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A Case for White
By Linda Murphy
Apr 1, 2008
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"He who aspires to be a serious wine drinker must drink claret," wrote 16th-century British writer Samuel Johnson, referring, of course, to red Bordeaux.  The late English wine merchant Harry Waugh is famous for saying, "The first duty of wine is to be red.'

The Rolling Stones ('Blood Red Wine'), Eric Clapton of Derek and the Dominoes ('Bottle of Red Wine'), The Who (Old Red Wine) and UB40/Neil Diamond ('Red, Red Wine') couldn't be bothered with white wine, either, and neither can my family members, most of my non-wine journalist friends and my ex, who told me that white wine 'soured' his stomach.  So it was not surprising when the relationship eventually curdled, too.

The next-door neighbor, who works in the cellar of a Dry Creek Valley winery, requests only 'strong reds' when I spread vinous cheer during the holidays.  The contractor who remodeled my bathroom, the guy who installed the shower door and the Home Depot fixture salesman?  Red-wine wonks.  I tried to put bottles of white in their thank-you boxes and each said, 'No, thank you.'

Yet I adore white wine.  I drink as much white as I do red, my choice depending on occasion, weather, mood and the meal.  Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Albariño, Gruner Veltliner, Muscadet, Chablis and other racy Chardonnays, Semillon … they all do the trick for me and in fact, it's a rare dinner that doesn't begin with a glass of white or sparkling wine before I move on to rosé or red.  Nothing wakes up the taste buds and stimulates the palate more than a crisp, refreshing white wine, with its acidity tickling the sides of the tongue and causing the mouth to water.

Well-made white wine is absolutely refreshing.  Isn't that the primary goal of a beverage, to refresh?  

The stubborn insistence that red wine is the only wine that matters--especially sturdy, tannic Bordeaux and sensuous, elegant Burgundy--has been passed across the Atlantic from Europe to the United States and adopted by many Americans, who turn up their noses at any wines colored from pale straw to deep golden.  Sadly, they're missing half the fun of drinking wine--and these are people who know wine, not neophytes.

ACNielsen's January 2008 retail scan data shows that the U.S. trend toward increased red-wine purchases has continued from 2007 to 2008.  Red-wine sales command 50.3% of the market, to 42.1% for white wines.  While Chardonnay remains No. 1 in sales overall, with 22% of the total market (Cabernet Sauvignon is No. 2, at 14.1%), it's a long drop to the next white, Pinot Grigio, which owns 7.5% of market sales in the States. 

The numbers, which exclude restaurant wine sales, don't appear to bash white wine too heavily about the head, yet toss out the figures for Chardonnay--produced in tremendous volumes, with varying results, from nearly every wine-producing region in the world--and other whites are hardly a blip on the consumer screen, even though they are generally less expensive at the top end than similar-quality red wines.  On the grocery store aisle, Chardonnay is likely to be the least impressive wine among all the whites, yet it's the one that gets most of the attention.

So what's up with this peaceful demonstration against white wines?  Do they appear to be too simple, not as intellectual as reds?  It is seen as a prissy drink, too close a cousin to the ubiquitous white wine spritzer of the 1970s?

Or is it that palates have been deadened by a decade of cookie-cutter Chardonnays?  Have folks not been introduced to nervy white wines such as Chablis from Burgundy and top-end Chardonnays from California and Oregon; Riesling from Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Washington state; Sauvignon Blanc from France, California, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa; Chenin Blanc from France and South Africa; Torrontes from Argentina, and Gruner Veltliner from Austria?

Maybe consumers are unaccustomed to the brisk acidity that is the hallmark of great white wines.  Or perhaps they've consumed these racy, mouthwatering wines without food, as a cocktail rather than as a complement to a meal, thus not getting the full experience.  Or is it that most have not had enough exposure to the world's most intriguing wines, with names like Aligote, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Fiano, Moschofilero, Grillo and Inzolia?

True, there is a big boom in sales and production of Riesling worldwide, but I suspect Riesling is being 'discovered' by those already drinking white wine; I don't see the closed-minded Cabernet Sauvignon devotee heading to the wine shop for a German Spatlese. 

Of course, the advice of many doctors that their patients drink a glass of red wine a day for health reasons is the No. 1 cheerleader for reds.  Seventeen years after 'Sixty Minutes' broadcast its French Paradox report that tied red-wine consumption to heart health in French people, Americans still follow the prescription, choosing red over white, even though whites have been shown to have positive health properties, too. 

Yet those reading this column likely are not drinking a daily glass of red solely for their hearts.  They're doing it for their heads, too.  Wine is delicious, makes food taste better, stimulates conversation, encourages learning about cultures beyond U.S. borders, and brings people together at the table.  White wine has this ability as much as red, yet it gets short shrift. 

