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Spring Fever, or an Epiphany?
By Robert Whitley
Feb 26, 2008
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I must have Spring fever. Or was that an epiphany?

We are a Chardonnay nation no more. At least not the way we once were. The voluptuous tropical fruit notes and honeyed, buttery texture of Chardonnay continue to be in great demand - in fact, Chardonnay is still No. 1 in white wine sales -- but there has been a discernible shift in consumer taste.

Move over Chardonnay and make room for those crisp, lip-smacking white wines that are now soaring in popularity!

These include Spanish Albarino, Austrian Gruner Veltliner and New World Riesling as well as tried-and-true Pinot Grigio from northern Italy. That's just for starters. The world is full of refreshing white wines just waiting to be discovered.

The appeal of these other-worldly whites is as much about texture as taste. All deliver varying levels of fresh acidity, from the firm but luscious structure of a Greco di Tufo produced in southern Italy to the tart bite of a Sauvignon blanc made near the chilly shores of New Zealand's South Island.

Most are produced with little or no barrel aging, and all share one thing in common: They refresh the palate with each sip. This makes them especially enjoyable for quaffing or when served with lighter cuisine, particularly Mediterranean and Asian preparations.

Italy

Perhaps no wine-producing nation in the world is more attuned to this phenomenon than Italy. Long esteemed for the prowess of its red wines, Italy enjoys remarkable success with a vast array of white wines that epitomize the concept of easy-drinking whites that go with all manner of fish and Mediterranean tapas.

In the north there is an ocean of Pinot Grigio. Light, refreshing and generally inexpensive, Pinot Grigio is booming in the United States. The more commercial Pinot Grigios are made in a broad, flat northern Italy appellation called Delle Venezie, and the alpine slopes of Trentino. More serious Pinot Grigio can be found from Alto Adige (Alois Lageder, Terlano and San Michele Appiano, to name a few) and the Collio and Colli Orientali regions of Friuli (Livio Felluga, Russis Superiore, Jermann and Pighin).

There is even good Pinot Grigio (Castello Banfi and Ruffino) produced in Tuscany, but no one would argue that Friuli and Alto Adige are not the clear leaders.

Those two regions also contribute exceptional dry Riesling, rich but lightly oaked Pinot bianco (also called Pinot blanc) and wonderfully lush Sauvignon blanc to the mix of fresh whites, but those wines are more difficult to find because they don't have strong support from importers.

The same could be said of Gavi, the premier white wine of the Piedmont region. This is an area - just south of Turin and close to the French border - that is most renowned for its red wines: Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera. The Gavi of Pio Cesare is probably the most widely available in the U.S. and it's a delicious wine that exhibits tart citrus characteristics laced with minerality.

Tuscany and the island of Sardinia have demonstrated good consistency in recent vintages with Vermentino, which is more full-bodied and sumptuous than the Gavi or Pinot Grigio, but with similar notes of lime citrus and less of the flinty slate notes found in the whites from farther north.

Vermentino is a sleeper, but not widely available, though the heavily marketed Antinori makes a good one. Soave is another sleeper. Commercial Soave from the Veneto region surrounding Verona has never been very interesting, but top producers such as Pieropan and Inama produce complex, beautifully structured wines that express the minerality of the region. Masi, Anselmi and Allegrini also make Soave that is quite good.

Southern Italy produces a number of superb whites that possess the rare combination of richness and freshness. The two most prominent are the Fiano di Avellino (Mastroberardino is a top producer) and Greco di Tufo (look for the Feudi di San Gregorio). Arnaldo Caprai of Umbria makes a leaner, crisper version of the Greco from a related clone of the Greco, called Grecante.

France

France is no slouch when it comes to food friendly, refreshing whites. The epicenter of this type of wine would have to be the Loire Valley, where zingy Sancerre and Pouilly Fume are produced from the Sauvignon Blanc grape

These were the wines against which all Sauvignon Blanc was measured before the introduction of New Zealand's Marlborough Sauvignons to the equation.

The Sauvignons of the Loire Valley are probably the most balanced in the world among wines of this type, exhibiting luscious red citrus fruit aromas, bracing acidity and heaps of minerality.

As you travel west through the Loire Valley toward the Atlantic Ocean, Sauvignon gives way to Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine, a steely white that to this day is fermented in concrete vats built into the ground and accessed through the floorboards of most of the region's wineries.

Muscadet is the quintessential oyster wine because of its freshness and palate-cleansing acidity. A good Muscadet knifes through the briny, earthy flavors of raw oyster. Muscadet acids, however, are so high that these wines almost always demand food of some sort and I seldom recommend them as quaffers.

Muscadet producers are quite small and thus relatively difficult to find in any volume in the United States. Two that I've had good experience with are Domaine de la Pepiere and Domaine de la Tourmaline. Given that most Muscadet retails for between $9 and $19 per bottle, it isn't too pricey to encourage a bit of experimentation with unknown producers.

The same could be said for Picpoul, a light, simple white from a small appellation - Picpoul de Pinet - in the Languedoc region in the south of France. Picpoul is inexpensive but refreshing and pairs extremely well with oysters and steamed mussels and clams. Mas St. Laurent and Chateau Pinet are excellent producers, but the wines in general are good quality across the region.

