I admit it. I was a red wine bigot.
For many years.
It probably started on a beach in Italy when I had my first ever (diluted) taste of red wine at age 9, a Sangiovese; and, of course, there were all those tea tannins that are a Brit’s birthright from baby’s bottle onwards. And, in spite of a brief Soave Folinari phase (remember those big bottles of watery, vinegary mass-produced wine in the 80s?) when it was all I could afford – or get – at the State Store in Pennsylvania during my starving artist days, RED has always ruled.
This has been reinforced by nearly two decades of visits to Paso Robles, where big and red dominated my wine education from my then wine mentor who first introduced me to Justin Isoscoles, Adelaida Zinfandel, as well as Aussie Shiraz and many less pricey, more rustic reds that had no fear of their tannins.
And why not? Those often young, often tannic, very big and ripe fruity red wines were something to be chewed on, and had the substance to back it up. They were for chocolate, tri-tip and cheese. They were exotic, deep and sexy. Like strong coffee, you could stand the proverbial spoon up in them.
Whites? Fat yellow butterball Chardonnays and insipid Pinot Grigios. Made to reflect pale, fishy fish. Meh.
Even as my experience diversified and I was exposed to more and more aged, refined old world wines, my prejudiced palate still led me down the deep ruby roads of Rioja, Barolo, Barbaresco, and France’s great Rhones. And as my palate began to appreciate much more elegant, more nuanced reds and fell victim to the inevitable spell of Pinot Noir, it still made no move to whites. At wine tastings, I made a beeline for the reds, the whites an obligatory first course before I got to the real deal. I waxed indignant when a male wine colleague stated that women unequivocally prefer white wine… I took that as an insult, not as a compliment, on my gender’s refined palate (even though two of my most respected fellow female wine mentors prefer whites).
But, then I started discovering Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne, from Central Coast winemakers, a white trail blazed by Paso’s Tablas Creek. In fact, I had my first white epiphany the first time I visited Tablas Creek and came home to LA with a bottle of white, not red – a Rhone blend. But old habits die hard…and it was only one bottle, and my instinct still was always to reach for the red.
That has all come to a halt along a road well-tilled by the whites of many of the remarkable wines of Central Coast artisans, after a revelatory tasting in my French Wine Scholar course at LA’s The Wine House. After previous classes covering Rhone, Languedoc/Roussillon, Provence, and Bordeaux, this class looked to be a mere way-station on our way to the piece d’resistance of Burgundy.
How wrong could I be!
The class was taught by Mike Greene, a loquacious Master of Wine, who is a familiar figure at The Wine House and who specializes in the wines of the Loire. He personally hand-picked the wines we tasted. Mike likes to rant about all things wine and his opening rant was about how white wine is too often considered the poor stepchild to red. “Red wine is really just white wine made a different way!” Mike said. So why so much dismissal? And he proceeded to prove his point.
Whites are worthy, sturdy, complex and delicious! But, with their generally more focused acid, are crafted to be paired with food. And since many Americans tend to think of a glass of wine as a cocktail… whereas in Europe it is something to drink with food, wines that sing with acid are far less popular in the US (hence the popularity of the New World Chardonnay oaky butter bombs). And, of course, the versatile and fantastic Riesling still suffers from an image problem: that it will either clean the enamel right off your teeth or is synonymous with cloying sweetness – a distaste that probably came from experience not with Riesling, but with the far less noble Muller Thurgau (Blue Nun anyone?).
I would also add that most people are not as educated on (or aware of) the range of whites, so have not explored them (count me in that group) and think of them as being less substantive than reds.
And so our journey through the Loire, Jura, Alsace and Savoie was a revelation, 18 wines and only three reds. It was a journey of depth, complexity and discovery. And while it is true that these wines had the class craving cheese, they were so fantastic that, even without food, their glory was apparent.