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy red wine as much as white: Pinot Noir with pork, fish and mushrooms … Zinfandel and Syrah with hearty grilled meats … Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with lamb and steak … Port with Stilton cheese.  Yet as we move into the warmer months, and as salads, fresh produce, seafood, cold entrees and lighter dishes replace osso bucco and beef bourguignon, white wines deliver more lip-smacking zing than most red wines and pair nicely with the foods of spring and summer.

Last week I opened a bottle of the 2007 Bonny Doon Ca' del Solo Albariño from Monterey County ($20).  It's crackling-crisp and edgy, with juicy lime and grapefruit flavors.  It was a fabulous foil for prawns that were marinated in red chile paste, pumpkin seeds and cilantro and given a quick grilling.  I can't immediately think of a red wine that can handle the spiciness and heat of the dish without overwhelming its flavors. 

Several other racy, high-acid/low alcohol, new-release whites come quickly to mind for the chile-infused prawns, among them the 2007 St. Supery Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($21) and 2006 Leasingham Magnus Clare Valley Riesling from Australia ($12). 

Randall Grahm's Ca' del Solo Albariño is cool on several counts.  In addition to being food-friendly, it's one of only a handful of Albariños to be made in California (Tangent Winery in Edna Valley and York Mountain Winery in Paso Robles also produce stellar Albariños modeled after those in Rias Baixas, Spain).  Additionally, Grahm made the wine from grapes grown biodynamically in Bonny Doon's estate vineyard near Soledad, and includes small amounts of the little-known Spanish varieties Loureiro and Treixadura. 

The back label lists the ingredients in the wine--biodynamic grapes and sulfur dioxide--and explains that indigenous yeast, organic yeast hulls and bentonite (a clarifying agent) were also used in the process.  'We hope to demonstrate our commitment to natural, vital wines and to the great virtue of transparency,' Grahm says in explaining his voluntary listing of ingredients.  If the U.S. government decides to require such information on bottles (it's exploring the possibility), Grahm is already ahead of the pack.

Try this Albariño with any shellfish, including fresh oysters, vinaigrettes, Asian spices, asparagus, artichokes, heirloom tomatoes, fresh goat cheese … well, you get the idea.  Save the reds for cool weather and brawny dishes. 

Another recently tasted gem is the 2007 Andeluna Torrontes Winemaker's Selection from Tupungato, Argentina ($12), with its floral aromatics and juicy yellow stone fruit and citrus palate, with hints of minerals and almonds. 

A recent trip to Montalcino put a trio of tuna dishes in front of me with the classy 2006 Castello Banfi Sant' Antimo Serena Sauvignon Blanc ($19).  It combines fresh peach, nectarine and grapefruit aromas and flavors with hints of green herbs and a slight biscuity note from time spent in contact with the lees.

From Sicily comes the 2007 Principi di Butera Insolia ($14), made from the Insolia grape (traditionally spelled Inzolia).  This Italian island gets intensely hot in summer, yet this rewarding white wine manages to balance mouth-coating, ripe pear and apple fruit with crisp acidity and a nutty undertone.  It's sort of a cross among Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Arneis; try it with grilled pork tenderloin. 

Thankfully, more and more New World Chardonnays emphasize bright fruit, crisp acidity and fine balance, and are retreating from the buttery, oaky excess of recent years.  The 2006 Emiliana 'Novas' Limited Selection Chardonnay ($17) from Casablanca, Chile, made from organically grown grapes, is a dashing yet elegant representative of this 'new' Chardonnay style, with vivid pear and citrus fruit and a mouthwatering finish.  It would be terrific with grilled fish, roasted chicken and fresh corn.

Australian Riesling delivers tremendous bang-for-the-buck for those adventurous enough to seek laser-like whites that cleanse the palate and invite another bite of food.  The 2007 The Yard Whispering Hill Vineyard Western Australia Riesling ($25) is such a wine, loaded with lime, green apple and Meyer lemon fruit, steely acidity and kissed by a touch of honey for richness.

Most U.S. winemakers have recently bottled their crisp, non-oaked white wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris/Grigo, stainless-steel fermented Chardonnay, etc.) from 2007 and are sending them to market now.  The 2006 whites that see barrel aging (Chardonnay, Viognier and other Rhône-style whites) are also being released. 

Drinking only white wine, or only red wine, is an indication of inexperience or ignorance; drinking both is a sign of sophistication and of democracy.  I thank singer Loudon Wainwright III for supporting my white-wine crusade with his song, 'White Winos,' which in part goes like this:

Mother liked her white wine
When she was alive.
She was desperate to live
But her limit was five.
Carefully I'd kiss her
And send her off to bed.
We always stuck with white wine
We stayed away from red.

Mother liked her white wine
She'd have a glass or two
Almost every single night
after her day was through.
Sancerre, chardonnay, chablis,
Pinot grigio,
Just to take the edge off
Just to get the glow.