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World-Class White Wine -- From Texas!

This is for white-wine lovers. Have you been looking for something more than the same old chardonnay and sauvignon blanc? Many people treasure the white wines of France's Rhone Valley. Rhone winemakers usually blend a combination of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Rousanne, and Viognier grapes. Such excellent-value wines as E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Blanc ($9) and Perrin Reserve Cotes du Rhone Blanc ($10) are easy to find in local stores and will give you a good idea of the charms of Rhone white wines.

The grape that gives those wines some magic is Viognier (vee-on-yay). It's a tough little grape to grow, but it rewards the vineyard's diligence with intense peach, pear, and apricot aromas and delicious flavors. The best of France's Viognier comes from the Condrieu appellation and is brutally expensive but opulently rich. Decent Condrieus, like Guigal's, start at $35 and a top-notch version like Georges Vernay's starts at $80.

Californians fell for the grape in a big way, and suddenly, everyone was trying to grow it on the West Coast. While a few, like Pepperwood Grove ($7), came up with nice wine at decent prices, most produced flabby wines with too little acid. Adding insult to hubris, some were charging prices in the Condrieu range for their wines.

Which is why I'm so glad to tell you about some world-class wines being grown right here in Texas. Right now, three pioneering wineries are making Viognier that trounce anything I've tried from California. In fact, I would match any of them up against most Condrieus in terms of quality. The good news is that all three are under $20.

The pioneer in Texas Viognier is Becker Vineyards (Stonewall, 830/644-2681, www.beckervineyards.com). In 1997, winery owner Richard Becker was seen dancing on the ceiling when Robert Mondavi bought a 3-liter bottle of Becker Viognier at the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival auction. Every year since, Becker's Viognier has gotten better and better. The new release, from 2002, is hitting the stores right now, and it is the best yet. Bone-dry yet voluptuous with fruit, it's a stunning bargain at $15.

When Mondavi was buying the Becker Viognier, the winemaker at Becker was Jim Johnson, now co-owner and winemaker at Alamosa Wine Cellars (Bend, 915/628-3313, www.alamosawinecellars.com). Jim is a renegade in the wine industry, full of ideas and sure most of them are right. After tasting his wines, you may agree with him. His Viognier drifts closer to the Condrieu style. Cost: $16.

The newest Viognier maker is Driftwood Vineyards (Driftwood, 512/858-4508, www.driftwoodvineyards.com). Owner Gary Elliot has been a ski instructor in Japan, a travel guide through Tibet, and a pilot. Now he and his wife, Kathy, operate a wonderful winery just minutes from Austin. By the way, you'll have to go to the winery to try his Viognier. He makes such a small amount that he's selling all he has just at the winery. The trip is worth it. Elliot's Viognier is changing every time I taste it, sometimes rich and sometimes austere, but always delicious. He has priced his wine at $20 hoping to slow the buying frenzy, but it's still selling fast. Go soon or miss it.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Viognier, Driftwood Vineyards, Robert Mondavi, Becker Vineyards, Alamosa Wine Cellars, Pepperwood Grove

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