FOOD FOR THOUGHT - March 26, 2008
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Article Archive
The Other White Wine
If ever there was a wine that has become hackneyed and trite, Chardonnay would be the hands down favorite. Like a weary cliché, Chardonnay has ventured beyond ubiquitous in the wine-by-the-glass crowd; it’s become the mindless choice. While it certainly has its advocates, countless others reflexively order it simply due to unfamiliarity with other white wine options. Chardonnay is analogous to the pre-Columbus earth: a realm of limited scope, whose uncharted waters lay obscured. But there’s a whole new world beyond that interminable ocean of Chardonnay.
Below are a number of white wines that amongst the general public are under-appreciated. Sadly, because of the dominance of Chardonnay, you may not find many of them by-the-glass in your average restaurant. However, most of them can be found in any decent wine shop thus making a by-the-bottle purchase quite feasible. Most of the examples are reasonably priced as well. This list is by no means complete. We’re not thoroughly exploring the new world, just scoping out some of its highlights.
I hesitated with whether to include Pinot Grigio in this inventory only because it’s the runner up to Chardonnay for the most done-to-death white wine. Nevertheless I included it simply because Pinot Grigio serves as a microcosm for the entire point of this article. Just within Pinot Grigio itself is a whole world of discovery unbeknownst to the average wine drinker. For starters, its proper name is Pinot Gris; the name of the grape that produces this wine. Pinot Grigio is what it’s called in northern Italy where it’s made into a light, dry, but pleasantly tasting wine. This is also the version and namesake that has inundated American consumers. But Pinot Gris hails from other locations with vastly different results. Remember, the same grape can produce very different wines due to where it’s grown. Pinot Gris is grown all over Europe. In France’s Alsace region, Pinot Gris, (known locally as Tokay d’Alsace), is transformed into a fuller bodied style and even some sweet variations. Someone only exposed to Italian Pinot Grigio wouldn’t even recognize its Alsatian counterparts. Keep sailing. You won’t fall off the edge. You’ll land in a whole new world of Pinot Grigio.
Chenin Blanc is an interesting and versatile grape and one of the stars of France’s Loire River Valley. Pretty much whatever style of wine you like, Chenin Blanc can fill the bill. Like all French wine growing regions, the Loire is composed of various appellations, i.e., sub regions which specialize in a certain grape variety or style due to their particular microclimate. In Savennieres, a dry, age-worthy Chenin Blanc is produced. At the other extreme Bonnezeaux transforms Chenin Blanc into a lusciously sweet wine. (This is done much like in Sauternes where a mold nicknamed Noble Rot is allowed to shrivel the grapes and thus concentrate their sweetness and viscosity). Saumur is known for its sparkling Chenin Blanc by employing the same method as making Champagne. Finally the Chenin Blancs from Vouvray run the gamut from dry to sweet to sparkling. Remember that French wine bottles denote the region the wine hails from, not the name of the grape. Don’t look for Chenin Blanc on the label but the appellation that piques your interest. Chenin Blanc is grown outside of France but quite frankly, no other area of the world, (not even the new one), has yet to take Chenin Blanc to the heights the Loire Valley has.
Sauvignon Blanc produces wines that are sharply crisp and acidic but also known for a grassy or herbaceous character as well. They are best drunk young and are a good match for seafood. Sauvignon Blanc is grown in France and other European countries, California, South America, South Africa, and especially New Zealand where its particular style has gained world recognition. For a match made in heaven, try a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with a big bowl of New Zealand green-lipped mussels.
In France we return to the Loire Valley where it’s the grape of choice in the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume appellations. French Sauvignon Blancs tend to be pricier than their new world cousins. In France, Sauvignon Blanc is also grown in Bordeaux where it is blended with other whites to produce white Bordeaux.
Although Bordeaux is resoundingly known for its world class reds, white Bordeaux is a respectable and terribly underappreciated wine. White Bordeaux is made from a blend of 50-80% Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and small amounts of Muscadelle. Semillon, in and of itself, renders an unremarkable wine. But when blended with Sauvignon Blanc it produces a richer, complex, dry, age-worthy wine which mitigates some of the latter’s grassy notes. Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc is the premier vinous example of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is also a sweet variety of Bordeaux white, (especially the world renowned Sauternes), but for the purposes of the present discussion we will focus on the dry style.
The appellations of Graves, Pessac-Leognan and Entre-Deux-Mers are known for their dry white wines but many appellations produce both sweet and dry varieties. A quality white Bordeaux from a strong vintage will benefit from some time in the bottle. White Bordeaux pairs with practically any food that is dry white wine friendly. For stouter dishes, (say chicken or pork as compared to fillet of sole), I would seek out a fuller bodied, older white Bordeaux. Your wine retailer can steer you toward an appropriate choice.
Riesling is considered to be one of the world's top white wine grapes. Indigenous to Germany where it truly shines, Riesling is also made in France, Italy, America, Australia, and sub-varieties of it in South Africa. The German Rieslings produce the most glorious harmony of the grape's acidity and sweetness. Riesling can run the gamut from dry to very sweet. Prices are equally discrepant. You can spend less than $10 for a tasty Washington State Riesling or upwards of one thousand for a top of the line, limited production German Riesling from a superior vintage. Age worthiness varies as well with some styles designed for early drinking and others to be laid down for decades. Riesling is definitely a grape to be explored. Start with some inexpensive ones and gradually move up to appreciate the gradations of quality. Experience both the dry and sweet styles to fully appreciate this wonderful grape.
There are many other notable white wines out there and this journey has more ports of call. Gewurztrminer from Alsace and Germany, white Grenache from France or California, and Ribolla from Italy are just some of the other areas of the wine world to be explored. For a mere seven to eight dollars you can acquire a delicious Vinho Verde from Portugal, (serve it well chilled with lobster). The point is, you needn't turn around and head for the safety of Chardonnay when you get too close to the horizon. Go forth and embrace a new world of white wines.
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