The Wines Of Spring
Sparkling, fresh, light and white, spring wines usher in long days and warmer nights.
Thursday, May 1, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell
I love spring. The part of me that is connected to the natural world senses renewed hope and longing for growth. Winter''s hibernatory heaviness sheds itself for spring and summer''s lighthearted freedom. Warmer, longer days and comfortable evenings allow for greater opportunities to play and socialize. Picnics, barbecues, hanging out on the lawn, outdoor concerts, trips to the beach and sporting events fill our calendar.
One of the best things about the new season is the desire for beautifully fresh and elegant white, rose and sparkling wines. While big, chewy reds generally hog the wine world''s spotlight, delicate, crisp whites are the twinkling lights that give wine''s universe its brilliance, especially when the weather grows warmer and the activities are more active. Being marooned in California in the bull''s eye of a couple-hundred-mile radius of great wine country is both a blessing and a curse. Naturally, we all know about the wonderful California Chardonnay being produced--it is still the most popular choice among wine buyers. However, there is a broad spectrum of other white wines made here and elsewhere that, when considered along with sparkling wines and roses, create opportunities for varied wine-drinking pleasures.
Probably the first image to spring into mind regarding spring wines should be that of a tall, delicate flute, condensation beading on its sides, golden or pink liquid bubbles rushing to escape. Where do they come from, how can there be so many, why do they hurry so? One can sit on the porch of an afternoon amidst the blossoms and buzzing activities of nature''s awakening, pondering one''s place on the Earth through a glass of sparkling wine.
Experience a moment while sipping a lovely Italian Prosecco and one''s vision becomes tinted by the sensory memories of Italian history. Listen to taste- buds singing "April in Paris" while indulging in a magnificent pink Champagne. Dance the dance of the Conquistadors through the splendor of Spanish Cava. Believe me, the world is better while drinking sparkling wine, and never better than during the spring and summer.
Of course there are other wonderful wine-drinking adventures to engage in. We must travel throughout the wide world of wine, exploring the countless varietals and styles offered us by the confluence of earth, air, water and vine. For pure flavor pleasure, the widest range of stylistic expression and overall grandeur and nobility, our journey must begin with Riesling. In Germany, where Riesling is the Grand Dame of grapes, a dedicated taster can run a delicious gamut of styles, from the bone-driest, mineral-rock teeth-knocker types to majestic Eiswein, that sweet natural wonder that seduces women and entrances men.
Through Austria and Alsace across to northern New York State and southern Ontario, Canada, all the way to various micro-regions in California (especially in Monterey County), Riesling proudly produces, capturing hearts and tastes along the way.
Almost as varied, yet not nearly as understood, is the outstanding Chenin Blanc varietal. In France''s Loire Valley, as well as in South Africa, California and Australia, this versatile, delicious grape spawns wines as varied as a dry sparkler, to an unctuous sweet dessert style. Here in America, where Chenin Blanc suffered from a long-ago reputation as a jug wine, savvy tasters are discovering serious, varietally expressive offerings such as Chappellet''s Old Vine Cuvee and Monte-rey''s own Heller Estate Chenin Blanc.
California wine drinkers are starting to experiment with Sauvignon Blanc as their tastes for whites other than Chardonnay expand. Helping to lead the charge have been the New Zealand versions, led by the now nearly cult classic, Cloudy Bay. (Sauvignon Blanc is the biological "mother" of Cabernet Sauvignon--somewhere along the evolutionary continuum, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc produced the offspring known as Cabernet Sauvignon, the world''s most important grape.)
There is no shortage of exceptional California Sauvignon Blancs, many from right here in Monterey County. Of course the great Sancerres from the Loire Valley have been the benchmark for the varietal, and in the Bordeaux region it is blended with Semillon, another great white grape, to make marvelous table wines and late harvest Sauternes.
Another great grape on the rise is Pinot Gris, or Pinot Grigio. Grown throughout Alsace and the northern region of Italy, this delicious grape makes wines that are crisp and steely, with good natural acidity and subtle fruit undertones. The wines from Pinot Gris/gio can also be made in a more lush style and even as late harvest dessert wines--the great Alsatian versions top this list. Food-friendly and fun to drink, European Pinot Gris/gio has inspired production in the United States, particularly in Oregon where it expresses itself with lushness and sweetness in the fruit. Californians are beginning to discover the best locations for it and examples are showing up in stores and restaurants.
How about an Austrian Gruner Veltliner (what good''s a barbecue without a big knockwurst wiener and a cold Gruner Veltliner)? Try some of the lovely Italian whites like Fiano di Avelino, Pinot Bianco, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi, Soave Classico, Arneis, Gavi di Gavi. Get the idea? The world of white wine is so vast and interesting that your wine-drinking lexicon can expand faster than Anna Nicole Smith.
Round up a mixed case of the great Rhone varietals like Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. Give a white Chateauneuf du Pape a go, or a Condrieu or St. Joseph. Travel through the white wine landscape trying to experience as many different new treats as possible. You won''t be disappointed.
Drink rose wines. There are so many great roses from around the world--they are almost always reasonably priced, refreshing, fun and fresh. From Provence in the south of France across the entire universe to Australia, South Africa and beyond, roses are made by everyone. It''s like drinking a red wine with the body of a white. Don''t be a silly American who equates all pink wines with white zinfandel, and don''t be a silly anybody who knocks white zinfandel. There are more reasons to thank white zinfandel drinkers than to scorn them--just ask a wine professional to explain why.
Also ask a wine professional to guide you on a world tour of exciting whites, roses and sparklers for spring and summer drinking, aperitif and appetizer pairing at dinner, light lunches and brunches, picnics, barbecues or just plain sipping and snacking throughout the rest of the year.
Wine professional Raymond Napolitano hangs out at Terranova Fine Wines in Monterey, when he''s not writing his Food Chain column for the Weekly.