If a popular wine requires a pronounceable name, then the prospects for Viognier would seem pretty dim. With so many vowels crowded so close together, Viognier is a lot more challenging to say than Cabernet. Only the savviest oenophiles and the most devoted Francophiles, usually, get the name of this richly textured, extravagantly aromatic Rhône varietal right. Almost everyone else ends up like the customer at Citronelle restaurant in Washington, D.C., who ordered a bottle of Wagner from sommelier Mark Slater, marking perhaps the first time that the German composer has ever been confused with a grape.
And yet Viognier (actually pronounced vee-oh-NYAY) appears to be enjoying a bit of a boom. While it's planted around the world (in France, of course, but also in Australia, Italyand even the states of Virginia and Oregon), it's been getting a lot of attention in California. More wineries there are adding it to their portfolios, and the number of Golden State acres devoted to the grape has grown from 138 (in 1992) to just over 2,000 (as of 2002). It's now cultivated in Napa, Sonoma, the Central Coast and way down in Santa Barbara. It's even planted in Lodi, a heretofore undistinguished region east of San Francisco known as the home of mass-produced wines.
But the most important development of all may be how top sommeliers have been hailing Viognier as a first-rate companion to foodboth the lean, crisp Viogniers and the big, lush varieties, all of which have firm backbones of acidity, rich fruit flavors and exotic aromas of peach, nectarine, apricot, orange peel, honeysuckle and jasmine. In fact, it was from reading wine lists that I first realized California Viognier is (back) in vogue. (There was a short time 10 years ago when Viognier was touted as the next Chardonnay, an idea that owed more to wine marketing than winemaking.) Now Viognier is a restaurant must-have: Belinda Chang, the wine director at San Francisco's Fifth Floor, told me she always has 15 to 20 on her list, while wine director Sam Governale at Atlanta's MidCity Cuisine has 14 on his (outnumbering Pinot Gris and Riesling). On his list at Seablue in Las Vegas, Rajat Parr, the wine director for the Mina restaurant group, calls Viognier "one of the most fashionable grapes in the world"provocative words in a town of high rollers partial to steak and Cabernet. Parr will soon be pouring Viognier by the glass at all of his four restaurants. "I am the ambassador for Viognier," Parr asserted, though he admitted he could use a few fellow diplomats: "A dozen more people who can promote it, and a dozen more who can make it well."