Join us on a taste trip through the wide world of white varietals.
Thursday, April 19, 2001
If you understand apples, you understand varietals. Chardonnay and merlot are varieties of grapes just as Granny Smith and Red Delicious are varieties of apples, or apple varietals. In France, wines are traditionally named after their region of origin. In the USA, wines are named after the variety.
A white Burgundy and a California chardonnay do have one thing in common--they are both made of chardonnay grapes. Red burgundy is pinot noir. If you take a few moments to familiarize yourself with the major wine regions of France and learn what the grape varieties are, you just might feel more confident selecting wine from a list or from a wine merchant.
Here are some of the more commonly encountered white wine varietals. Look for White Wine Varietals Part 2 in next week''s Uncorked.
The world''s most popular white varietal, and the one that loses itself completely to the winemaking techniques it undergoes. Montrachet, Macon and blanc de blanc Champagne are all made of chardonnay, as are the millions of bottles of varietally labeled product from Australia, the Americas and other parts of the world. If you like chardonnay because it is oaky and buttery, you may not enjoy the leaner, more minerally versions from France. And if you like Chablis, you may not like a typical oaky, buttery Australian or Californian chardonnay. If you are not a fan of big, fat, unctuous, round, buttery versions, look for Australian bottles that say "unoaked" or try the less expensive white Burgundies. Ask your merchant or sommelier to make some recommendations. There is a chardonnay to please every palate and budget. Try a local chardonnay with cracked Dungeness crab or Monterey Bay spot prawns (if you can find them).
This white grape variety is known for its spicy, sometimes pungent aromas and flavors. Lychee and roses are common descriptors. Look for canned lychees in the supermarket and see if you agree. The grape originated in the Italian Tyrol region, but since the year 1000 has made a name for itself in Alsace, where the wines range from bone dry to decadently sweet. Compare an Alsatian entry-level bottling with one from California or Washington just for fun. Note the similarities and differences. Oak is not a factor, so this is a really good study in varietal character. Serve the dry versions with pork and pistachio pâté, lobster in a mild yellow curry sauce, or abalone in ginger-lime butter.
This is the California name for muscat blanc á petit grains, the noblest of all the muscats. Petit grains means small berries, and this is one of the reasons the resulting wine is so aromatic and complex. The Central Valley and Paso Robles are good places to find orange muscat. One of the most famous American producers is Quady, whose Electra--a light, fizzy number modeled after Moscato d''Asti--is paired nicely with summer fruits and cold plates. Serve Quady''s Essensia--a delicate, floral fortified orange muscat--with triple crème brie, cold pâté de foie gras, crème brulée or apricot and peach pastries.
This variety often gets mixed up with chardonnay in the vineyards of Burgundy because the clusters look so similar. They both make full-bodied wines. Pinot blanc, however, has a very discreet fragrance and generally low acidity, giving it a short shelf life. Look for Italian and Alsatian versions, which are very affordable--around $10 to $12 a bottle. They are full bodied and unoaked. Serve with coquille Saint-Jacques, lemon chicken or pasta with cream sauce. California versions are generally very oaky and hard to distinguish from a heavily oaked chardonnay. Serve these with cracked crab, roast chicken, halibut in beurre blanc, or red snapper and homemade tartar sauce.
A lighter-berried version of pinot noir, and one of the most popular Italian wines in this country, pinot grigio is typically dry, crisp, light and fairly neutral, giving it a broad range of food compatibility. Pinot gris, the French version, is made in a wide range of styles, from bone dry and austere to decadently sweet, unctuous, exotic and fragrant. Try either with scampi or fettucine Alfredo.
Weekly Wine RecommendationsCarmichael Sangiovese Central Coast 1997
While this sangiovese may have started off restrained, all that warm Central Coast sunshine (San Lucas, Hames Valley and Paso Robles) transformed it into a flashy, showy, attention-grabbing drink. Think raspberries on steroids. $14
Cloninger Cabernet Sauvignon Quinn Vineyard Carmel Valley 1998
This bright ruby wine has aromas and flavors of Bing cherry and mint chocolate and is slightly tannic right now. Decant it for aeration or swirl it around in big-bowled glasses to let it soften up a bit. You also could lay it down in your cellar for a year or two. $18
Lockwood Very Special Reserve Chardonnay Monterey 1997
This unctuous, golden yellow wine is decadently rich, like French Toast dripping with maple syrup. This super-ripe, forward style may not be for everyone. $35