Sep 2, 200912:00 AM
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The ABCs of white wine
Lately, people are moving past chardonnays to other, more complex varieties of white wines.
Photo courtesy of Tim McNally
All of us are firm believers in the basic truth that we should really drink what we like and not be bullied into thinking that we are supposed to like something merely because someone tells us it’s good –– we do all believe that, don’t we?
It certainly is a good idea to “taste around” and try new flavors. It does not mean we have to like all of them. In fact, everyone liking everything sounds like a boring world.
To this very point, chardonnay is a most interesting wine, with many different styles from which to choose. There are those, and you know who you are, who continue to like the big, oaky, even buttery style of chardonnay. It’s a style that has instilled rebellion in other wine-drinkers who created a movement known as Anything But Chardonnay, or ABC.
I’m not certain how effective the movement has been; one out of every three bottles of wine sold in this country is chardonnay. But what the ABC crowd has done is call attention to wines that are made too far over on the flavor-dial toward one style, which is usually a crutch, and the big wood component is often used to cover some shortcoming in the wine: “Let ’em eat a tree, and it will take their mind off of the fact that this wine is without solid character or class.”
But again, if you like that style, then good. Enjoy.
Lately we have seen chardonnay producers move away from that over-oaked position, and from every corner of the globe, you can find a completely unoaked chardonnay. Maybe that’s too far over to the other side, but these wines do present real chardonnay character and solid fruit in the mix.
There are alternatives, however, and maybe if you find your palate tiring easily from chardonnays that are overly weighty, too alcoholic, too woody, then luckily for you, this is the right place to find something else of interest.
May we suggest a few new grape names, with a suggestion to move to more exciting flavors, away from chardonnay?
The name is derived from the French word “sauvage,” meaning wild. Left to its own devices, this vine would simply go completely crazy –– which is what the wine world has done with this grape for a long time.
In France, it is the primary white grape of the Loire Valley, just south and west of Paris. Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés are composed completely of sauvignon blanc, and in Bordeaux, white wines are primarily made of “sauv blanc” (cool wine talk), with a blend of semillon.
Sauvignon blanc has really hit its stride in New Zealand, where the herbal, sweet fruit characteristics are amplified.
Sometimes in California the grape takes on a smoky nuance and is the reason fumé blanc was so named.
Up until very recently ignored in large measure in the United States, this North Central European varietal is suddenly one of the hottest grapes going.
Early domestic attempts to bring the grape to the attention of the marketplace just about ruined this noble grape’s reputation. What developed for many years was a sweet, insipid style that was tart and cloying. Then American producers woke up and realized that was not what Riesling was about at all.
Rieslings are crisp, acidic and light, with delicate flavors of flowers, peaches, apricots, and melons, all packaged with a mineral quality. When this grape is properly handled and made, it’s an eye-opening delight. Today, more producers than not are doing the good work.
Rieslings are absolutely terrific with foods normally perceived to be difficult for wine-pairings. Asian dishes really respond to this grape’s accompaniment.
Look to cooler climates, such as Germany, Alsace, Austria, Washington state, and even upstate New York, for stunning examples of solid work being done.
Indigenous to Austria, and still mostly grown only there, this fool-me treasure sometimes seems like a lively chardonnay or a pinot blanc or even a Riesling on the palate.
But the Cracker Jack surprise in every bottle is an absolutely delightful rush of white pepper right at the end of the palate sensation: soft, delicate and refreshingly clean.
Gruners (more wine-speak) –– the grapes, not the wines –– have not really traveled out of their native land. A smattering of work in other countries is just now taking place, but the homeland is really the best place for the peach, mineral characteristics to develop.
Albariño is another grape that has not strayed far from home, which is in the far northwest corner of Spain, in an area called Rias Baixas.
In fact, oddly enough, not only has Albariño wine production not left the area, but no one is quite certain how the grape got there in the first place. Parents of teenagers can no doubt relate to this tale.
Albariños are not as robust as chardonnay, not as minerally as Riesling, not as herbal as sauvignon blanc. What they do offer are citrus, peach, honeysuckle and almond flavors wrapped up in a light package, almost feather-like. They are very elegant.
Wood influences are not used in their production, and they are made to be enjoyed at a young age.
Normally playing a minor supporting role in huge red wine blends such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Picpoul wines from both France and California have started to develop quite their own following of late.
Sometimes the grape cannot make up its own mind as to what color it wants to be when it grows up, and so there are red Picpouls, gray Picpouls and pink/white Picpouls. In the Rhône region of France, this grape is used in blending because it brings bright acidity and refreshing cleanliness to the party, allowing Picpoul to play a major role in offsetting the heavy overtones of syrah and Grenache.
California’s Picpoul Blanc, from the Tablas Creek winery, has come to mean “tropical” in a big way, possibly benefitting from its extremely long growing season sitting under a warm California Central Coast sun.
Another white grape that likes to hang out with red grapes, viognier is native to the northern Rhône region of France, but there are more plantings of the grape in California than in its home area.
It is not just a matter of including viognier in many Rhône red wine blends; this grape is treated like a red grape. In the region of Côte-Rôtie, viognier is picked, crushed, fermented and included from the beginning in the must, which is the grape juice-becoming-wine liquid, alongside the syrah grape, which is the only red grape allowed in the northern Rhône.
On its own, viognier presents honeysuckle aromas and flavors and a lanolin-like quality that smoothes out the tactile sensation of the wine in the mouth.
Torrontés is the indigenous white wine of Argentina, but it is not known how this grapevine ended up in the Southern Hemisphere or even precisely where it came from.
Current thinking is that the Spanish brought to the New World the Malvasia varietal, and the vines mutated to Torrontés. The wines are light and full of fresh fruit and yet possess enough backbone to pair well with smoked meats, spicy cuisines such as Thai and strong cheeses.
In Chile and Peru, Torrontés grapes are used in the production of the national beverage, pisco.
Of course there are other white grapes worthy of your consideration, such as the Moscatos of Italy and the Gewürztraminers of Germany, all providing an exciting quest to discover new flavors and personal likes –– as well as dislikes.
But you’ll never know until you try. So go ahead: Try new things. Can’t hurt.
As with all wines, you will benefit from seeking the counsel of a knowledgeable wine sales representative. Our New Orleans area wine retail stores are more than happy to assist. Tell them what you like or what you want to try, and they’ll provide several examples of wines you may truly enjoy and would otherwise never pick up.
Look to Martin’s Wine Cellar, The Wine Seller, WINO, Corkscrewed, Cork & Bottle, Swirl, Hopper’s, The Cellars of River Ridge, Partysist, and Dorignac’s. That’s not a complete list, but it’s a good start to receive some assistance.