Perhaps you've heard of the bar trick where someone is challenged to tell the difference, while blindfolded, between 7Up and Coca Cola. Supposedly, without seeing the color of the soft drinks, one can't tell the difference just by taste.
Some tricksters claim that the same challenge works with aged Cabernet Sauvignon and aged Pinot Noir. In this vinous comparison, some of the flavor and aromatic components that separate the two wines when young fade away, or become similar, with age.
Point being, grapes are grapes, and while there are differences, there are also similarities. A red-on-red challenge is easier than red-on-white, because the chemical makeup of like varieties is more similar.
Take Albarino and Viognier, both white grapes, native to different European regions: Albarino is most common in Spain's Rias Baixas and the Vinho Verde region of northern Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho; in France, Viognier is mainly grown in the northern Rhone and southern Languedoc and there is substantial acreage in Australia and California.
From the 1990s onward, both Albarino and Viognier spread outside of Europe to other worldwide regions, notably Virginia, New Zealand and Argentina.
For many years Spain was known more for red wines than white. The aromatic whites of Galacia were known more in Spain than in export markets. Then, in 1988, Galacia's Rias Baixas was awarded a DO (Spain's denomination of origin) and Albarino soon took the world white wine market by storm.
In a relatively short time, Albarino eclipsed Alvarinho (its Portuguese name) in Portugal's Vinho Verde. Today, Albarino is Spain's fashionable white and vineyard acreage is increasing to keep up with the demand.
Both Albarino and Alvarinho are grown on wire-trained trellises, as well as growing up trees in the fashion that was popular long ago. Modern vineyards sport large canopies, supported on wires, to promote vigor in the hot humid climate.
What does Albarino taste like? Forward fruity aromatics, with apricot and peach scents, bright acidity and traces of spice in the finish. In general, Albarino is lighter with more natural acidity than Viognier.
What tastes good with Albarino? LIghtly chilled Albarino is a great sipping wine and it goes with just about any light food and grilled fish with a fruit salsa and rich shellfish like lobster with drawn butter or a light cream sauce.
Albarino may require a search, but look for these popular brands, priced between $16 and $35: Granbazan, Granja Fillaboa, Santiago Ruiz, Morgadio, Bodega Torgo, Monte Pio, La Cana.
In 2000, there was a spurt of interest for Viognier in California, but growers struggled to keep alcohols in check, while still getting the level of ripeness needed for the variety to show its character.
Australian winemakers were more successful with Viognier and, indeed, continue to focus on it as a major white variety, especially in South Australia, where Yalumba added a string of Viogniers to their line of white wines, based on different growing areas and vineyards. Yalumba's top Viognier, Virgilius is richly aromatic with a hint of ginger and Muscat and a finish at 13% alcohol.
To be sure, Viognier is a well-traveled wine grape. For thousands of years, though, Viognier has been grown in the Rhone Valley of France, the place that most people think of when they think of Viognier.
Condrieu, Cote Rotie and the tiny Chateau Grillet are are all known for Viognier-based wines. Actually, Cote Rotie red may legally add up to 20% Viognier with Syrah. Ch. Grillet, all 7.5 acres of Viognier, is one of France's smallest appellations.
In the northern Rhone, Condrieu is the major producer of Viognier, from more than 500 acres of vines, except for Ch. Grillet, an enclave in the Condrieu appellation.
Yields are low for Condrieu (thus the high prices) and the use of malolactic conversion and oak aging varies considerably.
What does Viognier taste like? Not unlike Albarino, the flavors are peach and apricots with, perhaps, more intensity and depth. Viognier also can show subtle tropical floral scents like jasmine. Acidity is usually low in Viognier, more in the California version than the French.
What tastes good with Viognier? Chicken or lobster in a cream sauce, Indian dishes with exotic spices and any dish seasoned with aromatic herbs like rosemary.
Although Ch. Grillet is priced at $150 for a current vintage and the odd Condrieu breaks $100 a bottle, you can find Condrieu for $50 to $70, including Guigal, Domaine Georges Vernay, Delas Freres.
California Viognier like Pine Ridge, Cline, McManus and Mason Cellars are more modestly priced at about $12.
Viognier and Albarino do share some similarities, but the only trickery is the chemical composition of the grapes. Try the two wines blindfolded and see if you can taste the differences.
Next blog: Classy Grenache
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