Very frequently, when dining out with friends who ask me to choose the wine for our meal, someone inevitably declares, “I really don't like white wine!” I am always astonished because this means they have been missing out on some truly wonderful wines from many regions of the world. Likewise at wine tastings I host for women who seek to be more knowledgeable about wines, they too can be overheard saying they don’t really care for the white wines, that they are just too thin and acidic for their liking.
Why is this? Red wine buffs look for wines with body, texture, depth and complexity. Nearly all red wines and some white wines (such as Chardonnay and Viognier) go through a process called malolactic fermentation, where tart malic acid in wine is converted to softer, creamier lactic acid (the same acid found in milk). The process reduces acidity and citrusy aspects in wine and accounts for that rich, creamy, oily, weighty texture on the palate. Malolactic fermentation typically happens when wine is aged in oak barrels.
Since we’re now in the time of year when even the most ardent red wine drinker chooses a chilled refreshing white wine while dining al fresco, this is my opportunity to suggest interesting whites that red lovers continue drinking even into fall and winter.
Let’s start with Chardonnay, originally from France’s Burgundy region, now grown in almost every wine producing country in the world…a ubiquitous, hardy grape that can create widely varied wines. These white wines of Burgundy are the inspiration for Chardonnay produced worldwide and among the most elegant and balanced of all Chardonnays.
Like red wines, Chardonnay often undergoes malolactic fermentation in oak barrels, and it too can convey this creamy impression. Creamy Chardonnay became very popular with US wine consumers in 1980’s and 1990’s when enologists from California started making creamy, oaky Chardonnays, aged in barrels producing a buttery, creamy flavor and texture, quite successfully.
Soon other mass-market producers, seeking this financial success, began hiding the true characteristics of the Chardonnay grape, losing its unique fruity notes, and producing huge quantities of heavily barrel fermented, buttery, vanilla-flavored Chardonnays. As wine palates matured and consumers became bored with this flavor profile, an anti-Chardonnay movement began, a consumer “revolution” against this style of wine, called ABC--Anything but Chardonnay.
These buttery Chardonnays (as well as an impression that white wines are too thin and excessively sharp) have turned many wine drinkers off all white wines. Yet, there are many white wines that deliver a savory complexity that red wine fans can also love.
Here are a few recommendations for truly “worthy” wines that will please even the most hardened red wine enthusiast:
1. Wines made from white Rhône varieties such as Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne are full-bodied, robust, and go well with rich dishes like lobster. French originals from the Rhône range from affordable white Côtes-du-Rhône to more costly Condrieu. Marsanne has full body, dry style, similar layers of complexity and aging potential. Roussanne has the lushness and mouth feel of a red, and Marsanne-Roussanne blends have surprising body and mushroom-y character. American favorites come from Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, California.
While Viognier’s spiritual home is the northern Rhône in France, wineries in Washington’s Columbia and Walla Walla Valleys have been turning out exceptional examples of this honeyed, peachy and highly aromatic wine. Viogniers from Washington’s K Vintners tend to be lean and racy in style, and pair well with pork chops, rotisserie chicken and also rich shellfish like lobster and scallops.
2. Pinot Gris; versions from Oregon or Alsace pack a lot of punch. These are full-bodied, high-alcohol wines with a unique smoky, almost roasted quality that goes well with poultry cooked outdoors, such as grilled chicken or fried turkey. Chehalem Three Vineyard Pinot Gris 2016 from Oregon tends to have moderate to low acidity and an almost oily texture that contributes to the full-bodied nature of the wine.
3. I am a big fan of Italian White Wines and we tend to know little about the diversity of Italian whites in the US, as the grapes are indigenous to Italy and typically not grown in US wine regions,
Falanghina is an ancient variety of white wine grapes cultivated on the coast of Campania north of Naples. It is frequently consumed in southern Italy paired with seafood. Try Feudi di San Gregorio 2016 Falanghina (Sannio), which presents a medium intensity mouth feel upon entry, crisp minerality, medium bodied, soft and endearing on the palate; dryish, soft acidity, nicely balanced; and pleasing soft fruit flavors, like mangos.
