With the dog days of Summer upon us, our wine drinking habits often run into a bit of a conundrum. If you live for white wines, you are as happy as a pig in fresh slop. If you are a staunch red wine drinker, there are days that it seems just too hot to hunker down to a big Cabernet or Zinfandel. These wines are just what the doctor ordered to warm you up on a cold Winters night. But on any given hot and sweaty Summer evening, they can seem to weigh you down like a lead balloon.
This is the time of the season to be thinking light and white. Even if white wines are not your usual beverage of choice, there are plenty of them out there in the wine world that are sure to pleasure even the hardest to please palates. They range from bone dry to various levels of sweetness. The scope of fruit flavors range from citrus to butterscotch, juicy to vanilla, melon to nutty, toasty to tropical. Most of all, besides being pleasant and refreshing, they are most versatile when paired with an appetizing meal.
Each year from the beginning of Spring to the end of Summer, I choose one varietal of white wine to focus on and study the wide variety of offerings that particular grape has to offer. I’ve had my year of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier and white blends. This year, my choice was easy: Alternative Whites. There are so many different varieties of wine from a vast array of countries, the selections put forth before me this season have been broad and expansive.
Let’s look in depth at the wide spectrum of white wines available, the grapes, the countries that best produce them, and what flavors you might expect from each varietal.
Let us start with one of the most popular of white wines in the world today, Pinot Gris. Better known in Italy as Pinot Grigio, these Italian versions tend to lean towards light, fruity and crisp, whereas in the Alsace region of France, Pinot Gris’ tend to be a bit spicier and more robust, yet stylistic and smooth.
Versions produced in California range from slightly dry and fruity to touch sweet and syrupy. Some of the best from the new world come from Oregon, where crisp clean fruit flavors dominate with ultra ripe vibrancy. Yet these gems are getting increasingly harder to find since many vineyard owners are ripping out the Pinot Gris vines in favor of the more popular Chardonnay grape.
Some of the best wines I have tasted this year have been from the Viognier grape. The French versions, known as Condrieu, are quite elegant and racy and in particular, very expensive. California leads the way with a number of excellent choices. Peach, pear, pineapple and tropical fruit, with spicy and floral notes, are its main characteristics. But depending on the winemaker, beautiful nuances abound with the wines of this finicky grape. Great selections from Australia and South Africa are also available.
Germany is not the only country that dominates when one thinks of Riesling. California, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand and even our home State of Michigan put out a wide range of superb bottlings. From the touch sweet to a diabetic’s nightmare of sugary sweet and points in between, this noble grape reigns as the King of White. Citrus, melon and mineral qualities are their M/O, yet look to the dry style of Riesling for something completely different. Yes, there exist dry versions for those who rather not prefer a sweet tooth in their wine selections. If you are willing to put aside the notion that all Rieslings are sweet, give one a try and I’m sure you’ll have a new found appreciation of this grape.
One may also think of Germany when you mention Gewürztraminer, but like the countries and states listed above, wine lovers swear by their plush richness. A bit bolder with touches of spice, they lean towards aromatic and perfumed with smokey fruit character. Gewurztraminer lends itself to being a very food friendly quaff.
Gruner Veltliner from Austria remains one of the wine worlds best kept secrets. This unique grape produces flavors of white peach, vanilla bean, apple blossoms and creamy apricot, with a white pepper finish and layers of exotic flavors in between. If you have yet to experience this wine, be sure to try one soon. They are scarce but are worth the effort to seek one out.
Chenin Blanc reigns King in the Loire region of France. They can range from very dry to sweet in flavor, much in the same vein as the Riesling grape. Vouvray is one of the most popular forms of Chenin Blanc, slightly sweet and very refreshing. The expressions made in South Africa are better known as Stein. To avoid confusion, winemakers there have begun reverting back to its original varietal name Chenin Blanc, producing wonderfully dry expressions of this grape. California also has its share of superb Chenin Blanc, excluding those that come in a super gallon size box, which resemble true Chenin Blanc as much as I do Brad Pitt.
One of the lightest white wines on the market is Moscato d’ Asti. Low in alcohol, a touch sparkling and very refreshing. The Muscat grape, grown all over the world and range from dry to sweet, but it is the Italians who have perfected its use to the nth degree. Fruity to the taste and usually very perfumed in style, it remains one of the worlds most popular and best selling wines.
Albarino, which is the Queen of Spanish white wines, is gaining popularity in this country not only for its crisp light lemony flavors but also for their excellent value. This grape offers more bang for the buck than any other wine I know. The flavors explode, its fruit refreshing, this has been one of my Summer favorites as well.
Pinot Blanc has its fans that swear by its dry fruitiness. Stateside, California and Oregon produce a number of great values, though look to the Alsace region of France for some spectacular bottlings. Let’s not forget Italy, where it is known as Pinot Bianco.
Roussanne and Marsanne remain virtually unknown and under appreciated grape varietals, which are widely produced mainly throughout the Rhone region of France. In recent years, California has embraced these grapes, either bottled on their own, or used in blends. They lean towards very floral yet dry and fruity. Some versions use both grapes, blended together because of their similar characteristics. Unique is the best way to describe them, one of the main reason I enjoy seeking them out and being able to sip their unusual qualities.
I hope this information has peaked your interest in sampling something new and adventurous before the Summer is through. Look forward to Part 2 of this writing where we will explore even more possibilities of white wines to tempt and please your palate.