Grapes Go Incognito

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my friend chris looked up from his glass of yellowtail chardonnay (which i did not buy). he squinted at me, pointed and creaked out, "i think you wine people are totally full of bs."

to his surprise, i nodded and replied, "yeah, your pretty right on...mostly."

"i mean," he said, holding up his plastic piece of stemware as though it were a specimen, "the ad said 'bursting with tropical fruit...mangos, papaya and pineapple.' tastes like wine to me."

in my opinion, if his glass of yellowtail actually tasted like wine, he was lucky. i knew his frustration, though. the whole idea of wine tasting like exotic fruits (and sometimes vegetables) has been a marketing technique for decades. very rarely does it ever pan out, though. there are a few grapes, however, that provide that honest to goodness, "i can't believe this actually tastes like what they said it would," experience, time and time again.

the next time my friend chris came over, i had a bottle ready for him. he rolled up with a magnum of vendage, which i grimaced at.

"come on," he said, "it's cheap!"

"so is this," i replied, handing him a bottle of viognier.

originally most popular for blending in the southern rhone valley, the viognier (pronounced vee-oh-nyay) grape is bursting with tropical fruit flavors. no, really, i promise, it is! this is not just overly ornate robert parker-speak. viognier is one of the most naturally full-bodied and expressive grapes for making wine that there is. the cost also tends to be a little lower because not as many people know about this fantastic wine, and there's no need to bolster its flavor with expensive oak casks for fermenting or aging.

also, now that we're getting into the cooler months of the year, those of us who drink white wine can enjoy viognier because it's a little fuller bodied. it can do the job of a big, bad napa-style chardonnay, but without the price tag or the oaky, buttery finish.

one of my favorite viogniers is the santa julia viognier 2008 ($9.95 @ sherry-lehman, 505 park ave. betw. 59th and 60th, 212-838-7500). this wine is from one of the best countries on earth for great value, high-quality wines: argentina. the hearty viognier grape thrives in the sun here and truly does (i promise) taste like ripe tropical fruit. specifically, overtones of pineapple and papaya on the nose and tons of mango and melon notes on the finish. if this doesn't transport you south of the border, then turn in your passport.

another great viognier, this time from the states, is california's cline viognier 2007($11.99 @ beacon wines and spirits, 2120 broadway betw. 74th and 75th, 212-877-0028). this time, california shines with this less robust, but extremely fruit forward offering. the tropical fruit is still there with the signature viognier mango and wildflower scent, but the palate is a bit smoother. there are overripe orange, honey and passion-fruit flavors all mingling together in one very intense glassful.

if you want to get a taste of the old school, and not stay with a 100 percent viognier, the paul jaboulet parallele 45 blanc 2006 ($10.99 @ astor wines, 399 lafayette st. @ 4th, 212-674-7500) is a terrific example. less fruit forward, but much more complex, this wine is actually a blend of grenache blanc, marsanne, viognier and bourboulenc. it is more floral than fruity, although there is more than enough orange marmalade and papaya flavor for any fruit junky. it is also an amazing wine to pair with any rich seafood dish at a fraction of what a white burgundy would cost.

after my dissertation, i poured a glass of the santa julia for chris and he stared at me.

"what?" i said.

"aren't you going to tell me what i'm supposed to taste?"

"i don't think i'll have to."

chris knocked back half the glass in a gulp. when he came up for air, his eyes were wide with wonderment and a smile stretched across his face.

"fruit!" he cried.

"my sentiments exactly."


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