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Don’t Diss the Skinless Grape
White wines, A to Z and in between
by Kate Loftesness
|Gavin McComas of Sundance Wine Cellar. By Trask Bedortha.|
|Angus James, owner of The Broadway wine cellar. By Todd Cooper|
|Randy Stokes at King Estate. By Justin King.|
White wine is easy. It’s safe. You can go to the store, arbitrarily pick a $10 chardonnay and class up a romantic dinner or social gathering. In almost any situation, white wine can be a nice gift — for friends, coworkers or in-laws, and it even comes in convenient boxes for when taste matters less than price and percent alcohol by volume.
White wine, though it’s less susceptible to the stereotype of overeducated white men talking about tannins than is red wine, has not escaped the stigma of being a pretentious pastime for the wealthy and overeducated. But Eugene winemakers explain that’s not a prerequisite for interest in wine.
Gavin McComas, owner of Sundance Natural Foods and Sundance Wine Cellar, tells people that wine doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby.
“One of the exciting things about the world of wine is that there’s so many bargains out there,” he says. “It’s fortunately not the case that you have to spend a lot of money to get a wine that you like.”
Randy Stokes, the tasting room manager at King Estate Winery, Oregon’s largest winery (and a very short drive from Eugene), agrees that price is often deceptive. “People don’t realize is that price is the worst key. So paying more doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting a better quality.”
More importantly, local wine experts explain that the descriptions and comparisons most often heard in the wine world (“I really get a sense of freshly tilled earth!”) are just a matter of opinion.
“It is very personal,” Stokes says. “I think that’s what makes wine hard to learn for a lot of people and why there tends to be so much pretense.”
Angus James, owner of The Broadway wine cellar in Eugene, agrees. “I always say the best wine is the wine you like best,” he says. “There’s no wrong answer — it’s all personal taste; it’s very subjective.”
The basics of the grapes
Even if it’s all just personal, some basic knowledge of white wines helps.
So, where should you start? Well, like the winemakers, start with the grapes.
“Each and every wine on earth is made up of three and only three things what we will call the Holy Trinity of wine: 1. Type of grapes 2. Where the grapes were grown 3. How the grapes were turned into wine,” writes author Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl in her book Drink This: Wine Made Easy.
White wines can be made from either white grapes or red grapes, despite the inherent contradiction. The skins of red grapes give red wine its color, so some of those grapes without their skin make white wine.
The grape varieties themselves are actually far less numerous than the white wine varietals out there.
“Basically, there are really six grapes that comprise 90 percent of a person’s common wine experiences,” James says. “And on the white side, there are three grapes. So with Riesling and chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, those three grapes are going to comprise most people’s most common wine experiences.”
For a long time, chardonnay was the most popular white varietal, but it has fallen out of favor with many. Sauvignon blanc, Riesling and pinot gris (or pinot grigio, if you’re talking about the Italian-made variety) are also very popular.
“Chardonnay probably is still the most popular wine in the U.S., but it’s actually starting to break up a little bit as people are exploring wines more and developing their palates, and appreciating different types of wine,” McComas says. “And in Oregon, pinot gris is the ruling white varietal.”
Oregon winemakers like Eyrie and Ponzi first began exploring the real potential of French grapes in this climate in the early 1970s, he says. Grape cuttings smuggled out of France did much better in the very similar climate of the Willamette Valley than the California chardonnays that winemakers initially tried to grow here.
“We’re a particularly suitable region for producing pinot gris, so that’s one of the highlights of our state,” McComas says. “We make far more pinot gris than chardonnay.”
Don’t be afraid of terroir
One important misconception wine experts strive to correct is that all wines of a certain variety share basic characteristics. In reality, many factors, such as soil, climate, age, fermentation process, aging process and more contribute to a wine’s taste.
“Pinot gris is a grape. Chenin blanc is a grape. Sémillon is a grape. Sauvignon blanc is a grape,” Stokes says. “Those are just grapes; what the winemaker does with them is their own choice. They can make them sweet, semi-sweet, off-dry, sparkling, still — they can do whatever they want with them, so the flavors are going to be influenced by how they play with those grapes.”
Minerals in the soil affect grapes grown in that soil — what the French call “terroir.” Even the weather when a grape is growing can have a huge impact on the wine’s taste in the end. Stokes explains that a hot July will invariably lead to high acidity, whereas a hot October will bring out bold fruit flavors.
One of the most common assumptions people make is that all chardonnays are full-bodied and oaky. People who don’t enjoy that particular style, known as a “California chardonnay,” are apt to discount the varietal as a whole, and many wine-drinkers describe themselves as “ABC” — Anything But Chardonnay. This is really a pretty rash decision, since there is so much variety within the “Chardonnay” designation. Chardonnays aged in French oak barrels tend to be earthy, nutty and spicy, and those aged in American oak barrels pick up more vanilla flavors. It’s becoming increasingly popular for many other chardonnays to be aged in stainless steel barrels — as at King Estate — so they don’t have any of that oak quality. And chardonnays that use malo-lactic fermentation (changing malic acid into lactic acid) tend be to creamy and buttery.
