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Monday, April 5, 2010

The Twisted V

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Viognier is a notoriously tough grape to grow. One theory about the name of the grape is that because of low yields and susceptibility to mildew, "Viognier" is actually a modification of the Latin "via Gehennae"—which means "road to hell." Modern winemaking techniques have improved the production of the varietal, but it's still relatively low on the global production totem pole. Viognier is beginning to be grown more widely—the U.S., Argentina, and Australia being the largest producers outside of France. Since the grape's yield is low, high quality Viognier (and thus blends containing it) tend to be a little more expensive.

Viognier is most well knows as a component in many of France's Rhone wines. In the northern Rhone, Viognier is largely grown as a single varietal or is used as a stabilizing agent for the color in Northern Rhone reds, which are almost always Syrah dominant. In the southern Rhone, Viognier is almost exclusively used as a blending grape in whites from there, usually as a complement to grapes such as Roussane, Marsanne, Clairette, and Grenache Blanc. For instance, the Domaine Mirelle & Vincent 2007 Cotes-du-Rhone ($13-15) is made all of the above except the Grenache—and contains about 10% Viognier. It's a very well-balanced, minerally white with an interesting earthy flavor that makes it a nice pairing with any kind of roasted veggies or just to enjoy.

In the previous Viognier column, I focused on tasting single varietal Viognier. Honestly, I'm not as much of a fan of "pure" Viognier as I am other varietals (although if I started regularly drinking Condrieu, a high end northern Rhone Viognier, I might change my mind...). I think it's a great companion grape. When properly blended, Viognier can contribute to the creation of some really interesting wines.

At least for right now, the preponderance of these Viognier heavy blends seem to come out of Australia. The Ozzies love their blends, and they're also best known worldwide for Shiraz. It would logically follow that they'd try to experiment with the synergy that the French discovered. The blend is usually only with one other grape -- rather than the multi-grape mishmashes in the Rhone.

When blended, Viognier tends to both tone down the juiciness of the traditional fruit bomb that can be Australian Shiraz. The intensely aromatic nature of Viognier also adds a forward floral nose of its own and deepens many of the existing flavors and scents of the red. It also adds a little acidity to the finish to balance the tannins. A couple of examples I've had lately are the Woop Woop "The Black Chook" 2006 Shiraz/Viognier ($15-18) and the d'Arenberg 2006 "The Laughing Magpie" Shiraz/Viognier ($20-25).

The Black Chook ("Chook" is Australian for "chicken") is a big, full flavored wine that's excellent for drinking on its own some evening when you want a hearty red. It's fruit-forward and powerful without being cloyingly pop-tartish. There's a really interesting smoky flavor to it that makes it line up almost perfectly with dark chocolate. The Laughing Magpie is a little more nuanced, although it's certainly bold like the shiraz-dominant blend that it is. It's got a perfumey nose from the Viognier with a strong scent of blooming lilacs (which I personally love). There are flavors of plums and nectarines heading off in every drirection with a little bit of a chalky note. Finish is only a little fruity, but very long with soft tannin and a slight acidity that continues for well over a minute. I had this with marinated, grilled lamb chops and wilted spinach. With the lamb, the flavors brought out the herbs in the marinade I was using—especially the rosemary and thyme. The minerally tone also let it work with the spinach, which can ordinarily be a real wine killer.

On the white side of the fence, staying with our friends at d'Arenberg, I had their 2008 "The Hermit Crab" Adelaide Viognier/Marsanne. (Don't you love the names of Australian wines?) The Hermit Crab, so named because this is similar to the dominant blend in white Hermitage, wasn't as fragrant as I initially expected. Viognier and Marsanne are aromatic varietals, but their combination here is light, floral, and a little citrusy. It's fruitier than I expected as well with lots of apricot and ginger. It's not as dry as a lot of straight Viogniers, finishing up with a refreshing hint of sweet and some solid acidity. In general, flavorful, tasty, and great to drink on its own. It would also be a winner with some good spicy foods. $15.

In the US, you'll typically see Viognier as a single varietal, although the "Rhone Rangers," a group of winemakers largely from the Central Coast region of California who focus on Rhone varietals, have also done some experiments with red blends that include Viognier. They tend to be fairly pricey, but when done well, they're absolutely dynamite. For instance, the Ridge 2005 Lytton Ridge Syrah fits the bill. It's around 80% syrah, but the 20% of makes this a fascinating blend. The nose is wonderful. The big, plummy scents are there as you'd expect, but so is an appley note along with the traditional Viognier floweriness. The body is medium on its face, but I think the viognier gives the wine length without it simply coating the inside of your mouth. The finish is full, tannic, and extremely tasty. It's around $28, but it's a really nice, showy wine if you need to impress.

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