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The White Wines I Drink
By Ed McCarthy
Jul 16, 2013
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“Why am I always running out of white wines?”  I asked myself the other day while making another trip to the local wine shop.  Of course, upon reflection, I knew the answer:  I’m drinking a lot of white wine.

My wine drinking habits have changed dramatically over the years.  When I first started drinking wine regularly, many decades ago, I was a confirmed red wine drinker; at least 90 percent of the wines I consumed were red.  I started collecting wines back then; and still today more than 90 percent of the wines in my cellar are red (not counting sparkling and dessert wines).

But nowadays, at least half of the wines I drink are white, along with some rosés.  And that percentage increases during the summer.  Moreover, when I do drink red wines, I crave light-bodied, crisp reds--not the Bordeaux, Barolos, and Cabernet Sauvignons that dominate my cellar collection.  Like many other wine collectors, I bought red wines that would last 20 years or more--a bit short-sighted of me, as I ponder my present wine drinking predicament.

I own just a handful of white Burgundies, including Chablis; about a dozen white Bordeaux; less than 20 of the better Italian whites; about the same number of Alsace and German whites (mainly Riesling); and less than two dozen California Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs.  The rest of my cellar is a sea of red.

I drink white wines these days for several reasons:  The lively, fresh crispness of these wines appeals to my palate; they complement the foods I eat better than red wines (for example, I don’t eat red meat); and I seem to be able to digest white wines better than red wines, especially full-bodied, high-alcohol reds.

I enjoy light-bodied, crisp white wines that are made without oak ageing, but I also drink many white wines that have been aged in oak--provided that the taste of oak does not intrude on the wine’s flavor.  French and Italian whites dominate my choices.

When buying white wines, always look for the cooler vintages.  The following are the white wines that I am buying and drinking; they are the most satisfying to me not only because I like them, but also because they are usually not too expensive:
 
French White Wines

Chablis:  I never have enough Chablis.  My recommendation is to seek out Chablis wines from the cooler vintages, such as 2008 and 2010.  I would avoid 2009--too warm a vintage for Chablis and the rest of the white Burgundies.  I would definitely buy a Chablis AOC 2010 ($20 to $30) over a 2009 Chablis Premier Cru ($35 to $50) despite the Premier Cru’s greater reputation.  I generally don’t buy Chablis Grand Cru wines because they are expensive ($60 to $90 and up), and you have to keep them for a few years before they open up and are enjoyable.  The best value-for-money compromise is to buy a Premier Cru Chablis from an excellent vintage, such as 2010. Chablis producers that I recommend include Louis Michel & Fils, Christian Moreau Père et Fils, Gérard Duplessis, Jean Collet, Jean-Paul Droin, Jean-Marc Brocard, Jean Durop, William Fèvre, Jean Dauvissat, Verget, Jean-Claude Bessin, Long-Depaquit, and Billaud-Simon.  I left out a couple of good producers because their wines are too expensive.  Chablis Premier Cru from a good vintage such as 2002 can age well for ten years or more; Chablis Grand Cru can age even longer.

Other White Burgundies:  I no longer buy Grand Cru and Premier Cru white Burgundies from the Côte d’Or--or even the better Côte d’Or village white Burgundies--because they are too expensive.  I do buy simpler Mâcon-Villages whites from readily available producers such as Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Latour and others for a reasonable $12 to $14.  Other value white Burgundies to look for include those from the Côte Chalonnaise: Mercurey Blanc, Rully Blanc, Montagny, and the only non-Chardonnay, Bourgogne Aligoté from Bouzeron.

