Hot Grape of the Season
Originally from the Rhone region of France, Viognier (VEE o NYAY) is the hot grape to cool you down this summer. Only recently have winemakers in California woken up and smelled the perfume inherent in this better-than-average grape. It's heavy-weighted and smooth like a Chardonnay but less acidic than a Sauvignon Blanc, and oozes a floral character all its own. A few years back, Bonterra Vineyards released a delicious, organic Viognier that made me fall in love with this varietal — and I've been hooked ever since. Add a few to your summer wine rack and see if you love it too.
There are reams of ramblings about the wine glut in California. With new technology, Mother Nature's continual gifts of great weather and a lower-than-expected demand for juice, winemakers have literally tons of excess grapes on their hands. This is great news for consumers who patiently waited for California wine prices to come back to Earth, but bad news for struggling wineries begging for decent revenues. It's gotten so bad that some wineries have closed their doors and low-quality vineyards planted during the explosive growth in the '90s are being ripped up. It simply costs too much to maintain vineyards with little to offer and so much competition.
But even with the apparent slowdown in demand, American consumption rates have climbed from 423-million gallons of table wine in 1990 to 532-million gallons in 2002. In wine country, this survival of the fittest reality test happens every once in awhile — last time was the late 1980s — so more power to those who can duke it out.
Oak is Out
Since Chardonnay reigns as one of the most widely planted grapes in California, it's a shame that people like me have ragged on the buttery, over-oaked California style. But it was needed in order to return it to the way Chardonnay is supposed to taste. Too many times did I excitedly dive into a Chard and — because the wood overpowered the wine — no grape flavor emerged. But that's all changing. The call from the throngs of wine critics and enthusiasts has been heard. Lately, Chardonnays with a crisp, flinty character all their own have emerged from wineries wanting to get back to the unadulterated flavor of wine. Hooray.
Location, Location, Location
You might already know that with real estate and grapes, location is everything. After hundreds of years, Europe figured out which types of grapes grow best in which areas and American winemakers are getting the same education. For instance, Santa Barbara County has emerged as a powerhouse for flavor, especially incredible Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Bien Nacido Vineyard location. Wineries producing amazing wines from Bien Nacido grapes: Testarossa, Qupe, Au Bon Climat, Steele and Villa Mt. Eden. We'll also be seeing more from the Central Coast and Paso Robles because the quality of fruit in these areas has multiplied in the past several years. The secret lies in the grapes getting loads of sun to ripen to juicy perfection.
2001 William Hill Napa Chardonnay Clean, steely, flinty Chard without sucking on oak bits. Juicy pineapple and other exotic tropical flavors like honeysuckle. Fascinating wine. $15. 2001 Cline Sonoma County Viognier Floral and peachy on the nose and follows through with tangy citrus and green apple on the tongue. A bit on the pricey side like most Viogniers, but worth every penny because it goes so well with food. $18. 1/22000 Justin Isosceles An outstanding blend of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Merlot from Paso Robles. The fruit just bursts in your mouth. This wine's got some guts to it, but it's approachable with food. Worth the rather high price. $40.