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So Many Interesting White Wines  There’s a World of Opportunities Out There…by Don Clemens

Do you ever find yourself thinking, “Isn’t there something besides Chardonnay that I could be enjoying with this dish?” It’s pretty clear that Americans have clamped onto a select few red and white grape varieties as their go-to wine choices, no matter the cuisine, the occasion, or the possibility of an improved food pairing.


Grocery store wine shelves and the majority of restaurant wine lists in our era are replete with versions (and bottle sizes) of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and – possibly – Riesling and/or Gewurztraminer. In my career, I’ve had the opportunity, and the pleasure, of enjoying wonderful examples of all these varieties. But, there are so many more “perfect” white wine varieties out there to be enjoyed with the incredible array of cuisines that are available to almost all of us. Believe me: it’s worth the search!


One of the easier ways to open your search for the right wine for your meal is to consider the origin of the specific dish that you might be considering for dinner. For example, a current “hot” pasta dish, Cacio e Pepe, is a simple (but delicious!) dish, using long noodles (something like spaghetti or bucatini), freshly ground black pepper, and freshly grated cheese (originally Italian Cacciocavallo, which might not be so easy to find at your local market. A well-liked substitute is Pecorino Romano, a tangy sheep’s milk cheese). So – which wine would be most appropriate? The dish is Italian, but contains no meat or tomato sauce, so should it be a white wine? I would lean in that direction, and I would be looking for an Italian white wine. We know that Pinot Grigio has exploded in popularity in the United States; it has also increased in Italy. With – happily – some notable exceptions, Pinot Grigio has become almost as common – and about as interesting – as bottled water. But there must be some alternative that will make the Cacio e Pepe a real winner! Vermentino, mainly from the western regions of Italy (particularly Sardinia, Tuscany, and Liguria), is one of that area’s finest white wine grapes. It can be the foundation of a delightfully flavored wine, usually displaying medium-bodied richness coupled with aromas of citrus and almond, with some floral notes. It is usually barrel fermented and aged, which plays well off the floral notes that the freshly cracked black pepper in Cacio e Pepe displays.


So, in keeping with the concept of “let’s find a less obvious wine grape for that special dinner”, let me offer some other alternatives to “Vin de Captain Obvious”.


If Cabernet Sauvignon is the “King of Red Wine Grapes”, Chardonnay is certainly the “Queen”. It is the most widely planted white wine grape in the U.S. and is also the most widely planted white wine grape in the world! It can make spectacular wines that command phenomenally high prices. It can also make a passable, inexpensive table beverage that is barely noticed during that cocktail party. Worth looking for:

Pinot Gris from coastal California and Oregon’s Willamette Valley; Pinot Blanc from the eastern Loire Valley of France; Godello from the Northwest corner of Spain; and Marsanne from the northern Rhone Valley of France.


Sauvignon Blanc has carved out quite a niche in the wine world. It made its reputation with lovely, aromatic, crisp wines from the Loire Valley in France, but has extended its range to become a player in virtually every wine region on the planet. It shines in California and Washington State in the U.S.; it is a huge player in New Zealand and in Chile: it is a star in some of South Africa’s finest growing regions; it is a player in Spain’s Rueda appellation; it’s highly sought after from Australia’s Adelaide Hills, Margaret River and Victoria wine regions. It’s even important to Moldova! If you’re looking for an alternative wine to Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps you should try a Grüner Veltliner from Austria, or a Chenin Blanc from South Africa, or a Verdejo from Rueda in Spain.


Riesling, the great grape that has defined German wines for centuries, is grown in many countries, and can make wines of awesome age worthiness, amazing flavors, and stunning presence. Its universal appeal has created significant vineyards – in addition to those in Germany – in Austria, France, Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, and Canada. While some might say that Riesling is not replaceable, there are a few grapes that make wines that have some of the characteristics that make Riesling such a great food wine. You might try Hungarian Furmint, or Greek Assyrtiko, or Portuguese Loureiro. An almost family member is Mueller-Thurgau that is similar in so many ways, and generally a more affordable selection.


Gewurztraminer has such memorable aromas and flavors. Intense floral aromas, coupled with spice notes make this grape so special. But, if you’re looking for an alternative, there are some available choices. You could try a Moschofilero from Greece, a Muscat Blanc from France (and now a large contingent of other countries), or a Torrontes from Argentina.


This list can go on. There are so many excellent wine grapes that can slot in for almost any recognized white grape variety. It may not be exactly the same, but it can be not only appropriate, but delicious with that special dish that you have created – or ordered!

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