FOOD & DRINK / A great French grape escape: The Viognier is sprouting as far as California. It makes a delicious wine, says Kathryn McWhirter

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The Independent Culture
DRIVE no faster than 60mph in California, and you should be safe from highway patrols. You can also admire the scenery - and the slogans. 'Drink Viognier', reads the sticker on the rear bumper of the car in front. Viognier? Whatever is that?

Well, the driver is clearly an enlightened and wealthy wine buff. Enlightened because the Viognier is one of the world's finest white wine grapes. Wealthy because the American, as well as the traditional Rhone, version of this delicious dry white costs pounds 15 and upwards per bottle. He is also a member, no doubt, of the Viognier Guild. This, in the words of Mat Garretson, the founder, is a new States-wide association of 'growers, producers and enthusiasts who, in a Chardonnay world, are determined to pursue something decidedly better'.

Whether Viognier really is better than Chardonnay is open to question. Unlike Chardonnay or Riesling, it is not a wine that gains complexity with age. The finest are best drunk in two to four years, lesser ones within one or two. But even in its youth, Viognier is already complex and characterful, and an ideal alternative for any Chardonnay lover developing a seven-year itch. Viognier wines are aromatic, but in a much subtler way than better-known aromatic grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc or Gewurztraminer - a lush blend of musk, fresh apricots, peaches and blossom. And they can be as rich as the fattest Chardonnays.

The American versions are still expensive rarities and very much on ration (Britain gets 10 cases a year of Calera Viognier, one of the finest). But winemakers there bill it as 'the next boom'. Already there is more Viognier in California than in the vine's traditional stronghold of the northern Rhone. Nearly 200 acres of Viognier have been planted in the United States during the past 10 years, and one vine nursery claims to have sold 300 acres-worth of fledgeling Viognier last year alone - despite the fact that it is finicky to grow and produces mingy yields.

Suddenly Viognier seems to have become flavour of the moment in southern France as well. Viognier vines were once confined to the terraces of the tiny appellations of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet overlooking the northern Rhone. In 1980, there were no more than 75 acres of the grape planted worldwide. Now it is beginning to sprout all over the South of France. The good Viognier wines are excellent value at pounds 4 to pounds 11.

'The Viognier had become something of a myth,' says Georges Duboeuf, a producer of quality Beaujolais. He will reap his first proper harvest this autumn from nearly 400 acres of Viognier vineyard in the Ardeche, farmed by growers who have agreed to plant for and sell to him. The big firm of Skalli, specialists in southern French varietal wines, has an excellent 1992 Viognier, also blended from the vineyards of contracted growers and due to arrive in Thresher and Victoria Wine later this summer. Tesco has a superb one, made in Languedoc by Bordeaux gurus.

There has been a revival in Condrieu, too. Thirty years ago there remained only 20 acres of vines in Condrieu. Wine buffs started to buy, and now the vineyard is eight times that size. Condrieu wines can have wonderful flavours and superb richness that justify high prices.

VIOGNIER AT ITS BEST

****1992 Condrieu Georges Vernay ( pounds 18.75 Yapp Bros of Mere, Dorset). A lighter style than most Condrieu, with subtle apple, apricot and almond flavours.

****1991 Joseph Phelps Vin du Mistral Viognier, California ( pounds 16.95 Les Amis du Vin at Chiltern Street, London W1). Ripely fruity and lightly oaky, with almond and cooked apricot flavours.

****1989 Condrieu Coteau de Chery, Andre Perret ( pounds 18.90 Mayor Sworder of London SE11, also by mail order). Rich and musky, full of complex flavours of honey, apricots and peaches.

****1991 Condrieu Domaine du Chene ( pounds 17.99 Bottoms Up, Wine Rack). Very full and extremely fruity, with lovely, musky flavours of apricot, peach and almond.

***1992 Tesco International Winemaker Viognier, Vin de Pays d'Oc ( pounds 5.49 Tesco). The star buy, rich but subtle, musky, apricotty, fresh and delicious.

***1992 Cepage Viognier, Georges Vernay ( pounds 11.25 Yapp Brothers of Mere, Dorset). Flowery aroma and flavours of pear, marmalade and violet cachous.

***1992 Viognier Pech Celeyran, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Perignan ( pounds 6.95 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk, also by mail order). Delicately fragrant, fresh and apricotty.

***1991 Condrieu Coteau de Chery, Andre Perret ( pounds 16.95 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk). Ripe apricot and herb and ginger flavours.

***1990 Condrieu Clos Chanson, Andre Perret ( pounds 16.94 Mayor Sworder of London SE11, also by mail order). Less aromatic than Perret's other wines above, but still very good, full, rich and musky.

**1992 Viognier Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardeche, Producteurs Reunis de l'Ardeche ( pounds 4.89 William Low). Lively and fruity, with flavours of musky almond and apricot.

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