In the winter months, I typically drink more reds with hearty meals during our brazenly cold winter months. It is now time to recalibrate my thought process and surrender my taste buds to the charismatic elegance and easy drinking whites that I had abandoned during winter. Within this category are the more well-known grapes of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Viognier and in some cases a well-balanced, lightly oaked Chardonnay. It may not be white after it is finished, but rose´ has its own summer following enthusiasts.
Let’s first focus on the ever-present Sauvignon Blanc. What makes Sauvignon Blanc so appealing; it is a thought-provoking beverage that can peak your curiosity and quench your thirst at the same time. This high-yielding grape has a carefree personality that would rather be consumed during a patio conversation than participate in a serious dialogue at the dinner table. Few wines have this casual temperament, but Sauvignon Blanc can also have an alter ego that could dampen the enthusiasm of its most avid followers. Sauvignon Blanc is relatively easy to produce and is typically fermented in stainless steel tanks, then bottled and consumed at a youthful age. Given its ability to be a high-yielding and profitable grape, it can be the driving force behind a winery while sustaining its annual revenue. In some cases it is blended with a small amount of Semillion to give it added richness. Many of the finest examples of Sauvignon Blanc can be traced to its origin in Loire Valley within north central France, where the Loire River separates the appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. These local Sauvignon Blancs can achieve their ultimate expression with well-defined undertones of limestone, smokiness and chalky minerality. Sauvignon Blanc is also cultivated in the principle appellations of Bordeaux, within Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves, Pessac–Léognan, and most notably provides the backbone for the sweet white elixirs of Sauternes. New World interpretations have originated from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and California.
Robert Mondavi was one of the early pioneers in California establishing recognition for this varietal. Inspired by the winemaking traditions in Europe, he believed that world-class wines of equal status could be produced in California. Mondavi’s early passion and inspiration was Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley of France, labeled Pouilly-Fume. He sought special labeling for his barrel-aged expression, designating it Fumé Blanc. There are currently four distinct styles of Sauvignon Blanc in the Robert Mondavi portfolio.
The naturally occurring methoxypyrazine compounds in Sauvignon Blanc are easily recognized, producing herbaceous aromas of pungent green bell pepper, peas, asparagus, and mowed lawn. Positive descriptors may include fragrant aromas of gooseberry, lemon zest, pink grapefruit and passion fruit. Sauvignon Blanc’s alluring aromatics continue to attract a new audience as it rises in popularity. I am typically attracted to Sauvignon Blanc produced in the North Coast of California. Given the warmer weather patterns, these examples showcase attractive ripe citrus elements with less emphasis on minerality, smokiness and bright acidity. If I am trying to brighten up a meal, tone down the richness of a dish or cool down on a warm summer day, I may divert to New Zealand. It is here that Sauvignon’s temperament is driven by a crisp and energetic style marked by occasional green elements, grapefruit and herbaceous layers.
Riesling is a varietal that is ideally suited for any casual indulgence but especially versatile during the summer months. There are notable renditions from Russian River Valley, Washington and the Finger Lakes regions of New York, but those from the Mosel and Rhine River Valley of Germany are some of the most profound. The Pradakatswein (wines with special attributes) from Germany are easy to identify and are the highest classification. These wines are designated according to their level of ripeness and geographic origin. German wines have floral attributes that remind you of the fresh scents from a flower garden in spring. The captivating perfume-like aromas are typical of the Riesling grape, the premier white grape in Germany. These wines can be graceful, driven by orchard fruits interwoven with slate and finesse, while balanced with racy acidity. Their delicate freshness and recurring undertones of tropical fruits are a seductive alternative to almost anything.
Along a different route are Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne which are a bit of an anomaly. The origins of these grapes reign from the Northern Rhone Valley of France. They have achieved less recognition by themselves and are grown around the world. Each retains its own unique personality, although it is more common to see these grapes blended together. Marsanne is deeply colored and hefty with dry, exotic flavors. Rousanne can be full-bodied with elements of white peach, pear and herbal tones. Viognier can stand alone, yet there are numerous renditions. Within the Rhone Valley and some growing regions of California, Viognier will reveal a bright perfumed honeysuckle bouquet with delicate minerality. Subtly oaked versions can be laden with dark caramel and vanilla.
Although Sauvignon Blanc has closed the gap on Chardonnay and can be seen in the side view mirror, let’s be clear that Chardonnay is still king. The personality of Chardonnay has changed within the last decade as producers have eased off their use of new oak and in some cases, crafted unoaked styles. The milky richness added by allowing the wine to undergo a secondary malolactic fermentation has been reduced as well. Producers are striking a balance with fruit and wood, which for some wineries is long overdue. Consumers are seeking Chardonnay that has less of an outgoing personality and is more compatible with food. When looking for a more consistently balanced domestic style, seek out those from Russian River, Carneros and Willamette Valley.
Regardless of your choice of grape varietals for summer sipping, rest assured that the exploration will offer you a more cheerful and optimistic state of mind.