Wine lists used to be fairly predictable. A few sparkling wines, some chardonnay, perhaps one or two other whites, then a bunch of reds. Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot. Pinot Noir. Syrah. Zinfandel. Bordeaux. Chianti. With a little luck even a brunello, a tempranillo or a malbec.
In most places, if you wanted a white wine, you had better get ready to enjoy the oaky characteristics of a buttery chardonnay that had undergone malolactic fermentation. There is nothing wrong with a well-made chardonnay. The problem is that America’s fascination with chardonnay, which started in the late 1970s and lasted for 25-30 years, meant that, like the dominant lagers of the post-World War II era, you could have any white wine you wanted—as long as it was a chardonnay.
Diversity in the white wine segment lagged most other beverage categories. Beer, which had its Budweiser-Miller Lite-Coors-Schlitz-Old Style-Pabst Blue Ribbon-Stroh’s period of conformity, long ago shook off its creative cobwebs. Now, thankfully, white wine is no longer a one-note song.
Many wine lists are shifting so that chardonnays no longer dominate. Not long ago I was in a restaurant in the Los Angeles area where I would have expected chardonnays to pack the left-hand page of its wine list. Instead, the list was about 70 percent other white varietals. The chardonnay offering was sufficient to satisfy lovers of that grape, but there was ample room given to pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, riesling, viognier, gewürztraminer, chenin blanc, grüner veltliner and müller thurgau. It was the kind of range of whites that just a few years ago you would have had to go to a wine festival to experience.
“Perceptions are changing about white wine in America. It’s not just for the cocktail hour anymore,” said Gustavo Gonzalez, winemaker at Mira Winery in Napa, CA. “More white wines are being made, and they’re not all being made in a chardonnay style that had become so innocuous.”
Mira is a 2009 startup winery that buys fruit from vineyards in the region. The winery makes three whites: a chardonnay, a sauvignon blanc—both made with 100 percent grapes of those styles—and Admiration White, a blend of 80 percent sauvignon blanc and 20 percent chardonnay.
“I love sauvignon blanc. It has so much to offer as a grape, very aromatic and very fragrant,” Gonzalez says. “It has citrus elements and flower notes. I try to retain that in the wine. Most of it is aged in stainless-steel tanks, but we do age a small amount in oak barrels to help give the wine some density.”
If you want to understand the diversity potential of white wine, you need look no further than riesling. It is a fascinating grape because it grows best in colder, often wetter, conditions: in places like the Finger Lakes region in Upstate New York, the western edge of Germany and near hop-growing fields in Washington where you might expect most people to be beer drinkers. Winemakers have plenty of cards to play when it comes to making riesling, but they also must count on Mother Nature for a successful harvest.
Rieslings can range from bone-dry to syrupy-sweet. Winemakers with the right climate conditions can even roll the dice and produce late-harvest and ice wines using the riesling grape. Residual sugar is one way to determine sweetness, but acidity makes a major difference in the balance of the wine. What is in a bottle of riesling on your store shelf is so confusing that the International Riesling Foundation devised a simple scale for members to use on the back of their bottles to tell consumers what to expect, from dry to medium-dry to medium-sweet to sweet.
Scott Harvey, winemaker and owner of Scott Harvey Wines in St. Helena, CA, makes several whites, including a blend—One Last Kiss—and a Jana Napa Valley Riesling.
“Perceived sweetness does not directly have to do with residual sugar. It has more to do with balance. It’s directly related to acidity,” Harvey says. “Chardonnay is made in the winery. It is bouquet-rich from the yeast, the barrels and the malolactic fermentation. Riesling is made in the vineyard. It is aroma-rich.”
While most chardonnays and red wines gain so many characteristics from barrel aging, many whites only see the inside of a stainless-steel tank. The vineyard soil and that vintage’s growing season influence what ends up in your glass.
If your wine consumption is a steady diet of big reds, my advice is the same that I give to friends who drink only barrel-aged beers, sours and imperial IPAs. I tell them that big and bold has its place, but there are also style and grace in the clean and subtle flavors of a fresh kölsch or well-made pilsner. If your Beyond Beer choice is white wine, go beyond chardonnay and experience something that just might surprise your taste buds.
Rick Lyke is a North Carolina-based beverage writer.