Gilles Nicault, the French-born head winemaker for the Long Shadows consortium of wineries in Washington state, once told me that when he wants to evaluate the skill of a fellow winemaker, he always concentrates his tasting on the winemaker’s white wines. “You can cover up a lot of flaws in a red wine,” he said, “but you can’t in a white.”
Clarity is an obvious desirable quality in white wines, and to achieve it requires real winemaking skill. A cloudy white wine may taste all right, but it will never sell, nor should it. Cloudiness is a flaw in red wines too, but in some dense reds— petite sirah, for example — clarity is difficult to discern.
White wines should have a crispness, a balance of acids and flavor that can be hard to achieve with grapes that aren’t well-farmed in the vineyard. In some whites, notably chardonnay, a degree of oakiness from barrel-aging can be desirable, but it’s a fine line separating too much and too little, so the winemaker needs to really know his or her aging barrels and how much time to give his wines in the barrels. Other whites call for a bit of sweetness, but even slightly overdoing the sugar results in a cloying, unpleasant wine.
In short, a number of things can go quickly wrong when making white wines, and there’s almost no way to back up the process to fix the mistakes. Gilles is absolutely right: a well-made white wine shows the skill of a winemaker who knows their craft.
But perhaps the worst thing to happen to white wines in the United States is something that was largely out of the winemaker’s control. Beginning in the 1970s, wine, especially white wine, became the cocktail of choice for a new generation of imbibers. Who hasn’t been to a social gathering where white wine was offered to accompany the chatter? The problem is, this shift in purpose took white wine away from wine’s chief job, which is to accompany food.
And so a new kind of white wine was created to satisfy the cocktail-wine market: light, slightly sweet, and largely flavorless. But the market for such wines grew so huge (it’s still huge), and was so profitable, that traditional white wines — crisp, dry rieslings, complex chardonnays, spicy gewurztraminers, clean yet flavorful sauvignon blancs, etc. — nearly drowned in an ocean of pinot grigio and syrupy muscats. Go to the wine section of any Upper Valley supermarket, such as Hannaford’s in Bradford, and you’ll see that pinot grigios still outnumber sauvignon blancs by about 10 to one.
Which isn’t to say pinot grigio is bad wine; it isn’t. When made well, it has a clean, summer-rain freshness that seems to spring to life with a bit of chilling. Personally, I prefer pinot grigio from Oregon (where it is sometimes labeled as pinot gris) rather than from California or Italy, because the Oregon wines balance the slight sweetness with a nice acidity that I like. But good pinot grigio from all over the world isn’t difficult to find. My only caution is the usual one that applies to wine across the board: you almost always get what you pay for. Cheap pinot grigio will taste, well, cheap.
I like a well-made chardonnay or white Burgundy with my grilled salmon fillets or roasted chicken, though the prices of these wines can be intimidating. Good American chardonnay begins at about $20 a bottle and quickly goes up from there; drinkable white Burgundy begins at $30 a bottle, and it’s easy to spend $70 or $80 or even much more on a Burgundy. Less costly but tasty alternatives to these wines are Chablis from France (which, like white Burgundy, is made from the chardonnay grape), Sancerre from France’s Loire Valley (made from the sauvignon blanc grape), albariño from Spain, and torrontes from Argentina.
Domestically, I’m very fond of the chenin blanc from Chalone winery in California, which comes from the oldest chenin blanc vineyard in the United States. I also quite like “Poet’s Leap,” a riesling made by Long Shadows in Washington state, and the dry gewürztraminer produced by Navarro Vineyards in California’s Anderson Valley. I have had some very good sauvignon blancs from New Zealand — look for the Marlboro appellation on the label — but also some that were pretty bad. There are any number of very good domestic sauvignon blancs widely available in stores in the Upper Valley, but, again, you’ll get what you pay for with these wines (and with the New Zealand sauvignon blancs). Stay away from any sauvignon blanc that is priced below $12 or so. A $20-$25 sauvignon blanc, however, will very likely be a much better, tastier wine than a $20-$25 chardonnay.