Spain

The ascent of Albarino in the trendy wine bars of the U.S. has been stunning. Little more than a decade ago Albarino was hardly known on these shores, and not even in much demand in Spain, where the most popular whites were made in the center of the country.

Albarino is grown on the Atlantic coast of Spain, in a wet, chilly corner of the country just to the north of Portugal. The region, Rias Baixas, is too cold to grow red grapes, and even the Albarino barely ripens by today's standards. The climate dictates white wines high in acidity and leaner in body than those made in warmer climes, but the results complement the cuisine of the region, which is largely seafood.

Albarino's charm is its ability to deliver aromas of stone fruit and red citrus despite the apparent lack of ripesness. Like the Picpoul, Albarino is best when drunk very young, and little of it is ever matured in oak barrels.

Top producers include Martin Codax, Pazo de Senorans, Vionta and Salneval.

New Zealand

Though New Zealand has enjoyed recent success with other aromatic whites, I will focus on the wine for which it is most renowned - Sauvignon Blanc. The Cloudy Bay winery in New Zealand's Marlborough region, a wind-swept coastal area on the north shore of the South Island, literally put New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the map.

It was so popular in the United States at one time that it was highly allocated and difficult to obtain, but that dynamic changed as more wonderful Kiwi Sauvignons found their way to our shores.

New Zealand Sauvignons are prized for their herbal, mineral and sometimes grassy flavors and aromas, bracing acidity that makes them a great fit with steamed mussels, cockles and clams, as well as grilled fish and white meats.

For sipping in spring and summer these are among my favorite wines, particularly for that first refreshing glass at the end of a long day. There are any number of top producers widely distributed in the U.S., including Kim Crawford, Matua, Villa Maria, Nobilo and Kathy Lynskey.

The Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand is slightly warmer than Marlborough and produces Sauvignons that are slightly more tropical and oily, of which Craggy Range is one of my top choices.

And Chardonnay lovers will be happy to know that New Zealand does well by that grape, especially from the Kumeu River winery located just outside of Auckland.

Australia

Much like Italy, Australia is generally thought of as a nation of red wines. Yet its dry Rieslings from Clare and Eden valleys and the popular Semillon-Sauvignon blends of Western Australia are among the most refreshing and balanced aromatic whites in the world.

My favorite Riesling from this part of the world is Grossett's two Clare Valley Rieslines, Polish Hill and Watervale. Wolf Blass and Annie's Lane also weigh in with very nice Rieslings from this area, and Peter Lehmann and Henschke make superb dry Rieslings from the Eden Valley.

These wines are all noted for their fresh lime/citrus character and firm acidity.

Western Australia also produces a number of fine Rieslings, in particular the Frankland River and Leeuwin Rieslings.

United States

Chardonnay may still be king, but fresh, crisp, aromatic whites are gaining in popularity and are staples at many of the new wine bars springing up throughout the county.

While Sauvignon Blanc is the most dominant of these wines, Riesling is rising to prominence once again in Washington, and Oregon has built a solid reputation for delicate, aromatic Pinot Gris that is made largely without the influence of oak aging.

The Washington Rieslings tend to be 'off-dry', with residual sugars that exceed 1.5 percent, but the acids are high enough that the wines are well balanced and leave the impression of dryness. The major practicioners are Chateau Ste. Michelle and Hogue Cellars, and the Rieslings from both of these wineries are incredibly popular with Pacific Rim and Asian cuisine, including sushi.

The Pinot Gris of Oregon is lighter and not quite as rich as the Pinot Gris of France's Alsace region, but that makes it a good match for the same Pacific Rim and Asian dishes that go so well with Washington Rieslings. And very little of the Oregon Pinot Gris is oak aged.

Top producers include Chehalem, Ponzi and Elk Cove. And from California the Pinot Gris of J Vineyards and Winery and MacMurray are first rate. California Rieslings that I would put in the same company with the top Rieslings of Washington include Trefethen and Smith-Madrone of the Napa Valley, and Monterey County's Ventana Vineyards.

That leaves Sauvignon Blanc, which performs very well in California's Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and some parts of the Napa Valley.

The Napa Valley Sauvignons are similar in style to the white wines of Bordeaux, generally exhibiting aromas of peach, white flowers and sometimes honey. Spottswoode and Duckhorn are probably best-known for this style, but I also find the Sauvignons from Spring Mountain Vineyards and Hartwell to be very good in this style. Locally, the Fallbrook winery makes a similar Sauvignon from grapes sourced in nearby Temecula.

Sterling and Mason make more of the grassy New Zealand style; wines that are notable for their intense grapefruit aroma. That style is most widely seen in Sonoma County, in particular from wines made in the Russian River Valley (Rochioli, Geyser Peak) and Dry Creek Valley (Dry Creek Vineyards).

Two noteworthy wineries - Ferrari-Carano and Murphy-Goode - have become famous for a style that sits somewhere in between, with soft, round textures in the mouth and the flavors of melon and tropical fruit.