White Pinot Nero from the Lombardy region of Italy has the body of a red wine with the weight of a white. This straw-yellow wine is an unusual, complex and vibrant spin on the traditionally red wine grape. My favorite is Frecciarossa Pinot Nero Bianco Sillery, with a bright nose of honeysuckle and white peach, Anjou pear and slate on the palate, and a rich finish that recalls its red-hued origin. A wonderful food wine, with veal or chicken casseroles, fresh grilled seafood, ripe cheese.
Vermentino from Sardinia has flavors of apple, rose petal, melon and spice. Creamy with citrusy acidity and balance, Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino 2013 pairs well with Mediterranean fare and fried fish.
Langhe Bianco – From the commune of Serralunga d'Alba, in the heart of the Barolo zone, comes Luigi Baudana Dragon, Langhe Bianco 2016. A blend of 50% Chardonnay, 30% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Riesling, and 5% Nascetta, a local grape variety, is aged in stainless steel, without oak, producing a complex wine with exotic stone-fruit notes.
4. Chenin Blanc – Originating in Loire Valley of France, some of the most famous styles come from the regions of Vouvray, Savennieres, Anjou and Samur. Yet South Africans have mastered this grape and produce superior quality from vines over 100 years old. Wines from these old vines exhibit a natural balance between¬ concentration and finesse. They’re complex wines of depth and intrigue that can cellar gracefully from five to 15 years. Try DeMorgenzon 2015 Reserve (Stellenbosch); Perdeberg Winery 2016 The Dry Land Collection Courageous Barrel Fermented (Paarl, Sustainable and Fairtrade Certified) and 2016 Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch, Certified Sustainable).
5. Sauvignon Blanc is usually very herbal and grassy, but here’s a unique one to try, Green Glow 2015, produced by The Supernatural Wine Company in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
When I visited Gregory Collinge, the owner, he explained that the aim of the company was always to produce naturally vinified wines, stressing organic and biodynamic viticulture, skin-fermentation and indigenous yeast in the wine making; thus the company name, “The Supernatural.”
Green Glow is skin fermented, moderately deep, light golden-yellow color. Dry to taste and medium-full bodied, the flavors of green stone fruits, herbs and florals are restrained. It has subtle richness with nutty, leafy and chalky mineral elements, to pair with seafood, salads and vegetables. This is a fine-textured Sauvignon Blanc as a result of extensive lees contact over six months to develop the characteristic texture. It will surprise you, and for fun, the label glows in the dark.
Finally, if you aren’t put off by the ABC movement, these wines might just convince you never to rule Chardonnay out again:
Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands California is 100% Chardonnay from Monterey County. The grapes are fermented in cement tanks and the wine has no oak contact. The 2014 vintage opens up with aromas of flower blossoms, crisp pears and a hint of honeysuckle. On the palate, the wine is round and layered, with an acidity and depth that belie its unoaked character.
Domaine Eric Forest Pouilly-Fuissé Les Crays 2011 is 100% oaked Chardonnay from Burgundy, but even the most hardened “non-believer” could be converted by its elegance and intensity -- a bit different from the Chardonnays many people will be familiar with. Grown on Vergisson Hill, it’s a refreshing mineral wine rich with apple-blossom, pear and nectarine, almost tropical.
Bergström Vineyards Sigrid Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon, first made in 2006, is a succulent luscious Chardonnay and all about minerality at 12.9% alcohol. It has a rich core of butterscotch and the seemingly endless layers of subtle flavors that biodynamic farming can bring. Straw/yellow color, apple/pear notes, but balanced by nice level of minerality, this can be enjoyed by most who don’t generally enjoy whites in general or Chardonnay in particular!