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The Wine Exchange
Allen R. Balik
What’s becoming of white wine?
There’s no doubt that the world of white wine has been changing over the last decade or so. New varieties, often from lesser known growing areas, are blossoming in the market and consumers are enjoying the ever expanding choices, stylistic offerings and ability explore beyond the well-known staples.
I love white wines. They offer an expansive range of flavors, structures, versatility and appeal that (in my opinion) even exceeds what their red siblings present. But, I am also dubious about the outliers such as “orange” wine and the catch-all “natural” wine category when applied to whites and their overall effect in the market.
White wines are like a Queen on the chessboard as they can move in many directions and capture a broad range of attention. The Chardonnays of Burgundy are an ultimate expression of power and elegance. The delicacy of a fine dry German Riesling or a chilled Vinho Verde from Portugal are welcome delights with cheese or a first course. The intrigue of fresh pitted fruits in a Loire Vouvray or delicate herbal note of a Sancerre, spice of an Alsatian Gewürztraminer and charm of an Argentinian Torrontes will spike the curiosity of any wine lover.
Italy has long been known as a bastion of reds, but its whites are now coming on stage as equal partners. Pinot Grigio has long been a leader and is now joined on the international platform with Vermentino, Arneis, Verdicchio, