The ABC of white wine

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Pathetically low yields and frustratingly uneven ripening are the keys to why the Viognier grape of Condrieu is too rare and expensive an animal to feature as an everyday alternative to the popular French classics - Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But one grower's nightmare is another's challenge, and producers outside the Rhone are increasingly trying their hand at reproducing the very special fragrance and heady, apricot-like fruit characters typical of the Viognier in its northern Rhone habitat.

The south of France is the place to find good value Viognier, as well as wines made from white Hermitage's Roussanne and Marsanne grapes. You get an inkling of what Viognier's about in Tesco's 1996 Viognier, pounds 4.99, an appetising Languedoc dry white with some of the aroma and peachy fruit flavours of the variety. Much the same goes for Val d'Orbieu's ripe, flavoursome, apricot-like 1996 Viognier, pounds 4.99, Somerfield, made at the Cuxac Co-operative.

Roussanne and Marsanne can be hard to tell apart because they're normally hitched together in the white wines of the northern Rhone. But Roussanne on its own can make a deliciously elegant dry white. Fermentation in oak casks, as in the case of the 1996 Roussanne, Vin de Pays d'Oc Hugh Ryman, pounds 4.75, Waitrose, adds a smoky dimension to the zippy, butterscotch-like flavours. The heavier Marsanne grape has made it, albeit in tiny quantities, to Australia, where, in the 1996 Cranswick Oak Aged Marsanne, Director's Reserve, pounds 4.99, Asda, it produces a rich, toasty white with buttery, smoky bacon-like flavours.

Among the best southern French Viogniers, the 1996 Pech-Celeyran Viognier, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Perignan, pounds 5.95, Adnams, Southwold, Suffolk (01502 727220) is a richly flavoured example of the variety with excellent weight of apricot-like fruit and a refreshing nip of acidity. Close by, on the shores of the Bassin de Thau oyster beds, the 1996 Viognier from the Domaine La Condamine I'Eveque, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Thongue, pounds 6.95, Lea & Sandeman, Fulham, Kensington and Barnes (0171-376 4767) from Guy Bascou, is a delightfully fragrant, almost rose- petal-like Viognier whose rich flavours are neatly defined by a delicate crispness.

A fine example of the variety from the southern Rhone, the 1996 Viognier, Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardeche, pounds 6.79, Bordeaux Direct (0118 947 1144) is lightly smoky from maturation in American oak with sumptuous apricot and nectarine fruit flavours, underscored by an appetisingly tangy finish. And from the Perrin Brothers of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf- du-Pape, Viognier and Marsanne are blended to superb effect with the local Clairette and Bourboulenc grapes to produce a weighty honeysuckle-scented dry white in the 1995 Coudoulet de Beaucastel, Cotes du Rhone, pounds 10.60, Tanners of Shrewsbury (01743 232400).

Viognier has caught on big time in fashion-conscious California, where, as "Vee-Oh-Nyay", it's become the darling of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) enthusiasts. In the hands of producers such as Calera and Alban, it can reach the dizzy heights - and prices - of Condrieu itself. Fetzer, a Mendocino company with a reputation for reasonable prices, has just released a floral 1996 Viognier, pounds 7.49, Oddbins, Waitrose Direct (0800 413 3311), with rich stonefruit flavours and a powerful alcoholic kick. For the real thing, you have to go back to the Viognier's northern Rhone roots, where in Yves Cuilleron's 1996 Condrieu Les Chaillets, pounds 19.99, Oddbins, you'll find all the fragrance, apricoty richness and power of quintessential Viognier

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