Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Aromatic Whites—Taste the Grape, Not the Oak

Far too many people limit their experience of white wine to oaky Chardonnay and the occasional Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. If they find these wines a bit boring, they tend to consider consider themselves “red drinkers.” If I’ve just described you and you’re sick of buttered oak, try the the aromatic family of wines. These wines earn their name by their beautiful, intense aromas—not from oak, as most are completely unoaked, but from their respective grape.

When I’m walking down the street trying to decide which restaurant to try, I look at the wine glasses on the table. If they are small with narrow mouths, I keep walking. That is because aromatics play a very important role in the wine experience. The senses of taste and smell are closely integrated. If you have a stuffy nose, your ability to taste is dramatically decreased. If your wine is in a tiny glass with a narrow opening it doesn’t taste near as good as the same amount of wine in a large glass with a wide bowl. Aromatic wines not only have intense fragrances, but intense flavors as well.

The flavor profiles of these wines express the flavor of the grape and even the subtle differences in terroir and winemaking because they are not masked by oak and butter. The most important trait these wines share is that they are wonderful with food. They tend to be lighter bodied, lower in alcohol, and higher in acidity—all characteristics of great food wines. Although delicious on their own, they are the darlings of restaurant sommeliers because they go so well with food—even the hard to match spicy dishes.

So what are the “aromatic white wines”?

Muscat: Perhaps the most aromatic of all, with fresh flowers and stone fruit leaping from the glass. This is the grape of Muscato d’Asti from Italy done in the frizzante (lightly sparkling) style. Try the Vietti Cascinetta ($16.99). Still wines from this grape are made in Alsace.

Gewurztraminer: With characteristic aromas and flavors of roses, lychee fruit, and spice, the best examples come from Alsace. This wine is more medium bodied and has a robust flavor that makes it a great Thanksgiving wine. Try Joseph Cattin ($17.99) and the Gold Medal by the same maker for $2 more.

Viognier: This grape comes from the upper Rhone Valley, but Australia and California also produce it. Very floral on the nose with flavors of peach and apricot and probably the most full bodied of the group, this is the only one that is sometimes oaked. Chardonnay fans should start with this one. Yalumba Eden Valley ($22.99) is big bodied example from Australia.

Riesling: The “noblest” of the aromatic grapes, the best examples of this wine come from cool climates—Germany, Austria, Alsace, and Washington State. These wines can be bone dry to very sweet. Aromas and flavors range from citrus to stone fruit to tropical fruit. The hallmark of this varietal is low alcohol, high acidity, and a striking minerality (aroma and taste of stones, limestone, or slate). These traits make Riesling an incredible wine for food matching. Kung Fu Girl ($11.99) is a nice example from Washington State that is off dry.

Torrontes: This is Argentina’s signature white grape. There are intense floral and spice aromas and flavors with a low acidity. This wine is one of my favorites with Mexican food. Try Alamos ($9.99).

Albarino This grape is from Spain and Portugal. It has a high acidity with beautiful peach, citrus, flowers, and minerality on the nose and palate. Burgans ($14.99) is a nice example.

Moschofilero: This Greek varietal produces a wine similar to Muscat, except it is drier and lighter bodied with orange-tangerine-citrus notes. A nice one is made by Boutari for $14.99.

Everything white is not Chardonnay. Next time your meal or occasion calls for a white wine, look to these amazing varietals. Even the “only red” drinker will take notice.


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