Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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Vexatious Viognier
by Jonathon Alsop
June 1997

I've been harping for a good while now on the mysterious domestic appeal of the highly unlikeable French white grape viognier. California seems to be turning to this grape in a big way lately as "chardonnay-like," but with more class... more perceived class, that is.

Part of the class component comes from how viognier is used in France. Condrieu, which runs upwards of $30 a bottle, is composed almost exclusively of viognier, and the plantings were traditionally so sparse, there were very few moderately-priced examples on the market. Condrieu became the standard for viognier, both in price and quality.

Viognier is only one of many new varietals being cultivated in the US. American wines that were unheard of just a few years ago like syrah, mourvedre and sangiovese are appearing in large numbers. The latest conspiracy theory surrounding this phenomenon holds that vineyard owners have known for years that their crops were doomed by the inevitable creep of phylloxera, a root pest that's poised to wipe out acre after acre in California.

Rather than start a fire-storm over the inevitable, a number of more clever and more threatened wineries supposedly planted and re-planted with grapes that are believed to be highly phylloxera resistant. For example? Super-hearty Italian grapes and country French vines like -- you guessed it -- viognier. Or so the latest grassy knoll theory goes.

Many reports on the Prodigy computer network wine area indicate that California viognier might not be living up to its reputation and price tag (easily in the high teens, often in the twenties). Seems the '92 Calera Viognier, which should still be alive and kicking, has gone south (turned, flipped, bought the farm without getting a receipt, if you please) in a big way. Different schools of thought interpret this change in the wine differently, of course. Some say it's caused by young vines; others insist on smelling rose water and violets.

Personally, the whole thing backs up a story I heard Randall Grahm, wine genius at Bonny Doon, tell a while back. He was talking to one of the ancient French winemakers, and Grahm confessed that he wanted to make a million dollars growing viognier in California. The old guy looked at him and said, "Make the million dollars first." Good advice.

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