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Hearing it from the grapevine

Rambling thoughts from the wine world


Hot grape in the city

Viognier (pronounced vee-on-yay) comes in as the hot grape to cool you down this upcoming summer. Originally from the Rhone region of France, it wasn't until recently that winemakers in California woke up and smelled the inherent perfume in this golden, aromatic grape. It's viscous and smooth like a Chardonnay, but less acidic than a Sauvignon Blanc, and oozes 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.

Glut's getting to the growers

There's 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 have patiently waited for California wine prices to come back to earth, but bad news for struggling wineries striving for decent revenues. It's gotten so bad, some wineries have closed their doors. Low-quality vineyards planted in Central Valley during the explosive growth in the '90s are being ripped up. In such a competitive environment, it simply costs too much to upkeep grapes with little to offer.

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. The survival-of-the-fittest circumstances in wine country happen every once in a while -- last time was the late '80s -- so more power to those who can duke it out.

Chards are becoming ...

Since Chardonnay reigns as one of the most widely planted grapes in California, it's a shame people like me have ragged on the buttery, over-oaked California-style. But it was necessary in order to coax the industry to return to the way Chardonnay is supposed to taste. Too many times did I excitedly dive into a Chard, only to find no grape flavor emerged because the wine was overpowered from oak. But, due to the outcry from wine critics and enthusiasts, that's all changing. Lately, Chardonnays with a crisp, flinty character have emerged from wineries wanting to get back to the unadulterated flavor of wine. Hooray.

Up-and-coming areas

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 land has emerged as a powerhouse for flavor, especially their incredible Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Bien Nacido Vineyard. 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 -- the quality of their fruit has magnified gloriously in the past several years. Their secret lies in the sunny location, so the grapes ripen to juicy perfection.

Recommended wines

2001 William Hill Napa Chardonnay ($15) : Clean, steely, flinty Chard without the sensation of sucking on oak bark. Juicy pineapple and other exotic tropical flavors like honeysuckle. Fascinating wine.

2001 Cline Sonoma County Viognier ($18) :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 many Viogniers) but worth every penny since it goes so well with food.

2000 Justin Isosceles ($40) : An outstanding yet delicate blend of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Merlot from Paso Robles, and the fruit just bursts in your mouth. This wine's got some guts to it, but it's also compatible with food.

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