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Voilà! Viognier
An alternative white melds the floral and fruity, elegant and unctuous

Hey kids, it's time to play the exciting new wine-identification game, "Grape, Barrel or Rock?"

Here's how it works. First, I give you an unpronounceable French word. Then, you tell me if it is 1) a grape, 2) a type of dirt, 3) a species of oak, 4) an obscure village set in picturesque wine country or 5) a name that some marketing maven has completely made up, like Zorkotox.

Ready? Here we go! Today's wine word is viognier. Pronounced VEE-own-yay. And if you guessed it's a type of grape, go to the head of the class. Because viognier is about the hippest, coolest white-wine grape around.

Just a few years ago, viognier became the fashion-forward darling of American winemakers grown tired of making fat, oaky chardonnays. They wanted white-wine alternatives, but when they looked around, there weren't any sure-fire consumer-pleasers. Riesling is too sweet for some folks and carries an unfortunate cheap image. Gew¸rztraminer doesn't exactly roll on or off the tongue; and sauvignon blanc, though I love it, strikes many as too grassy.

Well, how about viognier? There's a lot to recommend it. It's originally from the Rhone, like syrah. It's best when fermented and aged in stainless steel, so there are no costly barrels to buy. It strikes a neat flavor chord composed of citrus blossom, vivid peach and tangerine, and a tangy, textured elegance. Viognier even sounds a bit like char-dough-nay.

So growers began growing it, and wineries up and down the West Coast began making it. What started as a curiosity on the occasional hip-restaurant wine list soon became a minor flood, inundating the "Whazzat?" section of your supermarket wine department, and spreading confusion in its wake.

Viognier has its problems, and they start in the vineyard. The grape is finicky. If it is planted in a hot site and allowed to ripen too long, it makes a fat, oily and alcoholic wine, a syrupy shadow of itself. If it's picked too early, or planted in a site that's a touch too cool, it turns into bitter lemon juice. Putting it into new oak makes it taste like watered-down chardonnay.

So vee-own-yay can be a bit of a pain-in-the-A. Yet, it can claim greatness. A teeny-tiny appellation in the Rhone Valley called Condrieu contained, as recently as 40 years ago, virtually all the viognier vines left in the world. Back then, fewer than 20 acres of viognier vines were growing in Condrieu. Practically nobody had heard of it, but those who tasted Condrieu seemed to agree it was wonderful — a beguiling, exotic melding of opposites, intensely floral and richly fruity; delicately elegant and ripely unctuous.

Eventually, a few curious souls began growing it over here. Josh Jensen was one; his Calera viognier is still one of the very best from California. So, how do you find the good stuff? Here's a short course on viognier, what to look for and what to avoid.

First, check out where it comes from. Most of the really good viogniers are out of California, particularly from Central Coast and Sonoma vineyards. Oregon, at least in my experience, does not do well with the grape; the ones I've tasted have been overripe, alcoholic and sometimes bitter. Washington shows good potential, but the track record is hit and miss. Some are too hot, some too thin, and some, unfortunately, have been put in new oak barrels, which destroys the character of the grape.

The best American viogniers are light on their feet. The fruit should be lively and complex, ranging through flavors of pear, peach, apricot, pineapple and citrus, especially lime. The best viogniers have a wonderful texture, a creaminess suggestive of mineral or stone. They should be drunk young and slightly chilled — about 15 minutes in the fridge is perfect. They make fine aperitifs, or main-meal accompaniments to pasta in white sauce, Dungeness crab, seafood and poultry. Try them with spicy Asian cuisine if you are feeling adventurous.

The main obstacle to viognier becoming more popular is its pricing. The really good ones almost always sell for $25 and up. Out of the dozens I have tasted in recent weeks, quite a few had wonderful flavors. Rated on that basis alone, regardless of cost, I can happily recommend Calera's 2001 Mount Harlan Viognier ($36), Jade Mountain's 2001 Paras Vineyard Viognier ($30), Westerly Vineyard's 2001 Santa Ynez Valley Viognier ($28), Kunin Wines 2001 Stolpman Vineyards Viognier ($28), Qupé's glorious 2001 Ibarra-Young Vineyard Viognier ($25), a wonderful, vivid, grapefruity 2000 Geyser Peak Block Collection Alexander Valley Viognier, and Freemark Abbey's 2000 Carpy Ranch Napa Valley Viognier.

Value viogniers are far more difficult to find. I have enjoyed some decent, mid-priced ($15 or so) bottles from Rosenblum and Hogue. La Crema's 2000 Sonoma Valley Viognier ($18) captures some of the creamy freshness of the grape. An even better buy is Montpellier's 2000 Viognier, with light citrus fruit showing hints of blossom and a pleasing crispness to the finish. At $7 a bottle, it stands alone among the value players.

Here in Washington, far too many viogniers costing $20 and up are simply clumsy, bitter, alcoholic and often oaky. But when Washington vintners get it right, the results are magic. The 2001 Rulo Walla Walla Valley Viognier ($18) captures everything elusive and appealing about the grape, including the pleasing concentration of flavors in the back of the throat and the textured finish that has the "wooliness" of semillon and the creamy minerality of a good French chablis. Bravo, Rulo. Go to the head of the glass!

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines" and a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached at via e-mail. Susan Jouflas is a Seattle Times news artist.

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