Friday, March 20, 2009

Party with the "V" -- Viognier

Viognier. It just sounds cool.

Of course, you need to know how to say it first. I know I went an embarrassingly long time calling it something like "veeYAWGnyur." (All of the people who heard me do so have been properly paid off or disposed of...) For the record, it's vee-OHN-yay, and dropping the varietal name appropriately immediately raises your wine cred.

So what the heck is it?

Viognier is a white wine grape. Until recently, it was a particularly rare grape. The varietal almost became extinct in the mid 60's. It's enjoyed a resurgence as the general worldwide demand for wine increased and folks wanted something a little different from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

France, not surprisingly, is best known for Viognier. Viognier thrives in the northern Rhone. Many Rhone wines, including Rhone reds, contain at least some viognier. As a bonus, part of the chemical composition of Viognier stabilizes the color in red wine; so many winemakers use it in their red blends. Viognier is also grown in Languedoc, where it is usually produced as a vin de pays. (That's French WineSpeak for "the quality level right above table wine.") The U.S. and Australia are growing more and more Viognier, and South America has considerable plantings of the grape already.

On its own, Viognier produces an extremely fragrant, floral wine. These wines vary in style from bone-dry to somewhat sweet but are always extremely aromatic. As a blending grape, adding Viognier tends to act as adding a pinch of salt to some foods -- the aromas of a wine with even a small amount of viognier in the blend become amplified and much more "forward." Viognier is a tricky grape to grow, and it's also tricky to make, so some of them can be quite pricey. Cheap Viognier can often have a bit of an "oily" characteristic -- which is often masked by a winemaker making the wine overly sweet. There are some good ones that are relatively inexpensive, and ask for recommendations if in doubt.

Viognier's aromatic nature makes it a good choice as a food wine to pair with spicy Thai or Vietnamese cuisine. (Many of the same chemicals found in the bouquet of Viognier are also in Riesling.) It also pairs with stinky cheeses, but the Thai option piqued my interest. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I decided that we'd do a side-by-side-by-side with a spicy chicken green curry that we whipped up.

Here's what we were pouring.

Domaine de Mont-Auriol 2006 Languedoc Viognier ($9-11)
Renwood 2006 Lodi Viognier ($7-10)
Alamos 2007 Viognier ($8-12)

(These wines are from France, California, and Argentina respectively...)

The Mont-Auriol started off with a strong nose of flowers, pears, and minerals. It has a slightly alkaline (a bit of that "oily" above) mouthfeel. It was dry and minerally, with a finish that was dry and a little bit smoky. "A Viognier I could drink by the pool," commented the SPinC. As it warmed a bit, the oiliness disappeared from the flavor. It only needed a slight chill.

The Alamos had a softer scent than the French wine. Certainly not minerally, and considerably more fruity. The flavor was much more delicate -- peaches and a little bit of chalky minerality. The finish was light, dry, and minerally. Definitely a lighter wine to drink on its own, and not as interesting.

The Renwood had the strongest scent of the three. Peaches and flowers leap out of the glass. It had a fuller body with a slightly sweeter taste. The mineral taste was the weakest of the three, and the fruit was the strongest. The finish was soft and slightly sweet.

We dished up the curry over some basmati rice and gave the three of them another try. The French wine did not fare well. It became much more pungent, almost unpleasant, with this particular pairing. The Alamos, by contrast, really took off when paired up with the curry. The flavors of both the food and wine became much stronger and more interesting. The Renwood didn't do much at all. It was a decent accompaniment, nothing more.

We also discovered that the French wine had a bit of a "window" in which it was tasty. Too cold, and the flavors get lost and the aroma's not as nice. As the evening went along and it warmed up, it became much, much less palatable. We couldn't say the same with either the Argentinean or American wines, which were flavorful even with only a slight chill.

Viognier certainly isn't a wine for everyone. I know a number of people who simply can't stand the stuff -- the contrast between the scent and the flavor is just too much for them. I personally like it for a change of pace. It's definitely a wine worth trying, if just to contrast it...with just about everything else!

(Personal note -- this column goes out to my old friend Orin, one of the purveyors of -- one of the best women's basketball fan sites on the net...)

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