Below are some of my favorites, although there was not a dud in the lot. None of these wines is a wallet killer (except for the Vin Jaune at almost $50), nor probably the very top of the line in their particular universe; but I found each a delight. So, if like the former me, you are stubbornly in the red camp, I suggest you check some of these out. They are all French…but what can I say? Leave it to the French to change a Brit’s mind…
Deiss Muscat Bergheim 2011 A.O.C. $24.99
Made from Muscat Ottonel, usually the more subtle, less fragrant/less acidic of the Muscat varieties, this wine was the first we tasted and I found it giddy with white flowers, delicate stone fruit and ‘musk’ on the nose, and it held those on the palate, adding white spices, honey, and an undercurrent of fresh grapes, with a nice little pop of acid. The wine is dry, but the fruit gives it a light sweetness that would make it a fantastic wine as a light and refreshing stand alone on a Saturday afternoon and a terrific match with salmon, oysters, marinated vegetables, etc.
This off dry wine was delicious. Very well balanced, with a frisson of acid and a complex potpourri of sweet roses, orange blossoms, lychees, and cardamom. Great mouth feel, satin/viscous but not cloying. Less acid than the muscat, but with just enough to balance the sweet. I would love to try matching this with a lightly spiced curry … but it is a delight on its own.
Rolet Vin Jaune 2003 AOC 2003 $49.99
Considered one of the five great whites of France, this unique wine is from The Jura (located between Burgundy and Switzerland and now on my ‘must-go-when-in-France’ list). The wine, in a distinctive bottle that required special dispensation from the European parliament, is made from the Savagnin Blanc grape – NOT to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is aged a minimum of six years and three months in small oak barrels and not topped up in the barrel as the wine evaporates as it ages, so exposed to more oxygen and (similar to the process for making Sherry) allowed to develop a layer of ‘flor’ (film of yeast). I recoiled at my first sniff of this wine – smelled like Fino Sherry (being a Brit, I do love sherry, but it seemed incongruous here… at first)… but then, I returned for more and allowed my nose to find its way past that initial reaction to its musky, caramelo aromas. On the mouth, the wine definitely had a sherry-like quality, but to my palate, much lighter, much more complex. Flavors of butterscotch, ash, walnuts and dried white raisins… subtle, not heavy. And it has a good punch of acid to it. The wine grew on me and had me craving its traditional pairing dish, morels in cream sauce in puff pasty. I make a peasant version of this dish and am determined to try it matched with Vin Jaune. I also thought this wine would be amazing with a plate of rich, creamy, musty cheeses and some dried apricots. This is a famous wine that I had never heard of, and it was not the only wine of The Jura that left me intrigued and wanting more.
Domaine Pelican Trois Cepage 2012 AOC $44.99 (sold out)
Oops, this is a red… well, had to sneak one in and, as I am highlighting this particular journey, I had to pay attention for a second to this absolutely stunning wine. This is a wine from Jura, blended from three varietals – the indigenous Poulsard (also knows as Ploussard), Trousseau and Pinot Noir. And it had everyone in my class in raptures and racing to buy the sole remaining bottle left in The Wine House (alas, I lost that race, and I looked everywhere online for it, but it was sold out everywhere). This is a wine that truly lives on the palate’s memory… so well-balanced, soft tannins, but just enough bite to keep your attention, reminiscent of the best Pinots, but with a smoky difference that is hard to describe. Bacon, cherry, a subtle but lingering smokiness (from the Plousard), tinged with white and black spices and full of red fruit – cherries, currants…. light in body, but dark in complexity with a web of flavors that entangled us all and that lingered long on the palate. Just delicious. I look forward to the next available vintage.
