I am not writing about white wine just because of the change in season when people tend to associate white varietals with warmer days. (I drink whites year-round depending on what I’m eating.) I am writing about white wine because oftentimes a customer will raise his or her hand in protest when I offer to begin their tasting with a white varietal. I realize that not everyone likes white wine. Is it the over-oaked, buttery California Chardonnays—which emerged during the 1980s—that have prejudiced some palates against all white wines? Or, is it the absence of oak that prevails in stainless-steel fermented whites that may leave consumers feeling “cheated” in terms of complexity and body—neither of which, by the way, is true.
Whatever their reason(s), I am curious to learn what people do not like about these often misunderstood varietals. I can say with certainty that these naysayers are missing out on some rather interesting whites that give the old stalwarts such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio a run for their money.
From Macedonia to Italy
Just last night I had two lovely wines: I started with a 2011 Tikveš Rkaciteli (pronounced, “rkah-tsee-tely”) from Macedonia—so far, the most unusual varietal to cross my path. Tikveš is a wine-growing region in the central Republic of Macedonia. Rkaciteli, an ancient vinifera that originated in Georgia, is grown in Tikveš and used to make white wine.
This varietal (below right), with its extremely delicate flavors, exhibits aromas of pear and peach. The mouthfeel is a balance of freshness and structure that result in easy drinkability. However, do not let the texture fool you: This wine will stand up to strong white fish such as trout and lobster, as well as very dry, sharp white cheeses.
The other wine I enjoyed was a 2011 Soave Pieropan from Italy (below left). The color of light straw with greenish reflections, this crisp wine has a delicate perfume bouquet with notes of marzipan, lemon, stone fruits and a slight minerality. The palate is flavorful with balanced acidity, leading to a long finish. The mouthfeel is surprisingly creamy that I couldn’t resist pairing it with a Boston-style clam chowder.
Let’s not dismiss Greek white wines, which in recent years have begun to gain the recognition they deserve. So with all due respect, please put a cork in your bottle of Retsina jokes.
A favorite of mine are wines made from the Assyrtiko, or Asyrtiko, white grape grown on the island of Santorini. The island is rich in volcanic soils, enabling the grapes to hold their acidity even if they are very ripe. When made dry, these wines exhibit characteristics of perfume, floral, citrus and minerals. Some vineyards date back 70 years or more. Major producers include Spyros Hatziyiannis, Gaia and Sigalas.
Once thought to be extinct, the Malagouzia variety results in exceptional dry wines that tend to be medium-pale with an intense, aromatic bouquet of peach, green bell pepper and flowers. The palate is round and crisp. Malagouzia is grown in the Peloponnese, in central Greece, and is giving winemakers an opportunity to shine.
Spicy in flavor with good acidity, the Moschofilero (pronounced, Mos ko fee’ le ro) grape has pink-purple skin. It is grown in the Mantinia region in the Peloponnese. Its crisp character is surrounded by intoxicating floral aroma of roses and violets.
The 2010 Moschofilero from Domaine Skouras has aromas of white flowers and honeysuckle, with notes of rose petal and passion fruit, leading to a long finish of orange and pepper spice. The bright acidity makes for a refreshing wine.
A number of other white varietals waiting to be discovered, or rediscovered, are:
Albariño (Alvarinho in Portuguese)—Often compared to Viognier due to its apricot and white peach characters, Albariño tends to be light in color and medium-bodied, with loads of aroma and other fruit flavors, including green apple, lemon and honey that give way to a crisp acid-based finish. Albariño heralds from northwest Spain’s Galicia region.
In California, the variety is grown in both hot and cooler areas such as Lodi, in the northern part of the state’s Central Valley and in Edna Valley, in San Luis Obispo County. A great food wine, I enjoy my Albariños with shell fish or halibut. In California, Harney Lane, Bokisch Vineyards, Quinta Cruz and New Clairvaux Vineyard. And, those I’ve enjoyed from Galicia include the 2011 Bodegas La Val Orballo Albariño, Rias Baixas.
