A Sure Thing

One unexpectedly fine bottle of wine might be a fluke; two could be just luck; but when I hit three or more in a row, I'm ready to place my bets. Ladies and gentlemen, if you missed out on merlot, if you didn't spot syrah, take it from me: Put your shirt on viognier. I don't mean buy a vineyard and plant viognier. Even though it's the grape variety responsible for the glorious, mouth-filling, perfumed white wines of the northern Rh� its vine is so undependable and high maintenance a producer that French growers were actually pulling up old plantings until its price per bottle got so high ($50 and up) that taking a little trouble started to seem worthwhile. Around then (1995 or so), a little trouble started seeming worthwhile here in Washington state, too. Hogue Cellars put in four acres in 1998 and contracts with other growers for another 10; Goose Ridge Vineyards' Glen Ward has another 18 acres under contract to Columbia Crest. Altogether, Washington growers have upward of 60 acres of viognier in the ground, putting the grape on the verge of market significance. Why take a chance on such a skittish jade of a grape? One reason is that in Washington, it doesn't seem to be as skittish as it is back home; Washington Hills' Brian Carter says developing grapes on his vines need to be thinned two or three times before harvest to prevent overproduction (which makes for thin, uninteresting juice) and encourage even ripening. But he still gets up to 3.5 tons of fruit per acre: twice as much as in even a good year on the northern Rh� But the main reason for coping with viognier is its remarkably individual flavor and aroma balance. The bouquet's fruity, not floral, reminiscent of ripe stone fruit, leading you to anticipate a juicy kind of wine. On the palate, though, viognier isn't sweet at all; stony, rather, but not hard stone like a bone-dry chablis—more limestony, with a hint of the refreshing mineraly tang of Perrier, another precious fluid from the south of France. In France most connoisseurs consider viognier- based wines something to be savored on their own. Washington seems to produce a more food-friendly version, which makes viogniers a godsend for the ABC (anything but chardonnay) crowd. But Washington viogniers have enough character and complexity to make them good drinking on their own as well. Best of all, nobody yet has been tempted to oak one within an inch of its life. No need to; the grape is interesting on its own, which sure is not the case with American chardonnays. With such limited production, Washington viogniers aren't cheap, but you won't bust your wallet sampling some either: Hogue Cellars' superb Genesis bottling runs about $16; Waterbrook's $19 to $20; Bridgman's, McCrea (also a humdinger), and Columbia's a little higher. Priciest so far is Cayuse's, pushing $30; but then Cayuse's Christophe Baron thinks viognier will always be a niche wine, appealing more to wine buffs than the mass market. For my sake and yours, I hope he's wrong. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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