The viognier quandary

Pub date September 5, 2006

The evening’s menu was to include shrimp, marinated in paprika and lemon and grilled on skewers, and the issue was wine, as in: which one?
“I will bring a viognier,” said the imminent guest decisively, as if settling on the prescription to be given for some mysterious ailment.
“Great,” I said, “that should be fine.” Viognier! It would have my vote as the world’s most disappointing white varietal. A few years earlier, at Gary Danko, I’d had a glass of Condrieu — a reputable viognier wine produced in the south of France — and found myself thinking of some high-society type with a slightly shrill voice. The wine seemed thin and glassy, and if that was the best the French could do with viognier, I thought, then it was time to move along.
But I had overlooked the fact that Old World white grapes’ tendency to get big and fat in California might actually be an advantage for some of the emaciated cases. The great French wines made from sauvignon blanc and chardonnay grapes are robust enough despite the cooler weather and chalkier soils over there, and they suffer here, really, from too-plush conditions. But California viognier is a distinct improvement on its Gallic antecedent, if the 2005 Cline bottling brought by the imminent (then actual) guest is to be the basis of our judgment. The wine was rich and weighty, with some floral perfume reminiscent of an Alsatian Riesling’s, along with a slight residual sugariness that brought out the crustacean’s natural sweetness against the smoke of the grill and the bite of the paprika.
“This is really good!” pronounced the sweet tooth, one of whose favorite jokes is to suggest that dinner should begin with dessert. I too thought the wine was lovely, and I was also relieved that the bottle of Chablis I had chilled as a precaution (a première cru from Domaine le Renardière, 2000) would not have to be rushed in on a rescue mission but could appear with leisurely dignity as a kind of Chapter Two, telling its own distinctly different story.
The Chablis was steely, crisp, and dignified, in the high French tradition — a different story indeed — and purely as an enological matter I preferred it. But the viognier matched better with the food on the table, of that there was no doubt, though it was gone by the time dessert finally appeared.