Fresh baby spinach, Tibetan goji berries, local Fuji apples, roasted cashews, sweet gorgonzola, pureed black mission figs, purple potatoes, golden beets, spicy French soup onions, whole wheat flour, crimini mushrooms and natural chicken breasts. Laid out on the cooking island like a Kandinsky painting. Waiting to be assembled by hands young and old, with laughter and love. A salad, with the red flesh of poached goji berries, red like raisins on fire. Sweet gorgonzola melted atop crusty bread slices, dripping with fig and balsamic. And then a steaming, savory pie, so modern in its art — with purple atop gold in all its royalty — rested next to the chicken: marsala convection perfection with brown mushrooms piled high. In striking rendition and in ode, 'twas if Wassily Kandinsky's Kleine Welten IV were spread across the table.
The children served the plates — small, medium and large — as fast as I could set them up. And then I poured the wine. To simply match the flavors of this meal would not suffice. The range of colors on the table required more than just a quaffy wine that said “pale yellow” or “straw.” And no ordinary citrusy and fruity wine would do. An omni-directional chardonnay certainly wouldn't do too. What was I to choose?
Luckily, I have a love for the colorful. And viognier is just that. Not just a white wine that has great body, depth, fruit, color, wild aromatics and long history: viognier smells and tastes like the color spectrum in a Kandinsky. White peaches, yellow honey, orange apricots, green kiwis, even the red of strawberry and the purple of lavender, violet and table grapes. In the nose and on the palate, yellow lines intersect with green rings and purple orbs, and with red and pink polka dots, all aiming to the sky.
In its more serious effects, viognier is a very serious wine with a long history and one that had a brush with extinction. It is believed to have been one of the earliest grapes cultivated by the Romans and legend tells of French outlaws called culs de piaux intercepting a cargo ship navigating the Rhone River loaded with the grape headed for Beaujolais. But by the 1980s only 50 acres of viognier grew in France's northern Rhone Valley. Even though in danger of extinction, it had become the official white of the region. They were impressive wines with the look and feel of liquid gold and cashmere — and the smell of exotic perfume — with so much weight, intensity and power while still retaining a fresh acidic zing. Its super ripe fruit is often confused with sweetness. But it is usually always fermented to dryness. Along its path in Condrieu, viognier found its way into the fermenting tank with syrah, where as little as five percent of the white grape and its phenolic compounds bonded with the dark red's anthocyanins, stabilising the wine and giving it that purple/black/blue complexion and floral aroma.
It was also during the ‘80s that winemakers in California (the few that weren't at the chardonnay orgy) began to flirt with the soft skinned wonder. John Alban — believer, pioneer and leader of the group known as the “Rhone Rangers” — more than doubled the world's viognier acreage in one planting in Santa Barbara County's Edna Valley. Here cooling breezes come up the valley from the Pacific, much like the mistral winds temper the warm Mediterranean climate of the Rhone Valley. And in nearby Paso Robles viognier is also the reigning queen, where Austin Hope-former wine maker for Caymus-produces West Side and his own Austin Hope Label, as well as the legendary Treana, produced for many years with his father Charles. The white — and red — blends in the style of the Northern Rhone rank among California's most stunning wines. Belief has its merits, and then some. Hope was named Winemaker of the Year at San Luis Obispo's 2009 Wine Industry Awards for his Rhone varietal wine craft, as well as his commitment to pure farming methods.
Today, you can find the stunning French masterpieces — from bigger labels like Guigal to smaller producers like Villard — for between $50 one $100 per bottle, while those from Alban and Hope will range from twenty to fifty or more.
But if you want a little more modern excitement then see what the new wave of viognier is all about.
For this I call back Cono Sur from Chile's Colchagua Valley. Having starred in one of my columns at the end of last summer, this is a wine for all seasons. And for under $9 a bottle, it is one for everyday too. With the scents of honeysuckle, peaches and curry spices — and the flavors of persimmon, kiwis, oranges and strawberries — it was both cool and crisp, fragrant and warm. This a wine for those in motion. The bicycle on the label is a nod to that, and to my own pedal power. The wine was bright, crisp and delicate with the salad, while it fully embraced the sweet gorgonzola and fig on the crostini. It colored the broad tapestry of the rootsy potato and beet pie with gleeful, sharp and fresh strokes while its sparkle sprayed like golden stars above the earthiness and richness of the mushrooms, chicken and marsala sauce. I don't know of another varietal of wine that could paint this savory of a picture, while bursting with so much delightfully colored fruit.
Don't take my word for it. Pair with shellfish for shine or try with sushi or shashimi (the floral qualities are often very similar to those wafting above a sake cup). Whether sipping Condrieu with wild bird on Thanksgiving or beginning a long fall evening with a cheap Australian, Uruguayen or Chilean, there are many colorful reasons to believe in viognier. I will drink to that. Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org