Grenache Blanc—Originating in Spain (where it is called Garnacha Blanca), Grenache Blanc is a mutation of the red grape Grenache. Grown in the Rhone region of France, Grenache Blanc is often blended with Roussanne and Marsanne. On its own, however, Grenache Blanc makes for a unique wine. Straw in color, the varietal is rich with crisp acidity.
I rarely come across this varietal and have had just a few to date, including the 2012 from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyardnoaked, this wine is dry, crisp and aromatic, with a lovely floral perfume bouquet and hints of pear and vanilla. Flavors of peach, mandarin orange and tropical fruits are enveloped by a honeyed richness that fills the mouth—followed by a white nectarine finish. Grenache Blanc goes with a wide range of food or can be enjoyed alone as an aperitif.
Torrontes and Petite Blanc also make my list for their mouth-watering qualities. An Argentinean variety, Torrontes wines are light-straw in color and boast fruity aromas and citrusy flavors of tangerine, peach and orange blossom, followed by an oily, soft mouthfeel. In California, Torrontes is grown in warm climates such as Lodi. Local producers include Downhill Cellars in Los Gatos.
Weisinger’s of Ashland Winery produces a lovely Petite Blanc, which is a surprising blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. A party in your mouth, this wine has notes of vanilla and lavender, complemented by flavors of green apple, grapefruit and peach.
Another blend that pleases the palate is the Sauvignon Blanc-Gewurztraminer from Quivira Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. I recently opened the 2010 vintage that I purchased some three years ago to have with my Thai dinner, and it had held up beautifully. Barrel fermented and aged five years in neutral oak, this unique blend (50-50) boasts the traditional aromas and flavors of Viognier, which mellowed the crisp bite of the Sauvignon Blanc. A soft mouthfeel and long finish subdued the heat of my Thai food.
The next two wines are made from grapes that hail from the Iberian Peninsula: Verdehlo and Verdejo. A dry white wine, I opened a 2007 Spanish Verdejo from Bodegas José Pariente winery to compare with another Iberian white wine made from Portuguese grapes: a 2008 Verdelho from Quinta Cruz, a sister label to Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.
While the two vintages—not to mention viticultural regions—differ, both varieties create dry wines with distinct similarities: high acidity, fruity citrus, perfume and floral aromas, a slight touch of bitterness on the finish and a glycerin texture that gives them softness and body. The 2007 Verdejo, grown on the River Duero high plain, the highest of Spain’s northern plateau, imparts fragrances of mineral, fennel, lemon lime, apple, pears, anise and floral. Three vintages later, I recently had a 2010 Bodegas Verdejo, which imparts similar characteristics, especially with regard to aromas of pear, mineral and anise.
Made from grapes grown in Lodi, the 2008 Verdelho (pronounced, “vehr-DEH-lyoh”) has aromas of white nectarine, melon and citrus, with a lingering fruit finish. The 2009 packs an even bigger fruit bowl punch.
If you’re still with me, I have two more grapes worth noting that hail from Italy: Verdello and Vermentino. The former, which is also grown in the Galicia region of Spain, is home to Central Italy, where it is used in Orvieto Classico wine blends of Umbria. When yields are low, Verdello can create wines that have a pleasant mix of tropical and stone fruits with medium levels of acidity. When yields are too high, the wines can be oily, flabby and high in alcohol.
Vermentino is a late-ripening grape that is grown in the warmer regions of Italy and California. Beautifully transparent, Vermentino has much to offer, whether as a crisp, tangy accompaniment to seafood or as a richer, more complex wine with a distinctively oily sort of texture.
So there you have it. These are just some of my favorite white wines, which I’m betting will convert some white wine skeptics or at least get their attention. Easy to drink, these wines should be consumed slowly with an inquisitive mind.
While some of these varietals may have a place among your wine collection (Verdejo, in particular, ages well, becoming nutty and honeyed after a few years in bottle), most are not age-worthy for the long term, so best to drink them early.
Don’t stress too much over what to pair them with. Simple fare such as steamed clams, sharp cheeses, risotto, smoked trout, white fish, a crisp salad, Thai or a no-fuss roasted chicken will enhance their character. Savored on their own, however, these scrumptious whites will please even the pickiest of palates.