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American Whites: Shining Exceptions to the Dull Rule
By Michael Franz
Aug 30, 2011
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This may get your hackles up if you are a patriotic American, but everyone knows that acknowledging a problem is a necessary step toward improvement. So: There’s a general consensus among open-minded, broadly experienced, professional tasters that white wines from the United States are boring. Embarrassingly boring. Generally speaking, they compare poorly against whites from other countries in terms of aromatic expressiveness, vibrancy of flavor, minerality, and acidic structure.

This idea is believed much more widely than it is written, or even spoken. Perhaps that’s because wine experts are nice people who’d prefer not to rain on anyone’s parade. More likely, they share with the rest of the population a hesitancy to bite the hand that feeds them.

In any event, if you are a consumer who is not particularly critical of American whites, you might well doubt my opening observation, in which case I’d propose that you conduct a test:

First, get a polygraph machine.

Second, hook it up to 100 veteran wine writers, and ask them to pick the one country from whence they’d choose to spend the rest of their lives drinking white wine.

Third, provide with the following options: USA, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria, New Zealand, and Chile.

Fourth, observe the fact that not one of them chooses the USA.

Since I haven’t actually conducted this test, I could conceivably be wrong in my guesstimation about the outcome. But I’d bet serious money that I’m not, and I’d even entertain some side bets, such as that the number choosing the USA wouldn’t rise above five even if you yanked France from the alternatives.

If I’m correct that the USA is a second-rate producer of white wines, and correct moreover that this isn’t merely my subjective opinion but a nearly universal consensus among experts, then there are at least two interesting questions that come to mind.

One is, why isn’t the average higher--much higher--for white wines made across the USA? I’ve got some hypotheses about this, involving factors ranging all the way from climate to culture, but the question is so complex and multi-layered that it can’t be addressed adequately in a column.

A more manageable (and practically useful) question is, what are some important exceptions to the rule, and what makes them exceptional?

I’ve done a lot of tasting recently while building the wine list for a new restaurant, and in the midst of countless domestic mediocrities, I’ve found some exemplary whites that show what a brighter future in the USA would taste like. Here they are, in no particular order:

Brut Sauvage Blanc de Blancs, Gruet, New Mexico NV ($17): This is a very serious sparkler showing that skill and altitude and small production enabling attention to detail can produce something really World Class--in New Mexico. Uncompromisingly dry in a non-dossage style, yet neither biting nor austere, this is extremely impressive. 3,000 cases produced.

Pinot Blanc Estate, Bethel Heights, Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon 2010 ($19): I love Pinot Blanc (especially from Alsace, Friuli in Italy, and from South Styria in Austria) and this is quite possibly the best one I’ve ever tasted from the United States. Whereas this variety is routinely oaked into a indistinct Chardonnay look-alike in California, Bethel Heights has treated it respectfully and been rewarded handsomely. Medium-bodied with gorgeous fruit recalling pears and baked apples, with excellent balancing acidity and a finish that just won’t quit. I don’t know whether the hand-off approach and the absence of wood is the more salient factor in this wine’s excellence or the hand-on approach made possible by ultra-small production, but the resulting wine is utterly convincing and complete. By the way, Bethel Heights is no one-trick-pony with whites, as the 2010 Pinot Gris is very nearly as good is the same admirable style. 390 cases produced.

Arneis, Seghesio Family Vineyards, Russian River Valley, CA 2010 ($23): Here’s an idea for California wineries: Stop leaning complacently on Chardonnay and try something different! Or, more precisely, try a grape variety that makes interesting wine elsewhere in the world, vinify it in a clean, straightforward style, and see what happens. In this instance, Seghesio took the Arneis grape from Italy’s Piedmont region, treated it in a modest manner to let it express itself, and yielded a lightly floral, stone fruit and mandarin-flavored, structurally balanced and enduringly interesting winner. 927 cases produced.

Grüner Veltliner, Zocker Winery, Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard, CA 2010 ($20): The key to this wine’s standout success is exactly the same as the Seghesio Arneis: A willingness to experiment beyond the mainstream of commercially established varieties. Grüner is certainly a promising candidate, since it routinely produces structurally layered wines in Austria even in warmer years and with the simplest cellar treatment. Everybody knows that it is easy to get richness and fruit in California, and everybody with a wider frame of reference knows that it is difficult to get California wines with cut and definition and the sort of structural “crackle” that this wine offers. Let’s hope that wines like this spur other vintners out of their comfort zone and into the wider world of interesting cultivars. 2,320 cases produced.