Loire Valley Whites:  As we leave Burgundy, we observe that in the western Loire Valley, the Chardonnay grape yields mainly to Sauvignon Blanc.  Look for Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, and white wines from lesser-known villages:  Quincy, Reuilly, and Menétou-Salon--all of whose wines are all made from Sauvignon Blanc.  Most of these wines retail in the $20 to $30 range.  The great dry white wine in the Central Loire Valley is Savennières, made entirely fom Chenin Blanc.  Most Savennières wines retail in the 20 to $30 range.  From the eastern end of the Loire, near the Atlantic Ocean, comes the great-value white, Muscadet.  Ideal with shellfish, Muscadet can be purchased for less than $10, but the better Muscadets, such as Domaine de la Pepière, retail in the $10 to $15 range.   

Other French Whites:  I am especially a fan of one surprising white wine from the Coteaux du Languedoc in southern France, a region that is noted for its powerful red wines. The wine, Picpoul de Pinet (from the Picpoul Blanc grape variety), exists because of the maritime influence of the Mediterranean Sea.  It is fruity but dry, a delight at $9 to $14, with most Picpoul selling for $11 to $12.

A white wine from Provence that I have always enjoyed is the dry Cassis Blanc from the village of Cassis on the Côte de Azur.  A Cassis Rouge and Rosé also exist, but the Blanc is the best.  Cassis Blanc is a blend of three varieties:  Clairette, Marsanne, and Ugni Blanc.  It is medium-bodied, with herbal aromas.  As usual for white wines, it is best in cooler vintages, when it can retain its acidity.  Its retail price ranges from $23 to $30.  If you are in the area, visit the quaint village of Cassis, on the Mediterranean.

Italian Whites:  Starting from the north of Italy, there are two white wines in Alto Adige that I especially love. One is from Italy’s northernmost winery, Abbazia di Novicella.  This winery is a marvel to behold:  It is a working Augustinian monastery with a magnificent library containing classic hand-written books from the early Middle Ages.  All of the white wines from the Abbazia are impressive, but my favorite is its Kerner ($18 to $20), a Germanic variety that is at its best in Alto Adige.  It is so flavorful and delicious!  Even better is Abbazia’s premium Kerner, Prepositus ($26 to $30).  Its flavors are even more intense.  There are a few other Kerners in Alto Adige that are also very good, but Abbazia di Novicella is the one that I know the best. 

My other favorite Alto Adige is also a Germanic variety, Müller-Thurgau, another varietal wine at its best in Alto Adige.  One wine in particular stands out, Tiefenbrunner’s single-vineyard Müller-Thurgau, Feldmarschall Vineyard.  The vineyard is one of the highest in Europe (over 3,300 feet in altitude) and the vines are very old.  The wine is intense and concentrated, undoubtedly the best Müller-Thurgau wine in the world (about $35).  It needs five years or more of age to be fully mature.

The Friuli region in the northeastern corner of Italy is really the white wine capital of Italy.  The region has so many good wines that it’s difficult to choose.  I selected one of my favorites, Silvio Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, a blend of five white grape varieties, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and the indigenous Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana and Picolit.  A complex wine that needs many years to mature, Vintage Tunina is one of Italy’s finest whites.  It is quite expensive ($60 to $65), but worth it.  Friuli does have many fine whites in the $20 range as well.

The most important white wine in the Veneto has always been Soave.  From the 1950s through the 1980s, it was the most popular Italian white wine in the U.S.  But it became a mass-produced wine, with its vineyards planted in the wrong areas, and Soave’s reputation suffered.  The good news is that Soave has gone through a renaissance in the past two decades, and is again one of Italy’s top white wines, especially when made by one of better Soave producers.  I recommend Gini, Pieropan, Inama, Pra, and Suavia.  Most Soaves retail in the $15 to $23 range.

Marche and Abruzzo are two of Italy’s lesser-known regions on its eastern Adriatic Coast that are a good source for well-made, moderately priced white wines.  An indigenous white variety, Pecorino, yields delightful, minerally, floral-scented wines (often with licorice notes) in both regions.  Most Pecorino wines retail for $12 to $14.  La Valentina, a particularly good Pecorino from Abruzzo, sells for $16 to $17.

