I remember in my early married life thinking that Cabernet Sauvignon was just “too much”. My young wife and I drank white Zinfandel and I recall our early nice dinners being accompanied by nice white wines. I don’t know how the transition occurred but, over the intervening twenty-five years we have come to drink a lot more red wine. I’m a professional so I’m obligated to keep all wine within my sights and I don’t mind admitting that we still drink a lot of white wine. At wine tastings I never hesitate to urge Mr. or Ms. “I only drink red wine” to try the white wines I’m offering and often, they find they like them quite a bit. And, I don’t mind admitting that if I had to drink just one kind of wine I’d choose a white!
Historically white wine is just as prominent as red wine. In fact, evidence indicates that the very earliest wines were all pale in color. The grapes that ripen with dark skins and that are responsible for all the red wines, are mutations of green skinned grapes that preceded them. Falarnium, a white wine and the most expensive wine of ancient Rome, was not considered at its best until it had aged for twenty years or more. The French and English courts of the Middle Ages preferred white wine, often sweet or infused with herbs, and Charlemagne’s wife insisted he drink white wine because the red stained his beard. In the 18th and 19th Century the Rieslings of Germany were the equal to any of the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Red wine drinkers like big, bold wines with long, dry finish but it is precisely the delicacy of white wine, its fresh, direct and fluent interplay of acidity and sweetness, that makes it so beguiling. All wines are a balance of sweet fruitiness and acidic tang, with characteristics of aroma and flavor added by organic elements within the flesh and the skins of the grapes. Whereas red wine takes on a load of textural, structural and aromatic components from the grape skins, most white wines are fermented with the skins removed. Modern wine making utilizes neutral containers of glass or stainless steel, especially in the production of white wines, so that the fresh flavors and aromas of the grape are not compromised. It is this direct fruitiness with fresh acidity that makes white wine an essential expression of the grape as well as a wonderful and cooperative partner to good food. White wines also have striking aromas and intriguing textures to display, and some are absolutely age-worthy.
CHARDONNAY is a grape that everyone has heard of. It is the grape that makes all the white wines of Burgundy, France and its reputation rests with those great wines, although Chardonnay responds to different climates to produce various results. In cool vineyards, like most of Burgundy, Chardonnay’s ripening is slowed and its acidity counter balances fruit ripeness. In warmer vineyards, as in Napa Valley or places in Australia, the acidity can be somewhat over matched by sweet fruit flavors. Thus, depending upon where it comes from Chardonnay can be crisp and precise or broad and rich. The use of oak, which is common in fermentation or aging for Chardonnay, adds a layer of spice or toasty vanillin flavor. Oak integrates well with a cool climate Chardonnay but sometimes just makes a warm climate Chard’ fatter and heavy in the mouth. Chardonnay is an expressive, flexible wine that is great with a variety of foods as well as being very pleasant on its own.
RIESLING is uniquely capable of simultaneously producing a vast range of wine styles while brilliantly expressing the vineyard of it’s origin. Riesling can age to exquisite complexity. What holds Riesling back is the uncertainty among consumers as to the sweetness or dryness of a particular example. And the words on labels are little help. What’s more, most non-European Rieslings are rather clumsy. A good German Spatlese that is dry is a beautiful wine with myriad intriguing aromas and appetizing flavor nuances. It pairs magnificently with central European cooking, river fish and fowl. But, it’s tough to decipher if it is a dry or a sweet Spatlese. Those words; Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese etc. are German designations for the degree of ripeness the grapes attain on the vine. More sugar means the wine can be sweet or, if vinified dry, contain a higher degree of alcohol. Alternatively, almost all Rieslings from Alsace – that part of France that is right against the German border – are dry as a bone. In fact, if you want to explore the great world of white wine you could just drink …
ALSATIAN WHITE WINES and be completely satisfied. The Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and the Pinots Blanc and Gris from Alsace are generously expressive, dry and aromatic bursting with floral, fruit and nutty earthen flavors. Wonderful with food but also delightful as an aperitif on a sunny back patio. There are Grand Cru Alsatian wines made from the most prominent grape types that reveal great complexity in age.
SAUVIGNON BLANC has a pungent, lively aroma often described as grassy or herbaceous, and forward acidity that responds to different growing conditions to produce wines that perfectly compliment many foods. Sancerre and Pouilly Fume are the two benchmark French versions; the one is razor sharp in aroma and crisp acidity with a mineral flair, the other is somewhat fuller in the mouth with a smokey, flint aroma (fume). Sauvignon Blanc is commonly blended with a grape called Semillon in Bordeaux and the results combine crisp acidity with a honeyed fullness. This partnership of grapes also results in the richly sweet Sauternes wines of Bordeaux. Always with a balance of acidity, so never syrupy or ponderously sweet, Sauterne can age for decades.
GRUNER VELTLINER is the white grape that put Austria on the world wine map. It is nearly always dry and has a spicy quality to add to its crisp acidity. Gruner is a lively, modern wine that complements a lot of the food that fuses diverse cultures, warm spices and challenging herb mixes. It doesn’t have the extract of Riesling, thus it is more uniformly light bodied but with a bolt of racy fruit. Austria is not a big wine producer so there is very little “average” wine made. The style is precise and energetic. It’s easy to think of Germany and Austria as similar but Austrian is really much warmer and the vintages are more predictably fine than in Germany. Plus, the guessing over sweetness is reduced in Austrian wines.
CHENIN BLANC, long used in California to fill jugs and boxes of bulk wine, is often overlooked but has a long proud history, a wide range of stylistic options and a brilliancy and complexity that is capable of improvement with age. The white wines of the Loire Valley were prized by French kings. They combine crisp acidity, expressive aromas of flower, mineral and fruit and mouth filling texture. These are wines that can be savored although they are at their best in the company of food. Loire valley whites marked “moelleux” are Chenin Blancs that are savory and intensely sweet at the same time. Completely unique. They are made from late harvested grapes that are very high in sugar content. The words “demi-sec” mean half sweet while the word “sec” means dry. Vouvrey and Savennieres are two Loire appelation best known for their Chenin Blanc whites. There are exceptions, but domestic Chenin Blanc is still relatively boring. South Africa makes some very good Chenin Blanc.
There are numerous other refreshing, vibrant and lively white wines available in WineWorld. The V’s of Italy – Vernaccia, Verdicchio and Vermentino; Spanish Rueda and Albarino; white Rhone valley wines made from Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier. Just to name a few .. or several.
Truly, these wines are too good to be ignored or dismissed as “simple”. Diversity is the quality of fine wine that is most exciting and, especially as cuisine continues to bend categories, you’ll need the arsenal of whites to match up with food.