In the Shadow of Chardonnay (January 19, 2009)
If I were to ask a passing stranger in the street to name a white wine I would lay odds that the first one that would come to their mind was Chardonnay. It's easy to grow, easy to make and easy to like.
But familiarity can breed contempt, especially when some New World examples taste like being hit in the mouth with a two-by-four. And so those suffering from Chardonnay fatigue have started a movement with the acronym of ABC "Anything But Chardonnay."
You will notice that it is the variety that is named, not the villages where Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne, Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis are grown, which of course are all Chardonnays. This ABC business suggests that it's a phenomenon of New World weariness for highly extracted, oak-driven Chardonnays that can only be matched with dodo tartar or dinosaur ribs.
While I am not a card-carrying member of ABC, I can sympathize with those who are. There is certainly enough variety of white wines in the world that you need never drink Chardonnay again if you don't want to. And I'm not suggesting as substitutes varieties that are almost as well known as Chardonnay, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Riesling, but wines whose names may be unfamiliar to you but represent good value for the quality. There are literally hundreds of white grapes from which wine is made. I have selected those that have appeared in provincial wine stores albeit infrequently. They are listed in alphabetical order.
Albarino in north-west Spain is the same grape that the Portuguese use to make Vinho Verde. It has a taste of grapefruit and fresh herbs with a floral grace note. A very versatile food wine.
Aligoté is Chardonnay's little sister grown in Burgundy. It's more acidic and leaner but half the price of Bourgogne Blanc. Because of its raciness it goes well with seafood. It's a popular wine at the SAQ in Quebec and the only Canadian winery that I'm aware who grow it is Château des Charmes (who also produce a rare Savagnin).
Arneis means "little rascal" in Piedmontese dialect, so-called because it's hard to grow. But the wine is very tasty, full-bodied with pear and apricot flavours.
Chasselas is the most prominent grape in Switzerland and is used to make the tart, racy Fendant, the Swiss equivalent of Chablis.
Cortese is grown mainly in Piedmont and you'll usually find it under the Gavi label. The flavour profile is citrus with minerality, rather like an unoaked Chablis.
Ehrenfelser is a cross between Riesling and Silvaner, first produced by the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute in the Rheingau. Because it ripens earlier than Riesling it's a good cool weather grape and was extensively planted in British Columbia although not in Ontario. It's usually made in off-dry or sweet style.
Fiano di Avallino comes from the Italian province of Campania. It's crisply dry with a note of toasted hazelnuts on the nose, very elegant.
Greco di Tufo is an ancient Italian variety that comes mainly from Campania. It has a dry, stoney, green nut flavours.
Garganega is the major grape in Soave from the Veneto region, usually blended with Trebbiano and sometimes with Chardonnay. Mostly known as a dry wine with a peach pit flavour, it can also be made in recioto style (drying the grapes to concentrate the sugars) as a sweet wine.
Furmint is the grape that makes the Hungarian Tokaji, a wine of different levels of sweetness; but it is also fermented dry as a full-bodied, tart wine.
Grechetto, in Umbria, produces Orvieto that can be made in dry or off-dry style. The flavours are herbal and nutty. This grape is also used in the production of vin santo.
Grüner Veltliner is the pride of Austria which produces great wines in dry, off-dry and sweet styles. The characteristic flavour is peaches and white pepper. Although it got its reputation as a heurige wine (Austria's equivalent of vin nouveau) it is also made in very elegant style, as fine as any white wine you'll find anywhere.
Inzolia is native to Sicily, where it makes a deeply coloured wine, high in alcohol, with flavours of almonds, citrus fruit and herbs. It is also blended with Grillo and Catarratto to make Marsala.
Kerner is another German crossing, similar to Riesling in its aromatics but broader on the palate and less acidity.
Macabeo is the variety from which the white wines of Rioja are made. A light, mild wine, it is one of the component grapes in Spain's sparkling wine, cava. Also known as Viura.
Madeleine Angevine is a cold-climate variety grown in England and Quebec to withstand hostile winters. The flavour profile is Muscat-like.
Marsanne is a full-bodied, dry white wine with a stoney, nutty, honeyed flavour grown in the northern Rhône and also in Australia. It is usually blended with Roussanne
Melon de Bourgogne is another name for the grape Muscadet, one of the driest of French wines, grown in the Loire Valley and originally grown in Burgundy, hence the name.
Moscophilero is a Greek variety that has a distinct Muscat character but finishes dry.
Müller-Thurgau is a Riesling-Silvaner cross which has Riesling characteristics but is somewhat blander. At one time this variety was the most widely planted throughout Germany.
Petit Manseng, along with its larger-berried sister Gros Manseng, produces the robust wines of Jurançon that range from dry to sweet but always with a delicious honeyed peach flavour.
Rkatsiteli is a Russian variety, at one time the most widely planted white grape in that country. It is famously grown by Dr. Frank in New York States, producing a buxom, aromatic, floral wine.
Savagnin, not to be confused with Sauvignon, is grown in the Jura region of France and produce's that appellation's famous vins jaunes, wines that have a distinct dry sherry-like flavour.
Tocai Friulano has nothing to do with Hungary (Tokaji) or Alsace but is native to Friuli, producing a nicely balanced wine with citrus, pear and herbal notes.
Verdicchio is the grape of Italy's Marche region, producing a dry, nutty-flavoured wine of high quality.
Vermentino is grown extensively from Tuscany down to Corsica and Sardinia. Antinori makes a lovely Vermentino, dry with stone fruit flavours.
Vernaccia is best known when linked to the town of San Gimignano. Here it produces a dry wine with stoney, citrus, herbal flavours.
Viognier was originally grown in the northern Rhône and a small percentage was added to Syrah in the production of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. Now this fragrant grape, which produces a wine with a honeysuckle and peach flavour, is widely grown in the New World, including Ontario and British Columbia.
This is only a small proportion of the little-known white grapes out there. So if you're a zealous ABC-er you won't go thirsty for lack of a wine to drink.