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Rod Byers: The case for white wines

Rod Byers
Columnist

Recently a friend apologized for not liking red wine. Somehow, by never succeeding in enjoying red wine she felt she had stalled out on the wine ladder, short of the final apogee. Could that be true or is that just red wine snobs making us think that?

In the 1970s and 80s when America was rediscovering wine, whites led the way. If you wanted to be cool you drank Chardonnay.

Blame it on 60 Minutes, the French Paradox, whatever. By the mid-1990s the pendulum had swung. Merlot was roaring. Cabernet was king. Red wines ruled, setting the stage for my friend to feel inferior.

There’s little argument that red wines top any poll of world-class wines. Think first growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundies and cult Napa Cabs, but are you drinking any of those?

Considering range of varietals, range of flavors, and range of styles, white wines are more interesting. In a good old-fashioned throw down between moderately priced red and white wines, I’m putting my money on the whites.

Here’s why.

Over the last 40 years the scale of red wines, from lightest to most robust, has shrunk. The lightest wines have become heftier, moving towards the center. At the same time, red wine drinkers have increasingly turned away from tannin so the most robust wines have become mellower, also moving towards the center. The differences have shrunk.

Note that traditional red wines are dry with no remaining residual sugar. Because they don’t need additional acidity to balance higher sweetness, acidity levels in red wines are pretty similar. The profile of a typical red wine is dry, moderate in body, soft tannins and average to slightly low acidity.

Red wine aficionados cry out for varietal accuracy yet red wines are becoming more similar, not less so. I can tell you if a wine has aromas of berries, or spice, earthiness, or oak. Determining whether those aromas belong to Merlot or Syrah or Cabernet is little more than a guess.

It’s not that the wines aren’t delicious. They are. Just the type of Merlot I like, even if that bottle happens to be Syrah. The proof of that is how willing red wine drinkers are to accept substitutions. “Out of the Cab, sure, I’ll have the Zin.”

Red wines are all scrambling for the same spot, fighting over an increasingly shrinking flavor profile. Can’t be too tart, can’t be too tannic, can’t be too fruity, can’t be too light, the box just keeps getting smaller.

Because the playing field is so tight, outside of the top six or seven varietals it is almost impossible to get noticed.

Now let me make a case for white wine.

While the flavor band for red wine is shrinking, it’s growing for whites. Start with acidity. Acceptable and identifiable varietal profiles range from stingingly tart to softly opulent. Consider dry, crisp, sharply angled Australian Rieslings all the way to dry, soft, round California Viognier. Red wine can’t offer that range.

Acceptable sweetness levels vary as well, even within the same varietal. Travel 50 miles along the Loire River in France and enjoy Chenin Blancs that range from bone dry to lusciously sweet. Try that with Pinot Noir along the Russian River and red wine drinkers would go nuts.

White wines also offer a wider range in body and mouth feel. Think of a barrel fermented, malo-lactic induced, sur-lie aged, buttery California Chardonnay. It’s big, unctuous and full-bodied. Contrast that with mineral driven, crisp, non-oaked Chablis from France, also made from Chardonnay. Both styles are not only accepted, they’re adored.

In case you think it cannot be wine without tannin, try the whites coming from the Republic of Georgia that are fermented on the skins, picking up noticeable tannins and color in the process.

It’s reasonable to argue that balancing sweetness, acidity and body while keeping the delicacy and color of white wine intact requires more acute winemaking skills as well.

So far none of this addresses aromatics. There again whites offer a wider range. Herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc, spicy Gewurz, peachy Viognier and tropical Chenin Blanc are all welcome.

White wine drinkers know what they like and are much less likely to accept a substitute without tasting it first.

Because white wine borders are further apart there is more room for lessor known varietals.

Like it or not, online wine purchasing has exploded during the pandemic bringing wines not available in your local store to your doorstep. Varietally speaking, the world is your oyster.

Here are a few varietals worth considering. If you prefer your Sauvignon Blanc on the crisp, lighter side, try Albarino from Spain, Arinto from Portugal or Melon de Bourgogne from France. Prefer a riper style? Try Godello from Spain, Vermentino from Italy or Gruner from Austria.

What about expanding the Pinot Grigio box? Try Fiano from Italy, Assyrtiko from Greece, or Picpoul from France.

Want something more full-bodied? There’s Falanghina from Italy, Furmint from Austria or Viura from Spain.

Crazy for aromatics? Traminer from Italy, Torrontes from Argentina, and Moscophilero from Greece all deliver a wild ride while remaining dry to the taste.

Nothing does sweetness as well as Riesling. You can travel that scale from the off-dry Austrian versions to the delightfully sweet Rieslings from the Mosel and Rhine regions of Germany .

I don’t know about you, but the most interesting wines I’ve had recently have all been white.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at rodbyers@pinehillwineworks.com or 530-802-7172.


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