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Other Shades of White Wine

By W Peter Hoyne

Through the years much attention and acclaim has been bestowed upon Chardonnay, the queen of whites and its food friendly accomplice, Sauvignon Blanc. Although each differs in body and flavor profile, they have become reliable companions to most consumers and are notably present in many restaurants. These varietals have become easy, go-to wines requiring very little thought. Yet, beyond these two familiar choices, there is an abundance of white wine hopefuls that can expand your horizons, allowing you to fall in love again with the intimacy and pleasure of white wines.

The list is expansive for these intriguing whites, which are planted in vineyards across the globe. For this issue, we chose to limit our recommendations to alternative whites from North America that possess special attributes. Some of these grapes are obscure and shrouded in mystery with names such as Grenache Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Petit Manseng, Viognier, Albarino and others. Over time these new acquaintances can easily become an important part of your wine friendly family and take center stage at your dinner table or during casual conversations.

A simple and laid back approach to initiating a conversation about these white grape varietals is to understand a little about their family history and flavor profile. Pinot Gris is a pinkish grey skinned grape with its origin in Burgundy, France dating back to the Middle Ages. Its heritage is referenced by the French name ‘gris” which translates as gray. In reality, Pinot Gris is a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir possessing a similar DNA. Over time this grape gravitated to the terroir of Alsace in northeastern France at which time it evolved into a more fruit-driven, deeply aromatic and slightly viscous style. By the 1300’s, Pinot Gris found its way into Switzerland and then journeyed into the wine growing regions of northern Italy.

Within Italy, Pinot Gris became notably referred to as Pinot Grigio, heralding from the northeastern regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Trentino Alto Adige. In Italy it retained a refreshing crisp, yellow citrus flavor profile. Although there are many prominent mineral-driven and complexly structured Pinot Grigio’s, this grape was mass produced resulting in a lighter bodied, simplified presentation.

It was first planted in the US in Willamette Valley, Oregon by David Lett from Eyrie Vineyards in 1966. They remain the oldest vines of Pinot Gris planted in the U.S. Oregon Pinot Gris can express fresh acidity with a delicate stone fruit character and underpinnings of apricot, melon and pear. In some single–vineyard expressions, complexities abound with a blend of savory and exotic fruits laced with cream. There are over 5,000 acres of Pinot Gris planted in Oregon while Chardonnay remains a distant second. It has become one of Oregon’s leading white grape varietals.

Pinot Blanc is a grape whose origins also derive from Burgundy, France and it is thought to be a lighter genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. This grape found its way to Champagne, Alsace, Italy, Germany, Austria and California. In Italy it is referred to as Pinot Bianco, while in Germany and Austria it is called Weissburgunder. Within California there can be some similarities between Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay with regard to their color, weight and level of acidity. In Alsace, Pinot Blanc is used to produce the sparkling wines of Cremant d’Alsace which are delicately fruit-driven with soft acidity and are often good sparkling wine values. The still wines of Pinot Blanc from Alsace will express more weight on the palate. Meanwhile, in Italy and Germany, Pinot Blanc will reveal more green fruits with apples and pears accented by an underlying layer of fresh acidity.

Viognier pronounced “Vee–own-yay” is a profoundly aromatic white wine and grape varietal that heralds from appellation of Condrieu in the Northern Rhone Valley of France. Within this steeply terraced winegrowing region, the wine is labeled as Condrieu. It is a fragrant and viscous white that thrives in warm climates. Viognier possesses floral notes of apricot blossoms with white flowers and can be quite viscous and low in acidity. The Romans have been credited with bringing this grape varietal to the Rhone Valley. It had almost become extinct in 1965, but it continued to expand in popularity and worldwide plantings. It has been cultivated in South Australia since the 1970’s and in 1989 was imported to Paso Robles, California by Tablas Creek Winery, where it has become quite successful.

It has become the leading grape in the Tablas Creek Cote du Tablas Blanc. Some winemakers choose to oak age their Viognier to enhance its weight, complexity and spicy elements. Also, small percentages of Viognier, up to 5%, have been used as a blending grape to enhance the aromatic profile of Shiraz.

Chenin Blanc is a white wine grape that can be found abundantly in the Loire Valley of France. It is also widely planted in the soils of South Africa where it is known as Steen. Its dual ability to bud early and retain an elevated level of acidity or ripen later in the growing season and achieve a higher concentration of natural residual sugar, makes it versatile in adapting to many different styles. In France, Chenin Blanc adds acidity and freshness to the sparkling wines of Cremant de Loire and the dry whites of Anjou, complexity to Vouvray and Savennieres and an exotic sweet texture to the wines of Quarts de Chaume.

Domestic production of Chenin Blanc rose during the 1980’s as it became a bulk blending grape used in white jug wines. Its acreage gradually diminished over decades as winemakers experimented with higher quality renditions of this grape using old vine cuttings, different vinification techniques and oak aging. Enthusiasm for this grape category seems to be on the rise. Chenin Blanc is floral and crisp and can have honeyed notes of beeswax with green apple, quince and a stone fruit personality.

Grenache Blanc is called Garnacha Blanca and originated in northeast Spain where it is a mutation of the red Grenache Noir grape. It is a vigorous vine that thrives in hot and dry climates and is resistant to draught. It may best known for its role in the white Chateauneuf du Pape wines from the southern Rhone Valley where it has the largest number of plantings. Grenache Blanc is also cultivated in California’s Central Coast. It has a higher alcohol content with a dry, full-bodied style leaning toward a crisp green apple flavor profile with citrus overtones and white peach.

Albarino pronounced “alba-reen-yo” is a lighter bodied white wine grape grown in coastal climates of northwest Spain and in the Vinho Verde region of Portugal. It is a green skinned grape offering a lighter bodied personality with peach skins, orange zest and delicate minerality that is the perfect companion for grilled seafood.

Vermentino is a light skinned grape cultivated primarily within the Italian regions of Linguia and Sardinia. Within the southern coastal provinces of France the resulting wine is called Rolle and sloping vineyards benefit from sun reflected from the sea. This Mediterranean cultivated grape is also found in California and Oregon.
It has a medium to light body style with higher acidity and notes of yellow citrus with delicately crushed stones.

Grüner Veltliner is a green skinned grape that is widely grown throughout northeastern Austria along with Germany and Eastern Europe. It is commonly used in the sparkling wines of Austria with more complex renditions derived from the Wachau Valley of Austria. It can range from a simply refreshing, light styled white expressing lemon-lime zest, yellow citrus and white grapefruit. At its best in in the Wachau Valley it can be deeply complex with a richly concentrated mouth-feel.

Aligote is an early ripening, disease resistant white grape that heralds from Burgundy, France, and is recognized as the “forgotten” white grape. Within this region, the production of Aligote is third in line behind Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The grape shares its origin with both grape varietals. Aligote surfaced in the 17th century in Burgundy, but it didn’t receive official recognition until 1937. This drier style white has elements of lemon verbena and citrus undertones along with light minerality and fresh acidity making it similar to Chardonnay. Given the right growing conditions, old vines of Aligote can achieve a more complex structure.

These unique whites reveal that many winemakers are pursuing their passion, rather than searching for a financial incentive in crafting these modestly priced wines. Each of these varietals showcase the true talent and craftsmanship of the producers behind them. As we enter the early phases of spring, this might be the ideal time to explore a world unknown to many and develop a love affair with these mysterious whites.

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