Albariño, Tangent Winery, Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard, CA 2009: Winemaker Christian Rogenaut has been working with Albariño for several years now, and has really dialed in his technique to produce a wine that can hold its own against some of the best wines from Spain’s Rias Baixas region. Generous in body and fruit but defined in structure and freshened by acidity that is very well integrated with the peach-flavored fruit. It is very difficult for me to understand why we can’t point to dozens of other innovative wines such as this one. I suspect that the human factor is key, so perhaps we’ll need to rely on Christian Rogenaut to experiment with Spain’s Godello and Verdeho? 2,555 cases produced. 

Sauvignon Blanc “Special Cuvée, Elizabeth Spencer, Mendocino, CA 2010 ($15): Elizabeth Spencer also produces 375 cases of exceptional Chenin Blanc, but since Sauvignon Blanc is so conspicuously poor in the USA, this is the wine deserving focus here. This is a very well-made wine, but perhaps more importantly, a judiciously made one. It seems to have been crafted with an eye toward crisp, edgy character in tune with the variety’s natural propensities, and yet the winemaker didn’t to push the fruit outside of the climate’s range to make it ape a Sauvignon from New Zealand. There are plenty of California Sauvignons made by the mimicry method, and they almost always end up being grating because a portion of the fruit was still green when picked. There are also plenty of Sauvignons made in a ponderously ripe style and then slathered in oak, but very few that get the balance right. This is a standout. 2,675 cases produced.

Chardonnay, Wölffer Estate, Long Island, NY 2008 ($18): Good Chardonnay is the one white wine for which the USA isn’t lacking, but there’s certainly not enough of them made in this restrained, integrated, coherent style. Full but modest ripeness is certainly the key to this wine’s success, but skillful winemaking also seems important, manifested in restraint with oak and an apparent effort at overall subtlety. 2,124 cases produced.

Pinot Gris, Jefferson Vineyards, Virginia 2010 ($18): Absolutely packed with pure, juicy fruit, this is a perfect peach in a bottle. It is lightly but not distractingly sweet, and yet the balance could hardly better, as there’s an abundance of energetic, almost prickly acidity to enable the wine to achieve excellent structural balance. Jefferson consistently turns out some of Virginia’s best wines--both reds and whites--and indeed some of the USA’s. One need not be a local booster to admire this wine, which is a match for almost any Pinot Gris produced in Alsace or Germany’s Pfalz region. 1,100 cases produced.

Marsanne, La Diligence, Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley, CA 2009 ($33): This is a big, dramatic wine, with a serious lashing of oak, and in these respects it is not all that unusual for California, which remains the undisputed center of gravity for winemaking in the USA. However, it shows terrific intensity of aroma and flavor as well as distinctive notes of roasted nuts and freshly mown hay that really recall an Old World wine more than a standard-issue New World fruit bomb. Perhaps that’s because the wine results from a joint venture between Dave Miner of Oakville’s Miner Vineyards and Francois Villard of France’s Rhône Valley. This is so full of distinctive character that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is compelling wine that no one could possibly find boring. 423 cases produced.

Viognier, Horton Vineyards, Orange County, VA 2010 ($16): This is the sort of wine that might only be fully appreciated if tasted blind, since the modest price and Virginia origin might well prevent a sighted taster from taking it as seriously as it deserves on its merits. Horton Viognier isn’t this strong in all vintages, but it is this strong in years other than 2010, so we’re not talking about a one-hit wonder here. Its particular excellence consists in achieving soaring aromatics and vivid flavor without the alcoholic heat that routinely afflicts Viognier in California when made in this expressive style. The trick with this variety is that it doesn’t manifest its signature floral aromatics until it ripens fully, at which point (in California, at least) there’s so much sugar in the grapes that they can’t be fermented to dryness without delivering a punishing alcoholic wallop. By contrast, classic renditions of Viognier from Condrieu in France’s Rhône Valley are rarely hot with alcohol, but frequently they lack ripeness and expressiveness--despite costing three to 10 times as much as this wine. This should be a source of pride not only in Virginia, but for winemakers and wine lovers alike across the United States. 2,695 cases produced.

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Dissents? Comments? Questions? Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com