Verdicchio is Marche’s most famous white wine.  It is a lively, fresh, fragrant white whose price range is typically $12 to $15.  Bucci makes an especially fine Verdicchio that ages well, which sells for $16 to $20.
Abruzzo is the home of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, a normally pedestrian white wine except when in the hands of arguably Italy’s greatest white wine producer, Edoardo Valentini.  Sadly, Valentini passed away a few years ago, but his son is carrying on admirably.  Valentini’s secret was that he used only a tiny percentage of his best Trebbiano grapes, sometimes as little as five percent, to make his wine, and sold off the rest of the crop.  Naturally, Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is expensive ($80 to $100); for this reason I hesitated to recommend it in this column, but the wine is so complex and profound (and ages for twenty or more years) that I felt compelled to mention it.  Valentini also produces perhaps Italy’s greatest dry rosé, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo ($65 to $75), made from the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo variety.  It ages almost as well as his Trebbiano.

Campania, the region of Naples and the active volcano Mt. Vesuvius in the south, produces three good varietal white wines, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Falanghina.  Of the three, Fiano is the most floral and complex, and lives the longest.  Look for Mastroberardino’s Fiano di Avellino “Radici” (about $24) or Terredora’s Fiano di Avellino (about $18) for the best Fiano experience.

Sicily also has its active volcano, Mt. Etna, and it is no coincidence that many of the island’s best wines grow in its volcanic soil on its slopes.  Carricante, arguably Sicily’s finest white variety and one of Italy’s best as well, yields exciting, minerally white wines.  My favorite Carricante wine is Benanti’s “Pietramarina”; it has become popular and rather hard to find in the U.S. (about $45), but it is one of Italy’s most exciting white wines.  Other wines with Carricante--usually the main variety in Etna Bianco wines--are less expensive.

California Whites:  I drink more California red wines (especially Pinot Noirs) than whites, but when I do drink California white wines, they are typically Sauvignon Blancs--as well as Chardonnays to a lesser extent.  My favorite California Sauvignon Blanc is Mayacamas.  The winery makes a small amount of this wine from one old-vine vineyard high up in the Mayacamas Mountains, but it is available mainly at the winery ($25) and at a few shops, mainly on the West Coast.  Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc is dry and lively, and assertive in the Mayacamas style.  Other top Napa Valley Sauvignons to look for are Robert Mondavi’s iconic Fumé Blanc Reserve ($35 to $40 ), Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc ($35 to $38), and Grgich Hills classic Fumé Blanc ($19 to $25).  Sonoma has its share of fine Sauvignon Blancs, including Merry Edwards ($33 to $37) and Dry Creek Vineyard, a good value white ($16).

Of the California Chardonnays that I admire, I cite four in particular: Stony Hill (Napa Valley, unoaked and classic, about $42); Mt. Eden Estate (Santa Cruz Mountains, $50 to $55); Hanzell (Sonoma, $60 to $65); and Lioco (Sonoma Coast, a value at $15 to $20).

Greek White Wines:  Greece has been producing excellent white wines in the last two decades.  Its most famous, and perhaps its best, is Santorini, from the eponymous volcanic, windswept island.  Its primary variety, Assyrtiko (minimum of 90 percent in Santorini wines), yields very dry, intensely minerally wines which age extremely well.  There are about a dozen producers of Santorini; the best include Gaia, Domane Sigalas, Hatzidakis, and Argyros Estate.  Santorini wines range in price from $18 to $23, an excellent value for white wines of this quality; most Santorini wines are made without oak ageing.

I realize that I’m leaving out many fine white wines from other regions around the world, but the wines I mentioned in this column are the white wines that I am drinking.  In concluding, I must also make a passing reference to the excellent Sauvignon Blancs from the coastal areas of Chile; the fine, inexpensive Torrentés whites of Argentina; and the very good Chenin Blancs (aka Steens) and Sauvignon Blancs of South Africa.