“Some people buy a chardonnay and they don’t like that particular bottle, and then they’ll say, ‘I don’t like chardonnays.’ and they’ll often dismiss that varietal,” McComas says. “If they were able to try eight or 10 different chardonnays, chances are, I think, that they would find one they like. And same is true of pinot gris or sauvignon blancs or Grüner Veltliner because even within a particular varietal, there are so many different variables.”
Is there any order in the world?
If being labeled “chardonnay” doesn’t mean the wine is oaky and “Riesling” doesn’t mean it’s sweet, how do we have any idea what to pick up off the shelf?
McComas, James and Stokes all agree that wine tasting is crucial to understanding wine.
“If you want to explore wine, you have to taste wine,” James says. “And you can do it on your own, you can read books and taste wines and follow along, there’s good courses that you can do on your own, but it’s a lot more fun when you do it with someone else.”
Not only can tasting with an expert save you a lot of money over just buying random bottles off the shelves, they can help guide you through the process and start figuring out what to look for in a wine.
“A good place to start is to have someone provide you with really classic examples of what those very commons terms are — sweet and citrusy and minerality and oaky and buttery and all those things,” James says. “That’s a really good way to get a handle on the characteristics that you like and then be able to express that to somebody else.”
In the wine classes he used to teach for beginners, James emphasized building and expanding on this “vocabulary toolbox,” as he calls it. Once you understand what winemakers and reviewers and stewards mean when they say those things, you can start following along with the conversation and making your own judgments. You can have a much more constructive relationship with a wine server, sommelier or wine steward, and you have a much better chance of spending your money on something you’ll like.
“If you’ve had a good example of that then you know what that means to you and you know what you’re looking for. It might mean something different to somebody else but generally, a good wine steward will be able to have an idea of what you’re talking about,” James says. “So, ‘Oh I like something sweet, I like it really dry, I like it crisp, I like it citrusy, I like it fruity,’ those are all terms that, if you’ve had good examples of those, you can use to help express what it is that you’re looking for.”
Stokes suggests that starting local is another good approach to learning white wines.
“I’m such a Eugenean,” he says, laughing. “Not only are you drinking what’s from your area, but you can also go to those wineries, talk to the people who actually made the wine and get an idea of what they do to that wine to get it that way. And then once you find the style you like, you can take a step out and expand that and find other wines that are made like that from other areas.”
Many wine merchants in Eugene have free tastings during the week, and local wineries also offer tastings of their wines. Even at a restaurant, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask to taste something being served by the glass if you’re unsure of it, Stokes says.
Reluctant as they are to admit it, wine experts do say that many varietals share some common characteristics.
In Drink This, Moskowitz Grumdahl explains that Chardonnay grapes are incredibly versatile and “can be made into: noble, robust, silky white burgundy; chalky, utterly dry chablis; fat, ripe, ice-cream-lush Napa Valley chardonnay; sour, headache-making plonk from anonymous corporate farm fields; or the driest possible Champagne.”
Since chardonnays are commonly oak-aged, they tend to be heavier bodied, with light acidity and lots of fruit flavors.
Rieslings, discounted by many as a sweet wine, can also be dry. Moskowitz Grumdahl explains that they are very nuanced, with tart acidity that usually makes them pair well with food.
Sauvignon blanc, according to Moskowitz Grumdahl, is a good starting place for white wine beginners because it is not usually blended or manipulated much by winemakers. “It’s zesty, it’s fragrant, it’s chic and cheerful,” she says.
Pinot gris can range from thick and rich to very dry and similar to sauvignon blanc, McComas says. “In general, Oregon pinot gris is light- to medium-bodied, with aromas reminiscent of pears, apples and sometimes of melon, and surprising depth for an inexpensive wine,” say Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan in the fourth edition of Wine for Dummies.
Other popular white wine varietals include Gewürztraminer, viognier, Grüner Veltliner, marsanne, sémillon, chenin blanc and more.
But as the experts agree, rather than focus on specific varietals, a better approach to familiarizing yourself with wine is to identify what kinds of flavors and characteristics you like and then talk to someone or do research to find other wines you might enjoy.
When reading reviews or describing flavors, it’s important to remember that people discuss the subtleties, not overwhelming flavors. “It can be a little scary to people because you think it’s going to taste like fruit,” McComas says, but that’s not the case. “You’re looking for terms that are as close as you can come to the flavors because it’s very hard to describe a wine. We have to use analogous vocabulary.”
Stokes explains that people often mistake fruity with sweet. Sweetness is a measure of sugar, whereas fruitiness is a description of flavor components. In wine terms, the opposite of sweet is dry.
“People tend to be looking for a crisp, dry or a rich, fruity kind of wine,” McComas says. “Those are kind of your two poles.”
And finally, when should you drink which kind of wine? Crisp, dry white wines with high acidity do well when paired with food because they cleanse the palate and complement the taste of whatever you’re eating, whereas rich, fruity wines might interfere with food and are better enjoyed with hors d’oeurves or by themselves.
But more than anything, wine, including whites, is about personal taste and simply finding something you like to drink.
“Everybody’s tastes are totally valid,” McComas says. “What you like is what matters.”