Back to whites. I loved the freshness of all the wines we tasted from The Savoie. This one was a favorite (partly because of its simplicity and ability to truly conjure up the terroir … alps, snow, spring flowers, babbling brooks…..) and it was one of the lowest priced wines of the day at just $13.99. From just south of The Jura, where the terrain is the Alps and vines hang tenaciously onto the mountainside, this wine is crafted from 100% Jacquere, the predominant, vigorous and highly productive white grape that dominates Savoie production. I loved this wine. It is delicate, lemony with a hint of white flowers and tastes as if it were made of melted snow. Clean and fresh: spring waters over pebbles (too much?). Here I do have to ask myself what I would taste if it were a blind tasting? Is it because I know its alpine origin that every sip conjures up melt-water from a just about to break alpine spring? And does it really matter? That is the divine experience of this refreshing, delicate wine – kissed with citrus and pristine minerality. An easy drinking wine if ever there was one, perfect for an overheated California day.
The Loire! No surprise to discover a fantastic Sauvignon Blanc just a hop skip and a jump across the Loire River from Sancerre. This Pouilly Fume definitely had the gunflint aroma and herbaceousness expected from the Loire version of this versatile grape. In fact, other than the flintiness, nothing stunningly unique, just a very well balanced, crisply acid, wine with classic notes of lemon, gooseberries and white flowers. A wonderful iteration that reminded me how much I love the elegance of this grape when it truly is able to express its terroir, and the palate is not overwhelmed with more tropical notes. I am no expert on Poully-Fume, but would venture a guess that this is a very good version and a steal at $19.99.
Chateau D’Epire Savennieres Cuvee Speciale 2011 AOC $24.99
This was the third Chenin Blanc I had had in a week that impressed me. This grape is starting to get under my skin in a very good way. Mike noted that this version had Chenin Blanc’s characteristic sheep’s wool/lanolin notes on the nose. I am not quite so sure about what either of those really smell like, but to me it had what I would call a slightly waxy aroma, melted candlewax with a slight milky lactic undertone. And the wine on the mouth tasted of stewed apples and smoke, with some tart citrus… and more than a shake of minerality…. Definitely tasted of an apple and pear basket washed up on the northern shores of the Loire and hoisted up its ‘schisty’ slopes. Very different from the two Chenin Blancs (both Central Coast) I had tasted and liked very much the week prior, perhaps a tad more nuanced and definitely more austere – but with a sturdy body and enduring finish.
And many more:
There were many more delights in that class, a wonderful Diess Riesling 2012 redolent of peach, honey and pine; the sweetly unique Domaine Labet Mac Vin from Jura, the Lambert de Seyssel Petit Royal Seyssel NV AOC from Savoie, once Queen Victoria’s favorite sparkling wine that on the nose was all tea-time toast and on the mouth savory and crumpety. And many more…. My advice next time you are looking for some delicious whites? Check in at the Wine House and ask for Mike Green.
I also want to note some other whites that have captivated me of late…the 2011 Domaine du Bagnal, from Cassis, a Marsanne, Clairette, Ugni Blanc blend, that tastes of oyster shells and melon and the ocean; a sparkling, yeasty, fruity and very affordable ($10.99!!) 2011 St. Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux AOP Blanquet from the Languedoc (their monks invented – or stumbled on – the traditional method of making sparkling wine long before Dom Perignon).
And, of course, my local garagiste faves…. the addictive, delicious easy drinking At Last Rhone blend from Victor Abascal at Vines on the Marycrest; the fruity, satiny Cumulus (also a Rhone blend) from Erick Allen and Brian Sauls at Ascension Cellars; Dark Romance, a lush Chenin Blanc from LXV Wine’s Neeta Mittal and winemaker Amy Butler; a crisp Viognier from Larry Schaeffer’s Tercero Wines and the nuanced Grenache Blanc from William Allen at Two Shepherds Vineyards… and, as much as each of these wines make perfect pairings with any number of food choices, I have enjoyed them all, American-style, as stand alones. They have the structure and fruit and passionate winemaking to make it worth your while.
So, if like me, you are a former dedicated red-head, to misquote an American revolutionary: don’t surrender your palate, until you see the whites of the wines!