Good white wine is now being made in more places than ever before. While serious winemakers once aspired only to make serious reds, they've discovered white wine has equal—and perhaps even greater—rewards. They have been lavishing more time, attention and talent (to say nothing of money) on grapes like Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc and Falanghina. And yes, on Chardonnay, too.
Buttery, overoaked Chardonnay has dominated restaurant wine lists and store shelves for decades, leaving little room for more interesting varietals and styles—at least until recently. Larry Stone, the wine director at Rubicon in San Francisco, says that before Chardonnay came onto the scene, in the mid-1980s, "there wasn't much of a market for white wine. Americans' love of Chardonnay helped create an acceptance, the appetite we see today, for wine that isn't red."
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Though the popularity of Chardonnay may have fueled today's white wine movement, global improvements in winemaking technology are what sustain it. Great white wine is harder to make than great red wine. With red grapes, almost all the flavor and color is in the skins; the winemaker just extracts what he or she needs before fermenting. White-grape skins do not have much flavor, so winemakers cannot rely on them in the same way. What's necessary to make great white wine is a long, cold fermentation, something that was once possible only in the coolest growing regions. White wine fermented in too warm an environment will quickly oxidize and lose both its fruitiness and its acidity. Now that temperature-controlled fermentation tanks are the rule, however, winemakers can produce great whites, even in sunbaked countries like Greece, South Africa and Australia. Couple these advances with a shift in American cuisine toward seafood, Asian seasonings and fresh, local produce—all of which create dishes that usually pair better with white wines than with red—and it's clear why great whites are on the rise in the United States.
Here I could rhapsodize about Dagueneau, Coche-Dury, Trimbach, J. J. Prüm and the regions that produce these canonical whites, but who has the time—or the money? What's important now are the new contenders. Here are a few to look for.
Europe's Regional Revival
Grüner Veltliner, a native of Austria, is finding itself at the top of restaurant wine lists around the U.S. It may be new to many Americans, but Grüner (as it's chummily called) is a favorite of American sommeliers, who discovered almost a decade ago that it's one of the world's great food wines. A well-rounded wine with mineral overtones, Grüner pairs well with such vegetables as brussels sprouts, asparagus and artichokes, which taste terrible with almost all other wines.
Ironically, part of the reason for Grüner's rise was a 1980s scandal in which a few Austrian wineries were caught spiking their wine with illegal chemicals to improve the taste. To rescue the nation's reputation, the government implemented Draconian standards. The result is that it's difficult to find a bad wine from regions like Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal and Traisental.
Other obscure regional varietals have also improved in quality. Take Campania, in Southern Italy, where Falanghina, Fiano and Greco Bianco have been produced since the days of the Roman Empire. Until recently, these varietals were often quite rustic and inconsistent. Then Feudi di San Gregorio, founded in 1986, hired winemaking consultant Riccardo Cotarella to bring international standards and sophistication to those varietals. Due to his influence, the region's wines—like Mastroberardino's current releases and those of Montesole and Terredora—are fresher. Falanghina's melon notes are balanced with herbal accents of sage and thyme, while Greco's apricot and honey flavors are more pronounced. Meanwhile, in Sardinia, modern technology has helped producers such as Sella and Mosca and Argiolas create Vermentino bottlings with extraordinary acidity and fresh, clean flavors. Similarly, in Greece, Tselepos and Skouras have worked to bring the Moschofilero grape out of obscurity, making aromatic floral wines with the sweetness of stone fruit.
Spain—known, like Italy, almost entirely for its reds—is now gaining fans for its indigenous whites as well. Until a few years ago, not many Americans realized that Spain, famous mainly for red Rioja and sherry, also has an Atlantic coast region, the Rías Baixas, where the Albariño grape makes a crisp white that's one of the great seafood wines of the world. The Rueda region, northwest of Madrid, bottles delicious, medium-bodied whites principally from Verdejo grapes, which are sometimes blended with Sauvignon Blanc for a citrus zing.
New World, Old Grapes
While European countries may be enjoying a resurgence of indigenous varietals, the New World is making interesting white wines from grapes that are more familiar to Americans. Grassy and brash New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc couldn't be more different from the sweet Chardonnay that has dominated the U.S. market for so long. Yet Sauvignon Blanc has become a favorite of the typically unadventurous American wine drinker.
In Australia, Riesling has been planted for at least 180 years, but Americans are just now realizing how phenomenal its flavors can be. From Clare Valley and nearby Eden Valley in South Australia come brilliant examples that meld the fruity exuberance of New World wines with the mineral tastes commonly associated with Europe. These valleys have the advantage of a healthy supply of older vines, which create wines of depth and concentration, as well as a long tradition of winemaking established by German immigrants.
South Africa's best whites come from the French varieties Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. The former has a long history on the Cape. Chenin has been grown there since the 17th century, but most of the vines were egregiously overcropped and destined only to be refined into brandy. With the shift toward quality wine that occurred there in the 1980s and early '90s, some producers took advantage of the older Chenin vineyards scattered across the Cape to make serious wines that could compare favorably to any Loire Valley white. As in the case of New Zealand, South Africa's interest in Sauvignon Blanc is a relatively recent phenomenon. The grapes seem to thrive in the Cape's cool but sunny climate and typically make a wine that's more Sancerre-like than New Zealand's herbaceous Sauvignons, with tart green apple notes.
In California's Central Coast, the most compelling whites are coming from the grapes of France's Rhône Valley: Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. A decade ago, Tablas Creek Vineyard imported root stock and vine cuttings from the Rhône stalwart Château de Beaucastel. Planted in a rare outcropping of limestone-rich soil on the west side of Paso Robles, these vines are just now coming into their own, with the fruit flavors more concentrated than ever. Other impressive wines from the area: the mineral-rich Roussannes of Qupé and Austin Hope and the restrained Marsanne of Beckmen Vineyards. In Oregon, Pinot Gris continues to be the mainstay. First released by the Eyrie Vineyards in 1970, it has remained Oregon's signature white grape. You can find wine here in the two major styles: weightier and concentrated in the Alsatian way, lighter and fruitier in the Italian way.
And what about Chardonnay, the grape that started it all? It is still the most popular white wine in America. But even in California, once known only for its buttery-oaky Chardonnays, there are a few completely unoaked bottlings, such as Morgan Metallico from the Santa Lucia Highlands. These wines have more in common with a typical New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc—zingy acidity, bright fruit—than they do with the overoaked Chardonnays of old. White wine will never be just white wine ever again.
Jordan Mackay is a freelance writer and the wine and spirits editor of 7x7 magazine in San Francisco.