; the 1993 Alban Vineyard, and, above all, whatever vintage of Calera you can lay your hands on.

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