Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wine 1, 2, 3 - Part II: Wonderful Whites

The first installment of this DallasEats series was a success!  In Part I of Wine 1, 2, 3, we took it from the top, beginning our exploration of wine with a discussion of size, shelf life and color. Judging by your comments, you all found it fun and useful, and that’s just what I had in mind.

And so, in Part II, let’s take one step forward.  Today we’ll begin talking about the many kinds of vino we have to choose from, beginning with white varietal wines.  With this post, I hope to help you put into words what it is about Sauvignon Blanc that you love so much, or why you don’t care for Chardonnay.  I thoroughly enjoyed researching these wines, and I invite you to take all the credit next time you're pondering a restaurant wine list or just relaxing with friends at happy hour.  Maybe you’ll also be tempted to choose a different white next time around – I’m all about expanding horizons.  And as an added bonus, today's third question will cover the matter of serving temperature, to achieve optimum deliciousness, no matter which wine you choose.

Now, on with the 1, 2, 3:

1. So, what is a varietal wine?

A varietal wine is a wine that is named for the type of grape (or variety) it’s made from.  For example, Kendall Jackson Chardonnay is a varietal wine.  We like to name our wines this way in America, and many (maybe most) of our favorites from California and elsewhere are varietal wines.  These wines are a good place to start, because they eliminate a lot of guesswork when it comes to selecting a bottle.  If you have an understanding of some basic characteristics, the name of a varietal wine will give you a good idea of what you’re going to taste when you pop the cork.

Varietal wines need not contain 100% of the main grape, but they must contain wine made mostly from that grape (percentage requirements vary). Small amounts of other types may be added for flavor or balance or a whole host of other reasons, but the overall character of the wine will reflect the type of grape on the label.

Not all wines are named this way, but we’ll get to blends and brand names and other categories later. For today, we’ll focus on varietal wines and touch on the basic characteristics of some of the most popular whites. Reds will follow in the next installment.

Bottom line: Varietal wines are named 
for the grape they’re made from.

2. The Wonderful Whites

Below you’ll find descriptions of the most popular types of white varietal wine, based on expert stats and the empty bottles I take to the recycling bin after a party.  By no means is this list complete, but these are the stars that you'll find headlining wine lists and shop shelves.

These descriptions are basic and broad - they are not an in-depth analysis of any or all wines made from each grape. Much like saying that New Yorkers wear a lot of black, ride the subway to work and have very small kitchens, these are general descriptions, but not applicable as a whole in each and every case.  ‘Nuff said.

Chardonnay: By far the most popular white varietal wine, Chardonnay is known for being full-bodied (as whites go) and its flavor can range from crisp to smooth and buttery.  It is also often oaky.  A discussion of Chardonnay, in fact, will often evolve into a discussion of oak.  You see, American Chards have a reputation for being aged in or otherwise flavored with oak, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  Some brands, in fact, are overwhelmingly woody.  I enjoy the smoky, toasty quality that a just a touch of oak lends to Chardonnay, but if you prefer a lighter wine with more prominent fruit characteristics, read the label notes or ask your wine merchant for an un-oaked version of this varietal.

Riesling:  Light-bodied, fruity and food-friendly, Riesling is also sometimes lower in alcohol than other reds and whites.  Germany is famous for this wine (and the tall, thin bottles it comes in), and it has been cultivated there for centuries.  Rieslings from the Alsace region of France are wonderful as well, as are those from around the United States. Often mistakenly believed to be a universally sweet varietal, Riesling can actually range in style from sweet to quite dry.  Try it with spicy foods for a real treat!

Sauvignon Blanc:  I last enjoyed Sauvignon Blanc poolside, many nights’ sleep ago.  So, in order to do best by this post (call it research), I sniffed and swirled and sipped a glass of Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc last night.  New Zealand does wonders with this wine, and this particular brand is, as I understand it, a classic example of its style.  The winery’s tasting notes tout tropical flavors and herbal notes in the wine, and I also detected hints of apples and pears.  Light and crisp and perfect for pairing with a variety of cheeses, Sauvignon Blanc is also sometimes labeled Fume Blanc.

Pinot Grigio:  One of my favorite go-to wine gurus, Andrea Immer, writes that this varietal “has instant meaning to most people – the words Pinot Grigio connote, quite accurately, ‘dry white wine’”.  Many versions of this varietal wine from Italy are sure-fire crowd-pleasers, and affordable to boot.  In fact, Immer points out that spending more for Pinot Grigio is almost always unnecessary, as the quality level does not tend to increase with the amount of money you spend.  I'm hoping to hold a personal tasting here in my laboratory (living room) soon and learn more about Pinot Grigio, which is also known as Pinot Gris.

Viognier:  I’ve added Viognier because I’m so fond of it, though it’s not nearly as popular as the whites I listed above. DallasEats is all about the up-and-coming, though, and this varietal is totally worth a taste. Viognier hails from the Rhone River Valley in France, and is prized for its intoxicating floral aromas and complex, distinctive flavor.  French Viogniers are among the most expensive white wines in the world, but American versions are getting great press, and they come at a much more affordable price.

Bottom line: White varietal wines represent 
a wide range of flavors and styles to suit any mood.

3. Too hot, too cold or just right?

I know which one this perfectionist prefers!

Most of us know the drill - serve red wine at room temp and white chilled, from the fridge.  The thing is, though, this is Texas, and “room temp” is often just too darn warm.  Likewise, our home refrigerators are also kept much cooler than is ideal for tasting everything a great white has to offer.

My strategy for satisfactory service is simple - I call it the “10 Minute Rule”: Ten minutes before service, place your bottle of red in the fridge.  For whites, reverse it, removing them from the icy depths of the chill chest (thanks, Alton!) ten minutes before you uncork.  Easy, right?  That’s my kind of rule.

Bottom line: Follow “The 10-Minute Rule”


Food Czar said...

Lisa, you should honestly consider adapting this post and marketing it as a freelance piece. Maybe a publication such as Southern Living would find this right up their alley.

I think you made the right selections for white varietals. Personally, I prefer chenin blanc or French colombard to viognier, but that's just me. I haven't yet found a viognier that works consistently for me.

FoodiePrincess said...

I love the ten minute rule (although not as much as I love a Malborough Sav Blanc)! That is one that will stick in my head for years to come.

Classy&Sassy said...

Thanks FP, thanks Food Czar! I'm totally enjoying writing this series. Now I just have to work on narrowing down the reds for next month... :)

Susie said...

Nice piece, Lisa. Love the 10 minute rule. We, the wine snob and I, are big fans of the Kim Crawford SB. Great in the summer...

Jennifer said...

My favorite Sav Blanc is Kim Crawford. Great choice to review!

I also like Brancott, as well.

JR said...

My favorite wine is Vodka....this kind of wine can also be served over ice :)