One of the most significant development in grape growing and winemaking over the past twenty-five years has been the emergence of compelling, distinctive-tasting white wines--often made with fairly obscure grape varieties--from places heretofore thought too warm for successful white wine production. These wines hail from many places in both the northern and southern hemispheres, but many of the most exciting come from the Mediterranean rim. With summer now bidding its annual farewell, this is a wonderful time of year to try some of them.
Mediterranean regions have a long winemaking history, but until recently most white wines made in their often searing heat tasted tired, heavy and oxidized. They tended to lack the acidity that makes good white wines refreshing, as well as the complexity that renders the best whites captivating.
Refrigeration technology gives vintners the tools with which to regulate the temperatures of unfermented juice as well as both fermenting and finished wine. It thus is the crucial element in the winemaking process that earlier generations did not have available to them. No matter how hot it might be in the cellar, refrigeration provides contemporary vintners with control over their craft. Mother Nature still dictates the character of each vintage, but human beings now have the upper hand when it comes to the basic character of the wine.
Increased control has come to vineyards as well as cellars. Growers today know much more than their forebears about yields, sun exposure, physiological ripening, and the other intricacies of successful modern viticulture. Put simply, they are able to grow healthier, riper fruit than ever before.
The end result is a bevy of exciting white wines made from grapes and hailing from places that even devoted connoisseurs knew little about two or three decades ago. While each region and each variety has its own personality, these wines share a few common characteristics. Coming from hot locales, the wines tend to have some heft and an often-fleshy texture. At the same time, especially if they have seen little if any oak following fermentation, they will taste lively and vivacious. Their flavors run the gamut of fruit-like impressions, but regardless of specifics, the wines, when well made, usually offer impressive depth--again, a result of the high temperatures during the growing season.
The combination of fresh flavors and a satisfying texture is what makes these Mediterranean whites such good choices for autumn drinking. To echo the poet John Keats when describing the season, they are wines of “mists and mellow fruitfulness,” all with their own music. Moving from west to east, here are four favorites to try as shadows lengthen and the evening air begins to chill.
Since Rioja is known primarily for its red wines, and since the region actually is closer to the Atlantic’s Bay of Biscay than the Mediterranean, perhaps its whites do not even belong in this discussion. But Rioja’s climate, with its dry, arid heat, reflects a Mediterranean not an Atlantic influence, and the wines themselves, which long have been nondescript at best and unpleasant at worst, are becoming much more interesting. They exemplify how styles, and times, are changing.
Viura is the dominant white grape in Rioja. Valued because it retains acidity even in high heat, it sadly lacks intensity on its own. Producers thus can add Malavasia, White Grenache, even (thanks to recent changes in the regulations) Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Verdejo to their blends. These come in two styles--traditional ones, aged in oak and intentionally exposed to a bit of air, and fresh-tasting modern ones designed to be drunk young. This second category is where the excitement can be found.
Producers who do well with wines made in the more contemporary style include Baron de Ley, Martinez Lucesta, Monticello, and Marqués de Cáceres. Their wines seem to be getting better and more interesting almost every year.
The whites of southern France invariably get overshadowed by the reds, but exciting discoveries seem to be coming along more and more frequently. A wide range of grapes is permitted in this large region’s alphabet-soup of appellations, but Grenache Blanc is the most ubiquitous. Its inherent weight allows wines made with it to exhibit the sort of fleshy texture that makes for good autumn sipping.
Some whites from the region are quite light, Picpoul de Pinet for example. Others, especially from appellations near the Spanish border, can be quite sweet. But more and more producers are experimenting with dry whites, and the results to date have been quite impressive.
Look for wines from the La Clape appellation (Château d’Anglès and Gérard Bertrand are well-respected producers there), where the addition of Bourboulenc and Roussanne grapes provide added depth. Look also for white Collioure, which can be hauntingly delicious. (The Domaine de la Rectorie and Coume del Mas are both excellent producers.) In addition, a number of negociants buy grapes throughout the region and make first-rate wines. Laurent Miquel’s, for example, are inexpensive and invariably good.
Whites from Sicily
As recently as ten years ago wine lovers tended to look at anything white from Sicily with real skepticism. That’s because the wines tended to be dark yellow if not brown, and tasted more like bad sherry than anything else. Today, a veritable revolution has come to the island. More and more wines are bright, fresh, and full of lip-smacking flavor.
There are some fine wines made with Chardonnay and other international grapes in Sicily, but the real excitement comes from the wines being made with local grapes, including Cataratto, Grecanico, Grillo and Inzolia. Because few consumers, even those living there, recognize these names, the challenge for Sicilian winemakers comes in getting people to try the wines. Happily, sales figures in major export markets, including the United States, suggest that when people do sample them, they’re happy to come back for more.
The best sites for white wine on this volcanic island are situated above the sea in the interior, where temperatures are lower than on the coast. Sicily is still hot, however, so the wines are almost always richly textured. The altitude allows the grapes to retain acidity, so they also taste bright and lively.
Producers whose wines are worth searching out include Arianna Occhipinti, Marco de Bartoli, and Tasca d’Almerita.
Assyrtiko from Greece
This distinctive white grape (pronounced assert-e-go) is best known as a variety native to the Aegean island of Santorini, where it produces wines that at their best bear more than a passing resemblance to first-rate Chablis, being marked with the same paradoxical combination of richness and taut, tense brightness. Producers on the Greek mainland have been planting Assyrtiko too, and their wines, while not quite as riveting, can be delicious as well.
Some producers ferment Assyrtiko in oak, while others use it as a component in blends. To my mind, however, the grape is sufficiently distinctive-tasting to stand on its own, without benefit of either wood or partner. In fact, I suspect that we soon will see it being planted beyond Greece, as its naturally high acidity would make it an ideal choice for other warm regions, especially in our current age of global warming. For now, though, you need to look to Greece in order to discover its charm.
The list of top Santorini producers includes Argyros, Gaia, Hatzidakis, and Siglas, and on the mainland Biblia Chora and Domaine Porto Carras.