BY JOSH SOLOMON
“Do you have a chardonnay?” The diner’s question to the waiter is somewhat rhetorical, of course, as the answer is almost never no. Chardonnay is ubiquitous. Chardonnay is safe. Based on the typical wine list at your average restaurant and what fills much of the shelf space at wine shops, most Americans drinking white wine drink chardonnay most of the time. Add in a few other favorites — say, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio (or pinot gris if you’re feeling French or Oregonian), and maybe riesling — and you have the white wine repertoire of most casual American wine drinkers.
There is, to be sure, much exploring to do among these four grapes. Nevertheless, there are an endless number of other white varieties worth experiencing. If you occasionally pass over the tried-and-true Dershowitzes in favor of a Bagenstos or a Steiker, you might end up pleasantly surprised. In the hopes that you will opt for something different next time the waiter asks for your drink order, I’d like you to meet three white varieties that you may not have tried or even heard of before. My criteria were that the varietal be readily available — most decent wine shops should have several versions of each — and that the grape appear frequently in its unblended form — so you know when you’re drinking a wine of that type. As an added bonus, the three off-the-beaten-path varietals I chose often come without the significant tolls that their super-highway counterparts bring.
The first is the Loire valley specialty chenin blanc (shen-uhn blanc). This grape tends to make crisp and refreshing (i.e. acidic) wines with earthy, citrussy, or otherwise fruity flavors. You may not find many bottles labeled “chenin blanc,” as your most likely encounter will be with certain central Loire valley wines (remember, French wines tend to be named for locations, not grapes). If you look for Vouvray, however, a major Loire wine area, you will get 100 percent chenin blanc. Chenin is also common in the New World (a wine term meaning “not Europe”), including South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and California, but outside the central Loire it is usually blended and plays second fiddle to other grapes.
Staying with Loire for the moment, you may also want to give muscadet a try. Not to be confused with muscat or moscato, muscadet (moose-ka-day) is both a region in the western Loire valley and the grape that grows there (the grape has taken the name of the region, but is more formally called melon de bourgogne). Muscadet is usually quite dry, and like chenin blanc, its crisp acidity defines it. Here in the States, the muscadet you find will most likely be labeled Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, a sub-district of Muscadet. Much of this wine will also carry the designation sur lie (sir lee), which means that the dead yeast cells from the fermentation process were left in the wine as it aged, giving it an additional yeasty flavor (think Champagne). Muscadet has one other defining characteristic worth noting: It’s cheap!
The gewürztraminer (ga-vertz-tra-mean-er) grape tends to make rich, aromatic wines with lively complex flavors and a softness that comes from a lack of acidity. Gewürztraminer wines are a specialty of Alsace (I know, too much France—but they are just so good at this). Alsatian gewürztraminer will require less effort to identify than most French varietals, for unlike their countrymen in other regions, many Alsatian producers actually put the grape on their labels. In addition to dry white wines, gewürztraminer can also make full-bodied, late-harvest dessert wines. Outside of Alsace, gewürztraminer plays only a minor role in Europe. You are far more likely to find New World versions, particularly from New Zealand, Washington, and Oregon.
I chose a bottle of each of these to taste, all purchased at the Wine & Cheese Cask. Here’s what I found:
2000 Les Capitaine, Les Aumones Vouvray ($8.99) — This wine was surprising in its almost complete lack of any aroma — it took a few sniffs before I could identify the slight grapefruit and wet leaves smell. Its taste offered little more. Not particularly interesting, it was acidic and tart (typical for chenin) with hints of flowers and green apple. Chenin blanc can be much better than this. Indeed, this wine offered yet further proof that it is just very difficult to find good wine for under $10. If you want to try chenin blanc, spend just two or three dollars more and look for Marc Bredif’s Vouvray, which is consistently very good.
2001 Domaine de la Pépière, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine ($7.99) — A better wine than the Vouvray, despite the fact that I generally prefer Vouvray to Muscadet. Due to the sur lie style, there was a strong yeasty smell. The wine was bone dry, acidic, and quite bitter (particularly on the finish). The main problem was that beyond those characteristics, there was not much flavor. Concentration finally revealed grapefruit, but on the whole it was rather bland. This makes it sound worse than it was, however, as it was nevertheless a refreshing, easy-drinking wine. So long as you are not in the mood for something particularly enchanting, this was not bad.
2001 Chateau Ste. Michelle, Gewurztraminer ($7.99) — So as not to anger my British friends, I chose a non-French wine this time (no, they don’t make wine, they just hate the French). Chateau Ste. Michelle is a significant Washingtonian producer that tends to make reliable rieslings and, apparently, pretty decent gewürztraminer. This wine more than made up for the lack of aroma in the other two — the nose was huge. The predominant smells were fresh mint and gingerbread. While sweeter than the other two, it was not overly so. It was big (i.e. high in alcohol) with tropical fruit flavors that I couldn’t quite pin down (kiwi? mango?), but that lingered for several minutes after swallowing. A surprisingly good wine for the very low price.