When a wine drinker first comes into maturity, when he or she first starts buying and drinking wine in a thoughtful way, drinkers tend to gravitate toward drinking red wine, particularly the rich red wines that are the most forward with their flavors. Hand in hand with this is an abandonment of white wine and the unspoken supposition that white wine is somehow less mature or effete.
Part of this is due to the reality that California produces very little excellent white wine. Our generous climate and stylistic preference for oak-aged whites makes for big, luscious wines that are often as forceful and laborious to drink as a red wine. The alternative to these Napa Chardonnays and Central Coast White Rhone blends are light, innocuous Pinot Grigios and Sauvignon Blancs happy in their role as aperitifs. While this is rapidly changing, with new California wine makers embracing white grapes like Chenin Blanc, Albarino and Verdelho and producing them in a drier, crisper style, oaky Chardonnay remains the emblem of California white wine and, by extension, white wine in general for many new drinkers.
Which is unfortunate, because white wine remains, for me, the infinitely more interesting and expressive, when forced to choose.
But to find great white wine, you have to often move out of your wine comfort zone and seek out parts of Europe and North America you might not immediately consider. For instance, other than hefty price tag White Burgundy, there are few French white wines that match Gallic reds in elegance and the wine regions of Spain and Italy which receive widespread attention, receive such due to their dense, bold red wines, while the white wines from these same regions mostly receive modest, if any, attention.
There’s a perfectly reasonable reason for this: climates which produce dense, rich red wines are not suitable for producing bright, refreshing whites. Instead, you have to go seek out the colder and/or foggier fringes of Europe, or find those regions whose cuisine so demanded white wine that growers gravitated toward late-ripening white grapes that retain acidity deep into the growing season.
In the former category, the white wines of northwestern Spain and coastal Portugal (where, really, half the country is coastal) made from Albarino/Alvarinho, Godello and Arinto are some of my favorites and the dry white Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners of Austria, Furmint from Hungary, and Riesling of all levels of sweetness from Germany should all be deservedly considered in the same breath as any Meursault.
Domestically, the high elevations of Arizona and New Mexico are producing interesting still and sparkling wines and, although not too prevalent, Alsatian varietals like Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat from Oregon’s Willamette Valley are also very good.
The warm Southern Mediterranean, thanks to historically seafood-driven cuisine, is also home to delicious, interesting white wines that any drinker should find appealing. Greek Assyrtiko and the Italian grapes Vermentino, Verdicchio, Greco, and Fiano are all well worth seeking out.
White worth exploring because the wines challenge the palate more with stimulating acidity and more complex fruit flavors and aromas, are largely better with food (and with a more variety of food), and can be either a crisp poolside aperitif or a serious, contemplative mealtime glass. The same can’t be said for most red wines, I would argue.
Just as conventional wisdom says that the mature wine drinker prefers reds, so too does it say that the more experienced wine drinkers come back around to white wine and for, I think, those very reasons.
What are some of your favorite white wines?