I like Chardonnay as much as the next guy. Maybe a little more. But the fact remains that variety is the spice of life, so I'm always on the lookout for wines that are a bit on the obscure side. In many cases, it turns out that obscure wines deserve their obscurity, but that isn't true for Viognier from California. After a decade of steady improvement, Viognier is now one of California's strongest wines.
Nevertheless, it remains obscure, and few consumers even know how to pronounce its name ("VEE-own-yay"). A main reason it is so little known is that it came here from one of France's smallest appellations, Condrieu in the northern Rhone Valley. With neither a famous Old World forebear nor plantings of any consequence (only 11 acres in 1990), California Viognier has essentially started from scratch in the current decade.
In effect, this means that every bottle of California Viognier should still be considered part of an experimental project, which makes the strong performance of the wines all the more remarkable. Almost every current release displays lovely aromas of peaches and fresh flowers, along with outstanding richness and depth of flavor. This is an unusual combination of attributes, since most aromatic whites lack richness, and most rich whites lack penetrating aromas. Viognier can therefore offer satisfaction to those who love big, weighty Chardonnay while also satisfying lovers of perfumed wines like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.
Not surprisingly, there are still some problems. Growers continue to suffer inconsistent crop yields, and it has proved necessary to get Viognier grapes extremely ripe to attain the aromas for which they are prized. This isn't terribly difficult in most California vineyards, but once these very ripe grapes are fully fermented, the resulting wines are often whoppingly alcoholic.
This can impair their longevity and impart a "hot" aftertaste, so some producers have found it necessary to physically remove alcohol by means of a device called a "spinning cone." Spinning cones are extremely expensive machines owned by just a handful of companies, so using one typically requires that the wine be pumped into a truck for transport to a remote site. All this jostling of a young wine imperils its quality while also adding considerably to the price of the finished product. And even when a spinning cone isn't brought into play, Viognier is still pretty pricey due to its rarity and the uncertainties of its performance in the vineyard.
Since Viognier is still so new to California wineries, there is also a lack of consensus on how the wine should be styled. The most evident disparity involves the use of oak barrels for fermentation and/or aging. Most producers favor stainless steel, which maximizes freshness and varietal aroma, but others choose the grip and tannic structure lent by new oak. My strong preference is for the steel method, since I believe Viognier's best attribute--its aroma--is masked by the smell of wood. Nevertheless, woody Viogniers can still be very appealing, as is shown by the Beringer and Cline bottlings recommended below.
If you have not yet tasted one of these wines, it's time to take the plunge. Be careful to choose a fresh bottle, since Viognier loses its charm quickly. To my taste, 1996 releases are already too old. Recommended wines are listed in order of preference, with D.C. wholesalers and approximate prices indicated in parentheses:
Joseph Phelps Vineyards Napa Valley "Vin du Mistral" 1997 ($30): Seamless and perfectly integrated, with luscious flavors and a great finish. (Forman)
Domaine de la Terre Rouge Shennandoah Valley 1998 ($30): Fantastic fresh aromas and deeply satisfying flavors. (Kysela)
Callaway Vineyard Temecula 1998 ($17): Bright and refreshing but still rich and substantial. (Washington Wholesale)
Fess Parker Winery Santa Barbara County 1997 ($20): Impressively complete and well balanced, with fine aromas and full flavor. (DOPS)
Rabbit Ridge Vineyards California 1998 ($16.50): Juicy and bright, with very fresh fruit. (Constantine)
Beringer Vineyards Napa Valley 1997 ($18): Strongly oaked but still fruity and well proportioned. (Washington Wholesale)
Jaffurs Wine Cellars Santa Barbara County 1997 ($24): Atypically zesty, with strong citrus notes. (Wine Source)
Cline Cellars Carneros 1997 ($17): Excellent balance and symmetry, with well-integrated oak. (Bacchus)
Bonterra Vineyards North Coast 1997 ($21): Subtle and deftly balanced, with delicate aromas and delicious fruit. (Washington Wholesale)
Michael Franz will be answering questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.