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White Wine Grapes - Part 3

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Part 5 in the Series

The Sauvignon Blanc grape produces wines of distinction in most of the areas where it is grown.  It can tolerate greater heat than many varieties.  Sauvignon Blancs are higher in acid and often exhibit 'melon' in the nose and tastes.  If grown in too cool a climate, it can develop an herbal ('grassy') character in its aromas.  Sauvignon Blanc produces large crops and is a low cost variety.

It performs well in the Loire river and Bordeaux regions of France.  Because it can get overpowered by the oak flavors, it is not often aged in wood.  It can gain additional complexity and richness with that treatment.  In the U.S. it is often known as Fume Blanc.  New Zealand is having notable success with this variety and produces wines that have very high levels of acidity.

Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with small amounts of Semillion in order to 'round-out' the taste of the wine.

Sauvignon Blanc is especially good when served with seafood.

Semillon grapes make up 80% of the blend in the most expensive and famous dessert wine in the world, Château d'Yquem. Semillon seems the favorite foil of Botrytis Cinerea, the noble rot which concentrates the sugars and flavors and intensifies the aromas for d'Yquem and the other "late-harvest" dessert wines of Monbazillac and Sauternes. These wines hold up spectacularly in antiquity, unique in the spectrum of unfortified wines.

Consistently productive at six to eight tons per acre and of vigorous vines, semillon is easy to cultivate. It is fairly resistant to common vine diseases, with the notable exception of rot, which most often is hoped to be the noble type and not the destructive strain. This viticultural profile has led to widespread propagation and popularity of semillon vineyards.

While semillon is the majority white variety in Bordeaux, Graves, and Sauternes, more grows in Chile than anywhere else on earth. Early in the viticultural development of Australia, semillon (often incorrectly labeled as Riesling) dominated as the major white variety, although the vineyards are mostly Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc today.

The ripe semillon berry is a rich yellow color at maturity, although increasing sun exposure may turn it amber-pink. In warmer climates, there is always danger of sunburn and raisining. If processed as a dry or semidry table wine, the thin skins and tender, juicy pulp require speedy but gentle handling.

Viognier seemed literally an endangered variety only a few years ago, but seems to be recovering worldwide in both popularity and acreage. Less than 35 acres remained planted in all of France, its homeland, in the late 1960s. Its newest realm, California, has 2,001 acres as of 2002 (although a considerable portion is not yet mature enough to bear a commercial crop) and there are also relatively new plantings in Australia and Brazil, as well as other U.S. plantings in Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

The major drawback of the viognier grape is that it is a very shy producer and somewhat difficult to grow. Although drought tolerant, it is easily infected with powdery mildew in damp conditions or humid climates. Like many other varietals, viognier must be harvested at its peak of maturity in order to display its unique aroma and flavor character. The grape's tendency to develop high sugar but low acid can result in wines with neutral, merely vinous flavors and high alcohol. These cultivation problems and producer desires to capitalize on the grape's somewhat rarity combine to make many Viognier wines relatively expensive.

Probably the main attraction of Viognier is its potentially powerful, rich, and complex aroma that often seems like overripe apricots mixed with orange blossoms or acacia. With as distinctive and sweet an aroma-flavor profile as Gewürztraminer, Viognier is nevertheless usually made in a dry style and seems to appeal more to the typical Chardonnay drinker. The distinctive Viognier perfume holds up even when blended with a large portion of other grapes. The fruit usually has very deep color, but is somewhat low in acidity. As California wineries experiment with Viognier-Chardonnays, Viognier-Chenin Blancs, and Viognier-Colombards, this may be the grape's ultimate destiny, as a blender.

Because the prime appeal of Viognier is its fresh and striking aroma, it is a wine that should be consumed young in most instances. The exception is Château Grillet, where the grapes are harvested early and the wine kept in oak for several months prior to bottling; this wine has a reputation for aging up to two decades.


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