Wanna spot the poser at your next dinner party? It's the person talking seriously about wine but only drinking reds. Having been mistakenly led to believe that whites are just a simple quaff before the main event, these hopeless sinners of wine are missing out on what could be the best juice on the table.
As a chef, I drink far more white than red mostly because they're so much easier to pair with food. Trying to pick a wine at a restaurant that will go with everyone's entrees? Unless you're all doing red meat, a sturdy white is often going to do the job much better than pretty much any red. And if you're simply thirsty there's no contest. Whites win hands down.
So be-damned the haters and taste these “forbidden" fruits.
There's a reason Chardonnay has been planted all over the world and beaten into your head like an overplayed pop song. It's because it can be amazingly delicious. The secret (a reoccurring theme, actually) is acid. Enough acid and Chardonnay's glorious fruits are perfectly framed. Not enough and it becomes flabby, like a salad dressed only with oil.
Not long ago, we started to get flooded with lots of bad Chardonnay. Everyone blamed the fact that it was “too oaky." However, the problem is really that much of it is being grown in the wrong places (usually too hot) and not developing enough acid. After all, slap some oak on great Chardonnay grapes and you get a wine that is sexy and opulent. On the other hand, take the oak away from bland juice and you may have removed the only thing it had going. Well, unfortunately, that's exactly what many producers are doing, so now instead of getting bad Chardonnay with oak, they're bringing you bad Chardonnay without oak. Color me surprised.
So stick to the cooler regions and you'll be fine. A few safe bets? Burgundy, France and Carneros or Central Coast in California. Of course, bring your checkbook. There are tasty wines to be had for a song, but Chardonnay usually isn't one of them. Look for: Hess Collection Su'skol Vineyards - Rich and ripe pear and vanilla-caramel flavors with just enough brightness to rein it in.
Sauvignon Blanc is the grape that has made the most of Chardonnay's waning popularity because it has that precious zestiness we covet. It is grown practically everywhere and is responsible for a stunning swath of flavor profiles from austere minerality, bright citrus tones, or flamboyant, in-your-face tropical bouquets. Depending on your tastes or what you're cooking up, there's likely one for you.
New Zealand has stolen the spotlight of late with its unmistakably vibrant grapefruit flavors but don't look past the motherland where France's Loire Valley makes some of the most regal examples in Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. Just below the radar are riper versions from Sonoma, South Africa, and South America, with the later being the best place to mine for values. Look for: Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard, New Zealand - A beautifully polished wine that shows abundant citrus and nectarine fruits.
Like Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio's only sin is often being planted where it oughtn't be. The first examples we tried from the cool mountains of Northern Italy blew our minds, so they started planting it everywhere and created the glut of forgettable, watered-down juice we're currently drowning in. A point of clarification: Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same grape, the second simply being what it's called in France. Pinot Gris is usually richer and the rest of the world will label their wines according to what style they're going after. If it's bright and nervy, they'll call it Grigio, rich and viscous, Gris.
Made well, these wines show a stately minerality, vibrant fruit, crisp acidity that make them an outstanding pre-meal quaff or a great wine for appetizers and seafood. The richer versions can even match richer foods like pork or slightly spicy dishes. Look for: Maso Poli, Trentino Italy - Sultry texture and aromas of melons and stone fruit set off by bright and clean citrus flavors.
Riesling poor, poor Riesling. How can a grape responsible for some of the world's most stunning wines get such a bad rap here in the states? Sometimes dry, sometimes sweet but nearly always clean, attractive, and charming. For starters, get over your sweet hang-up. You enjoy sodas, fruit juices, and sweet cocktails. Why draw the line at wine? Provided the wine has enough acidity to set it off, a bit of sweetness can be delicious as well as just the foil for spicy fare. This makes Riesling a great option for Asian cuisine. However, don't stop there. Ripe cheeses, roasted pork, richer seafood and BBQ can all be great companions and, honestly, I could go on.
If you like sweet, think Germany (unless it's labeled “troken" for dry). Bone-dry, look for Australia or New Zealand. In between, try Alsace, France. Look for: St. M Riesling, Germany - Lively and sweet flavors of peaches and apricots with great balance and a crisp finish.
By god do I love Torrontes. It's really one sexy package: sultry floral aromas, silky texture, lush fruits, and often a bright finish. Better still, it's a steal, with most costing less than $10. Now, admittedly, this one may qualify in the “quaff" department, but what a quaff it is. Great with appetizers and to sip while you're snacking on what's going to become dinner. Oh, one more thing, it only comes from Argentina so, unlike Riesling, there's no confusion. Look for: Zolo - Aromas of rose petals followed by ginger and pear fruit and clean citrus on the back.
The great news is that the world is full of delicious whites and so many of them are layered with captivating nuance and charm. Better still, they flat out rock.
Charlie Deal and his wife were chased from pre-Arnold California by nightmares of million dollar outhouses and now reside in North Carolina where he's the proprietor, executive chef and wine director of Jujube Restaurant. When he's not looking for a good taco...well, he's pretty much always looking for a good taco.