I wish I had found this article earlier, say about May or June. This would have been perfect for helping with summer wine pairings. However, since it’ll still be just as true next year and many people drink whites all of the time, I thought I’d republish it anyway.
Of course, since this was written in 2007, there have been a few changes as in more white varietals that are now more easily available, particularly Sémillon, Marsanne, Roussanne, Vinho Verde, Grenache Blanc, and the great German whites that a great all year ’round, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. White blends are rockin’ and making the drinking of white wine more fun each year.
My one issue is that I still don’t care for unoaked Chard. If I want an unoaked white wine, I’ll grab a Pinot Gris or other white with great minerality and acidity. I still like my Chards well oaked. So there.
I know many of you are reading the headline and thinking that I’ve lost my mind. Not really. Bear with me here.
First of all, I love red wines. Period. In fact, I call myself a Pinot Ho. Okay, I’m *the* Pinot Ho! Most of my friends also love red wines and have given themselves various designations. One of my friends calls himself a Syrah Slut. Another calls herself a Zin Bitch, borrowing from the Four Vines description of lovers of their Zinfandel. My oldest son admits to loving Cabernets, but as of yet has not given himself an appropriate title. I’m working on that.
Now that you know the crowd I run with, you can appreciate how I’m risking my credibility by writing an article based on *gasp!* white wines.
Many years ago, I had the fortune of drinking a really good California Chardonnay. It was an ethereal, life-changing experience. I actually tasted a white wine that had substance in my mouth, and for the first time, I understood what the word “epiphany” meant. That was in the early 90s.
Until just a couple of years ago, I was still on the quest for the great Chardonnay experience and kissed a lot of frogs in between. Most Chards I experienced were either overoaked butter bombs with very bitter finishes, or some that could hardly be differentiated from lemonade.
Meanwhile, my experiences with red wine were positive as I learned more about varietals, terroir, blends, aromas, characteristics, countries of origin, blah blah blah. Once I got my wine feet underneath me – so to speak – I began to get in touch with my inner wine snob. Honestly, I never thought I’d move from my early days of “Smells like grapes! Tastes like wine!” to the point where after sniffing and tasting a wine, I’d be able to name the year, place, and type of wine. I’m finally a Wineaux!
I never forsook my quest for a great Chardonnay, and because of that, I began to taste (and enjoy) a complete range of white wines. And in the process, I lost my ABC attitude. Oh, that means Anything But Chardonnay. Here are some of my favorites:
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris – Grigio is from Italy, Gris is fromFrance. Although they are somewhat different in character due to their places of origin, they both offer a well-balanced, minerally wine that pairs well with light summer fare. In fact, one of my favorite summer meals is a plate of Caprese (made with my homegrown basil and tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, Hawaiian red salt, and drizzled with Pasolivo Olive Oil) paired with a nicely chilled glass of Pinot Grigio.
Albariño – this is the elegant white wine from Spain. And, as far as I know, it is still grown only in Spain. Its bouquet hints at apples, flowers, and lemon/lime, and it possesses a silky mouthfeel with the taste corresponding to the nose. There are a few of quality that are now available in this country, and they are carried by our favorite wine stores.
Torrontés – Wow. What a nose. This smells like flowers in a bottle with just a bit of orange juice. Although it *smells* sweet, it is a bone-dry wine. I served this at a home wine tasting last year, and both bottles quickly disappeared. And to the person I told that this was from Chile, I’m sorry to say that I was mistaken. It’s the signature white grape of Argentina. I knew it was from somewhere south of the border!
Sauvignon Blanc/Sancerre – Hard to believe that this is the same grape, particularly if you’re comparing a New Zealand Sauv Blanc to a Sancerre from the Loire Valley. The NZ version is bright and fruity, where gooseberry, grapefruit, lime, melon, passion fruit, grass, and the ever-present “cat pee” aromas dominate. The Sancerre (depending upon which area of the Loire in which it’s grown) has, of course, a more Old World profile of herbs, wet rock, and some of the attributes mentioned above. Take note that in California, it’s often called Fumé Blanc. This is a very food-friendly wine and goes with just about anything you’d think to serve with white wine. As a side note, the pairing of Sancerre and goat cheese is legendary.
Viognier – Ahhh.Let’s talk flowers. Honeysuckle, apricots, peaches, spring blossoms, and touches of spice coupled with a contradictory dry palate make this wine amazing. I have more bottles of this than any other white wine because I find that I can drink this with or without food. Its crisp, clean flavors go well with mahi-mahi and fruit salsa or can be poured just to enjoy on its own. Pairing not required.
All of these wines are readily available (some more so than others), are generally ready to drink now, and are not very expensive. Sancerre, because it’s French, from the Loire, and has an aging life, will be more expensive, usually ranging from $20 to $27. Viognier has a range of prices as well, but the upper end is rarely above $23. It’s rarer than the other varietals, but as more of it is grown, I think the prices will at least moderate. The others are much less expensive, with 90+ NZ Sauvignon Blancs available for as little as $13. Even less in some stores! In fact, the tasting at Khoury’s on Wednesday revealed a surprisingly nice Sauvignon Blanc for $8.99. A steal at any price. By the way, my favorite Viognier is from Villicana Winery in Paso Robles. I can’t tell you how much it costs because I don’t care. It has the best balance of wild nose and dry, fruity palate with a lip-smacking acidity that I haven’t found anywhere else. Many Viogniers, alas, are somewhat “flabby” (that means that they’re nice tasting for juice, but not good wine).
Now for my nemesis – the eternal search for the perfect Chardonnay. And yes, I’ve finally found Chards that took me back to my first “real” experience with Chardonnay, with rich mouthfeel, apple, citrus, and tropical fruit aromas and flavors. Unoaked Chards showcase these fruit characterstics and make good quaffing wines. However, in my opinion, the best Chards copy the Burgundian model of fermenting in French oak barrels and then go through secondary malolactic fermentation. This process gives the best California Chards and White Burgundies their famous characteristics of cream, vanilla, butter, and toast. Combined with the fruit elements, this is what makes the perfect Chardonnay. Unfortunately, this process is what makes the best Chardonnays expensive. And OF COURSE I love the expensive Chards! However, if you do your homework, you can find a wonderful Chard at a great price. For instance, Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay, is wonderful at about $20 at Costco if you can find it.
Don’t let price be your only guide, however. You must taste the wines. I have found many oaked Chards with a bitter aftertaste (“finish”) that detracted from the enjoyment of the wine, and that were so heavy in the oak characteristics that the fruit was lost altogether. The prices varied from inexpensive to “you’ve got to be kidding!!”
So there you have it. While I’ve hardly touched on all of the wonderful white wines that are available, I’ve shared a few of my favorites. Red wines will always be my first choice. But as we slide into warm summer days, it’s hard to beat a memorable glass of a slightly chilled white wine, fresh food of summer, and great company by the pool or on the patio on a sultry evening. That’s the closest thing to nirvana I can imagine.