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Finally, a worthy rival to Chardonnay.

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Viognier comes in all shapes and sizes, as these five examples
from the USA, France and Australia (all reviewed here) show.
There is a wine-drinking club out there to which no formal membership is required. It's known as the ABC crowd: Anything But Chardonnay. ABCers view Chardonnay the way Mac users do Microsoft's Windows, as a substandard product that has succeeded through homogenization rather than innovation, a wine people drink because it's the wine other people drink.

It's true that Chardonnay, especially the over-oaked Californian kind, casts such a dominant shadow over the whole wide world of white wine drinking that many of its adherents literally cannot see anything else out there. But there are many good reasons for Chardonnay's dominance: it grows easily across different climates, produces high yields, works wonders with a variety of foods and yet equally well on its own, withstands oak treatment and, in the case of the best Burgundy (and certain Californian and Australian bottlings), produces white wine as fine as any in the world.

Chardonnay also dominates because its familiar rivals simply don't pack the same punch. Sauvignon Blanc is delightfully refreshing, a great food wine too, but it's more subtle in its complexities, less likely to hit you over the head with an oak barrel. Pinot Grigio and Semillon win praise but few loyalists for similar reasons. Chenin Blanc is too mineral for many; Riesling too light and often too sweet for others. And then how many people really know the difference between Vermentino and Verdicchio, or Marsanne and Roussanne? Who can pronounce, let alone spell, Gewurtztraminer?

Yet there does exist a grape to rival Chardonnay for taste, finesse, aroma, power, and flexibility. Like Chardonnay, it has its origins in a French appelation, and like Chardonnay before it, that reputation is spreading thanks to the zeal of both new world and less celebrated French wine makers. Next time you're in the mood for a memorable white wine, ask for some Viognier. Depending on your local store, you will be met by either a look of deep confusion, or a conspiratorial smile. Viognier is still something of a secret, but the word is spreading. And so it should be. This wine is too beautiful to keep to oneself.

Describing Viognier draws on all one's literary and poetic skills, which could explain why its popularity is still at cult status. In the glass, it tends to a brilliant and almost golden yellow color, as if contemplating becoming a dessert wine, but its sight is nothing compared to its smell. I compare the aroma to an exquisite and expensive perfume dripped over a dewy bed of spring flowers (honeysuckle is the professional's word of choice, though I like to imagine dandelions and buttercups blowing in the breeze), with apricots and peaches lying alongside in the grass. Tropical fruits often make a cameo appearance to enliven things yet further. The Viognier nose can be, truly, as close to an aphrodisiac as a white wine will get. In fact, in its better examples, it's one of those wines you will hesitate to drink, because you wonder whether the taste can possibly better the gloriously heady aroma.

It can. Good Viognier is full and rich, wonderfully exuberant and powerful; it can be a little oily and waxy, but this is only a detriment if the aforementioned flavors aren't present to begin with. Generally low in acidity, it warrants drinking young (around 1-2 years, drink older Viogniers at your peril), while its fruit is still to the fore, but being high in alcohol (rarely less than 13%) it should be savored slowly. It has the unusual quality of being a dry wine that fakes a certain sweetness (the writer Oz Clarke references "creme fraiche"), which is why the first time I tasted it, at Domaine Les Goubert of Gigondas in the southern Rhone, it was served as the finale, after the strongest of the Domaine's red wines. Rather than walking off with the taste of tannins in my mouth, I left feeling as if I had just polished off a fruit dessert. And I was carrying three bottles of their Cuvee du V to take home with me as well.

Wine purists will want you to know at this point that Viognier actually "belongs" in the minute northern
Rhône appelation of Condrieu (see map), where it is the only permitted grape. (In other words, any bottle labeled Condrieu is guaranteed to be 100% Viognier.) It's true that for at least 2000 years, the grape has been grown there and only there(abouts). It's also true that unless the vignerons of Condrieu had persisted through the dark ages - plantings had shrunk to just 35 acres by 1968 - Viognier would not currently be enjoying its fashionable status. Highly prone to mildew and difficult to vinify at the best of times, the Viognier vines of Condrieu are set on steep terraced hills, where they must battle both tough north winds and frequent soil erosion. They must also be picked when fully ripe, a risky process with any grape. All this makes for low yields that concentrate the grape's already considerable flavor, but also contributes to a rarity matched by price: Condrieu doesn't come any cheaper than $30. And for all its claims to being one of the world's great white wines, Condrieu is notoriously irregular in quality. In addition, its regained popularity has seen plantings shoot up to nearly 300 acres; the combination of young vines, higher yields and new growers further hinders the guarantee of quality in its homeland.

Fortunately, wine-makers from elsewhere in the
Rhône and other parts of southern France, from Australia, from all across the States but especially from Californiar, have decided that such a rich wine is too delightful to be restricted to wealthy people. As plantings spread acros the globe, Viognier is becoming both more available and more affordable. While the downside can already be seen in less concentrated wines from undistinguished producers who mask their inability to tame Viognier's difficult nature with increased oak and acidity, so the bonus is being felt in the number of gorgeous examples around the $15 range.

Viognier is a guilty pleasure; the wine is so rich and generous you don't want to drink it every day, which means Chardonnay doesn't need to look over its shoulder any time soon. Then again, Viognier complements an even great variety of foods than its neighbour from Burgundy: you can put it up against light pastas, rich fish dishes, heavily-spiced Asian meals and delicate fruit desserts and it will work every time.

Viognier also withstands blending well. It shows up as the fragrant component of many a white Cotes du
Rhône; it's an ingredient in my recommended party wine Cotes d'Oakley; it contributes up to 20% of the northern Rhone's venerable red wine Cote Rotie ; Vinum's Pointe Blanc blends it with Chenin Blanc and Roussanne! It may be a fickle grape, but it's a remarkably versatile wine.

We've been drinking significant quantities of Viognier ever since returning from the
Rhône. We've had good experiences with a low-budget Georges Dubeouf from the L'Ardeche, a variety of experiences from California (generally better as we've paid more), a couple more quality Côtes du Rhônes around the $15 price, and a perfectly satisfactory Italian example at the Brooklyn restaurant Al Di La that probably cost the restaurant around $12. We've also drunk Viogniers from no less than three east coast States (New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia) and from Washington State too. It's safe to say the secret is out.

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