I’M A SUCKER for an underdog and maybe that’s why I love white wines. It’s never been dictated this way, of course, but for many wine drinkers, even subconsciously, white wines can come off as less serious than reds. They’re usually cheaper, frequently in screw-top bottles and their lighter bodies can make them seem inconsequential when compared to bold and tannic red.
But whites have always struck me as the true pinnacle of wine. They’re more versatile at the table, able to pair with spicy food in a way that a cab never could. Their depth and range of flavors and aromas offers a diversity than I sometimes find lacking in red wines—especially reds at affordable prices.
So why is it that, with an entire world of wine at people’s fingertips, we so often reach for a bottle of chardonnay or pinot grigio? Well, in part, we’re creatures of habit, and most of us like to stick to what we know we’ll like. Reaching for a new bottle of wine, especially one with a grape we don’t recognize, can be daunting. Will you like it? Will it be a waste of money? Will it work with dinner? Will my spouse hate it? Trust me, I’ve asked myself each of these questions, and at some point in everyone’s wine life, the answer will be “yes.”
There are more than 1,300 wine grapes around the world, with about 700 making white wine. Invariably, you’re going to find one that you don’t like, and that’s OK. I have a pretty unfriendly relationship to airen, a pesky little white grape from Spain. It accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s total grape plantings, and yet makes the wine equivalent of standing in line at the DMV.
Knowing what you like is half the battle, so next time you’re staring down a shelf of chardonnay, I challenge you to move a few feet to the left and try something new. Here, I’ve singled out a few white wines to know, each one delicious, unique and made for springtime.
Semillon got its start in Bordeaux where it was the backbone of the region’s famous dessert wine, sauternes. In both Bordeaux and Napa, you’ll often see it blended with sauvignon blanc to round out that grape’s sharp acidity, with the semillon adding depth and richness to the blend. (For sauvignon blanc, semillon acts as the “junk in the trunk.”) One of my favorite examples is Amavi Cellars’ Walla Walla Semillon ($25). It flips convention by having 85 percent semillon to 15 percent sauvignon blanc to boost the wine’s notes of peach, grapefruit and honeydew.
Outside the U.S., you’re unlikely to see the word “roussanne” on a label, largely due to the fact that it has many synonyms throughout its native France. The word to look for will be “bergeron,” the grape’s name in the small alpine department of Savoie near the Franco-Swiss border. These wines are elegant and perfumed with notes of apricots, lilacs and lemon verbena. Domaine Andre & Michel Quenard’s Les Terrasses ($35) is considered one of the top wines in the region.
Hailing from Austria, grüner veltliner has risen in popularity in the U.S. in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. Light, herbal and eminently quaffable, it’s a more soft-spoken alternative to sauvignon blanc. The bottle I always keep in my fridge is Domäne Wachau’s Federspiel Terrassen ($20). It’s my absolute go-to for lazy afternoons in the backyard, especially if tacos are involved. Mexican food + Austrian wine = you’re welcome.
A bit of a “love it or hate it” grape among wine professionals, torrontés is found exclusively in Argentina where it’s right at home in the country’s highest vineyard sites. I’m firmly in the “love it” camp for the Tercos Torrontés ($13), with its larger-than-life notes of rosebud, orange rind and geranium. Even if you’re the only one with a glass of it at your table, you can be sure the whole table will get a whiff.
Honest confession: I hate mimosas. When I’m brunching, I look for a bottle of chenin blanc, especially from the French village of Vouvray. Domaine Champalou’s Vouvray Sec ($22) is entirely brunchable. Sharp-as-a-tack acidity acts as a perfect balance to bacon and a teeny-tiny hint of sweetness in the wine helps it hold its own against all that maple syrup.