The White Stuff
My husband and I had dinner with our new neighbors last month. Like most neighbors, we didn't know much about one another beyond the fact of a common property line. I didn't know, for example, if they liked red or white wine. So we brought over a bottle of each. While the red was warmly received, the white was quickly dispatched to the kitchen. "We're red wine drinkers," said the wife, in the sort of tone most people reserve for declaring their religion. Hence the aperitif of choice wasn't our soft fruity white but their rich and powerful California Cabernet--a great wine for lamb or roast beef but a not-so-great companion to crackers and olives. Instead of having our appetites whetted by a lively Riesling or a juicy Sancerre, we were struck soporific by a high-alcohol Cab.
I love red wine--and that includes Cabernet--but I feel just as passionate about white. And unlike the people who start drinking white wine in June only to switch back to red in September, mine is no mere seasonal fling. I love the brisk acidity of Sauvignon Blanc, the intense minerality of Puligny-Montrachet and the distinctive aroma of Roussanne all year round. I love the way white wine can be rich and seductive, with layers of flavors and aromas that range from violets and honey to lime and wet stone, or simple, straightforward and refreshing--a beverage in the best sense of the word. But most of all, I love that thanks to better winemaking techniques and more serious winemakers, there's never been a better time to be a fan of white wine than now.
Unfortunately, it seems that the word hasn't spread as far as it should. In fact, a lot of wine drinkers feel like my neighbors: They'd rather drink almost anything red. Even the popularity of that perennial American favorite, Chardonnay, appears to be slipping. Not only are growers pulling up their Chardonnay vines at record rates (most often replacing them with Cab and Syrah), but restaurateurs polled by Wine & Spirits magazine this year reported that their sales of Chardonnay had declined while sales of Cabernet and Zinfandel climbed steadily upward.
My own, more casual, poll revealed pretty much the same thing. Even in a seeming white wine oasis like the Oyster Bar in New York City's Grand Central Station, where my husband and I had dinner not long ago, half of the tables held bottles of red. (We had a very nice Mâcon Villages.) Oyster Bar wine director Mike Garvey admits that sales of red are almost equal to those of white. And not light, delicate, "fish-friendly" reds. "We sell more Syrah and Zinfandel than we do Pinot Noir," he says.
The story is similar at Legal Sea Foods, in Boston, where interest in red continues to rise. According to David Alphonse, wine buyer for 26 Legal Seafood restaurants, Merlot is a frequent best-seller by the glass. What's more, "I've seen plenty of people drinking Cab with tuna," Alphonse adds. Cabernet with tuna? I'm far from closed-minded about red wine with fish, but coupling a tannic Cab to a tuna fillet seems calculated to bring out the worst in each one. The fish will taste fishier, the wine more tannic. There are plenty more appropriate (read: white) wine partners--like the lush Pinot Gris blend, Vireton, from Archery Summit. It's on the Legal list for only $39 a bottle.
Alphonse, clearly a man who looks on the bright side of things, says he believes such bad choices might be made for health-related reasons. Many customers, he argues, still mention the 60 Minutes segment of 11 years ago detailing the benefits of drinking red wine. Personally, I'm not convinced that such Cabernet drinkers are driven by cholesterol fears. I think anyone who orders Cab with tuna (or Bordeaux with oysters, another cited favorite) is mainly interested in making a statement. They're probably the sort who boast about their collections and how many points a particular wine has, two things you'll rarely find a white wine drinker doing. But to certain wine drinkers, color alone is synonymous with status. White wine is to them a drink for the ladies--or, worse, liberals. Apparently, even New York Times writers aren't immune from this view; a recent Times article derided a group of Princeton, New Jersey, activists as "sedan-driving, white-wine-sipping suburbans."
Still, I'm willing to grant that those Cab-and-tuna types simply might not realize how well white wine goes with food. In many ways, white wine can be more versatile than red. As Beth von Benz, wine director of New York City's Judson Grill, says, "Most people underestimate how well white wine goes with food." Examples of great white-wine-and-food matches abound well beyond the traditional province of pasta and chicken. For example, the fresh, melony notes and full body of Viognier pair perfectly with roast pork or smoked ham, while choucroute and Riesling are a match made in heaven (or, more accurately, Alsace). Any dish rich with egg or cheese is almost by definition Chardonnay material--in fact, white wine and cheese work brilliantly together. The connection between Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese is practically spiritual, while the relationship of Gewürztraminer to Gouda goes well beyond the phonetic. And I personally find that Roquefort and Sauternes work better than the more popular (and better publicized) Roquefort and port.
So great is my belief in white wine with food that I recently tackled the unlikely combination of oaky Chardonnay and steak. This was a pairing idea put forward by no less an expert than Kevin Zraly, the esteemed wine educator of the Windows on the World wine school. I decided to test Zraly's theory at a steak house near my home. I brought a bottle of the oakiest Chardonnay I could find, as well as a backup Cabernet. But most importantly, I brought my friend Peter, a famous film critic whose devotion to all things cinematic is nearly eclipsed by his love for oaky Chardonnay.
When we invited the restaurant's owner to stop by for a taste, he simply stared at us and muttered under his breath, "White wine isn't for meat." (I reconsidered asking for a bit of tuna to go with our Cabernet.) The restaurateur, reactionary that he was, turned out to be right. While the oak in the wine held up to the meat's texture remarkably well, the steak's strong flavors pretty much killed the wine's fruit. Even Peter had to admit the match didn't work, though he offered this unique appreciation of the stemware: "I love a heavy glass; it really absorbs the oak."
I think when a wine is so oaky it requires stout stemware to contain it, you can pretty much bet the wine's out of balance. In fact, excess oak is one reason some drinkers shy away from white. At Le Bernardin in Manhattan, sommelier Michel Couvreux says diners often request a white without oak. The same is true at Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago, where customers, according to wine director Todd Hess, are "backing away" from white wines with oak. Even my friend Peter, the oaky-Chardonnay man (he calls them "fatty" Chardonnays) has experienced an occasional oak overdose.
The antidote? Riesling, one of many unoaked whites that work beautifully with food. A few others to choose from: Albariños from Spain, Vermentinos from Italy, Austrian Grüner Veltliners and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. In Australia, producers turn out Chardonnays whose oak-free status is touted in their names. (Winemaker Trevor Jones calls his unwooded Chardonnay, somewhat mockingly, the "Virgin.") These wines have fresh, vibrant flavors and great natural acidity that goes well with food.
This isn't to say that oak and white wine together is always a bad thing. Indeed, in the right measure, the right hands and the right place (that hundred-dollar word, terroir), oak is crucial to the creation of the world's greatest whites--from Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne to Marcassin Chardonnay. It's also a critical component in aging, something I'll concede most reds do better than whites. For even though a few white wines grow more beautiful with time--great Burgundies, Sauternes, Tokays, to name but a few--the vast majority are best in their youth.
Happily, this means they cost less. Sometimes much less. Because white wine can be sold straight away--it doesn't need to age in bottle or in expensive oak barrels--a good white will almost always be less expensive than a corresponding red. This seems to hold true even at the highest levels. For example, at Jean Georges in New York City, wine director Kurt Eckert says his California-loving customers have turned away from four-figure cult Cabs to go "bargain hunting" among his $400 bottles of Kistler.
I wonder if this crossed the minds of our neighbors when they spurned our white wine. (At the end of the evening, they actually returned it). Maybe they're not red wine lovers at all. Maybe they just thought we were cheap.