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The Thrill of Discovering Off-Beat Whites

Think beyond Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for other interesting whites worth trying

Fine Cooking Issue 93
Photo: Scott Phillips
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As the first signs of summer appear, I’m ready to say good-bye to the full-bodied red wines I relished all through the cold months and open a bottle of crisp, chilled white. While I enjoy a glass of good Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc as much as the next person, I also love to explore other interesting, more unusual wines. Many of these off-beat whites are not only food-friendly and perfect for al fresco dining but also provide really good values, which means you don’t have to break the bank to indulge in your summer sipping. So if every now and then you get tired of uncorking your usual bottle of white, try something new, different, and delicious. To get you started, here are some of my favorite off-beat whites, all of which are light, crisp, and fruity—just the thing for hot summer days.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc has long been one of the world’s most underappreciated white wines, but it finally seems poised for its moment in the limelight. Some of the best wines from the Chenin grape are made in France’s Loire Valley in the small appellations of Vouvray and Savennières. Here, the climate and soil combine with the grape’s floral qualities to create wines with distinctive minerality and the aromas of ripe yellow apple, pear, and lemon fruit along with notes of honey and a touch of green herb. But Chenin Blanc is not exclusively French; it’s grown in many other regions around the world, including South Africa, California, the Pacific Northwest, and Australia. While these New World Chenins generally lack the mineral quality of the Loire wines, they more than make up for it with their pleasantly abundant fruit.

What to drink it with: Chenin Blanc pairs well with all kinds of summer fare, from tomato salads with feta, olives, and herbs to zesty chilled pastas and grilled shrimp with spicy cocktail sauce.

Bottles to try:

  • 2006 Dry Creek Vineyards Dry Chenin Blanc, Dry Creek Valley, $14
  • 2005 Hogue Cellars Chenin Blanc, Washington, $10
  • 2006 Domaine Pichot Vouvray, France, $14

Pinot Gris

In the French region of Alsace, Pinot Gris is one of the “noble grapes.” Along with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat, it can qualify as a grand cru, one of the highest levels of wine and vineyard classification in France. Alsace Pinot Gris is known for its ripe, luscious melon and pear fruit with notes of spice and sweet orange citrus. But it also has an earthy dimension that adds complexity to the wine. In the New World, Pinot Gris has found a home in Oregon and New Zealand, where the wines have the same hallmark pear and melon fruit with citrus overtones but lack the distinct earthiness of the Alsace wines. Pinot Grigio—the same grape but grown in northern Italy—tends to be a much lighter, crisper white dominated by citrus fruit, almond, and mineral notes.

What to drink it with: Try Pinot Gris with Asian stir-fried shrimp and any kind of shellfish. It’s also delicious with grilled chicken or turkey sausages served with a tropical fruit chutney. And for a cheese and wine pairing, try it with a semi-hard variety such as Gruyère, Fontina, or a mild Cheddar.

Bottles to try:

  • 2006 King Estate Pinot Gris “Signature Collection,” Oregon, $16
  • 2006 Huia Pinot Gris, Marlborough, New Zealand, $18
  • 2004 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve, Alsace, France, $19

Unoaked Chardonnay

I know what you’re thinking: No sooner have I encouraged you to get out of your Chardonnay rut than I’m back recommending more Chardonnay. But trust me, this is different. Many of the California Chardonnays we’re used to drinking have aged in oak barrels. That’s because oak aromas and flavors of vanilla, baking spices, and toast lend an appealing quality to the wines, making them incredibly easy to drink. But unoaked Chardonnay has been made in parts of France for centuries. There, the wines display brighter, crisper fruit offset by elegant mineral notes. In the last few years, Australian winemakers have made unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnay popular, much to the delight of white-wine drinkers everywhere. And several California producers are beginning to take the oak out of their Chardonnays, too. Stripped of strong oaky flavors, Chardonnay tends to be crisper, with juicy Pippin apple and tropical fruit notes and vibrant hints of lime.

What to drink it with: Unoaked Chardonnay is delicious with a variety of foods, from chilled poached salmon and roast chicken to grilled pork and warm potato salads.

Bottles to try:

  • 2007 Wishing Tree Unoaked Chardonnay, Western Australia, $10
  • 2006 Iron Horse Unoaked Chardonnay, Sonoma County, Green Valley, $26
  • 2006 Brampton Unoaked Chardonnay, Stellenbosch, South Africa, $10
  • 2006 Mâcon Charnay, Domaine Renaud, $14

Pinot Blanc

Originally an offspring of the French Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc is now grown throughout the wine world. But regardless of where it comes from, its round, creamy texture and bright apple and pear fruit make Pinot Blanc a crowd pleaser. In northern Italy the grape is called Pinot Bianco and the wines are lighter and crisper, with tart citrus and mineral elements. In the Alsace region of France, Pinot Blanc is richer and more luscious, with a touch of earthiness and a long finish. Pinot Blanc is also made in California, British Columbia (Canada), South Africa, and New Zealand. Here, too, the wines consistently display the ripe fruit and tangy citrus notes that make Pinot Blanc a quintessential summer sipping wine.

What to drink it with: Pinot Blanc is delicious with bright seafood stews, tart and spicy Thai dishes, fresh summer salads, all kinds of charcuterie, and deviled eggs.

Bottles to try:

  • 2005 Hugel Pinot Blanc “Cuvée Les Amours,” Alsace, $18
  • 2006 Laetitia Estate Pinot Blanc, Arroyo Grande Valley, California, $16
  • 2005 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc “Prince Abbés,” Alsace, $18
  • 2006 A to Z Pinot Blanc, Oregon, $14

Dry Muscat

If you thought Muscat was only a sweet wine, think again. There are many varieties of Muscat grown around the globe, and Muscat wines are made in a wide range of styles, from sweet dessert wines all the way to dry table wines. Regardless of style, the Muscat grape is known for its exotic aromas and flavors of rose petal, ripe apricot and nectarine, tangerine citrus, litchi, and ginger spice. The most complex dry Muscats are produced in Alsace from the Muscat à Petits Grains variety and have an added dimension of earthiness and minerality. Dry Muscats from New World regions such as California, the Pacific Northwest, and Australia have less minerality and are all about the fruit, even though they’re still quite dry.

What to drink it with: Try a dry Muscat with chilled bean salads flavored with citrus and garden herbs, smoked fish such as trout or salmon, and grilled pork or sausages.

Bottles to try:

  • 2007 Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Muscat, Monterey, $15
  • 2006 Meyer-Fonné Muscat, Alsace, $22
  • 2006 Domaine Bott Frères Muscat d’Alsace, $22

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