New grape in town

No Northwest wine releases are more anticipated than David Lake's "signature" series for Columbia Winery. This spring's issue didn't disappoint. Authorized to craft the very finest wines he can from the finest grapes available, Lake creates wines full of character that beautifully reflect the virtues of each grape variety he essays, be it familiar cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay or varietals newer to the area like sangiovese and cabernet franc. Most interesting in the Lake portfolio may be Lake's first public essay in viognier (v'yown-YAY), a grape almost unknown in the U.S. and not all that common in its native northern Rh�Valley, where it produces some of the noblest (and most expensive) of French white wines. Wine encyclopedist Jancis Robinson speculated a while back that viognier might not seem so impressive grown on alien soil. But Washington's first bottlings by the ever-pioneering Doug McRae, and now Lake's 2000 vintage, indicate that it's not just the C�R�'s crumbling granite soil that give viognier its magic. Lake grapes come from Mike Sauer's legendary Red Willow Vineyard southwest of Yakima. They were grown on two tiny patches of "Chapel Hill," a precipitous jut of lava standing high above a gentler south-facing slope. First yields were so small that Lake fermented them in glass carboys and beer barrels, but enough of the low-yielding vines are now in full production to make 250 cases of wine: a drop in the bucket for Columbia's parent company, Canandaigua, but enough to supply the small circle of wine cognoscenti intensely interested in anything to which Lake sets his hand. I'm not of their expert number, but even for me Lake's viognier is an eye-opener. It's a firm, strong-flavored wine with none of the elusive softness of many whites, and nothing like chardonnay, though its "hardness" is reminiscent of what happens to chardonnay in French chablis. Wine and food fans will spend many happy hours discovering which dishes viognier complements best. My first sips were accompanied by a homemade onion soup with a turkey broth base. The soup and wine didn't clash, but they certainly didn't agree. On the other hand, a chopped vegetable salad, heavy on peppers and dressed in just a little fine balsamic vinegar and olive oil, sang rhapsodies at the wine's caress. Vinegar and wine aren't supposed to get along; raw green pepper is not usually wine- friendly either. This is going to be interesting. A six-course banquet featuring samples of all 12 vintages of Lake's Red Willow Syrah takes place Tues., March 26 at Cascadia. For information and reservations, call 448-8884.

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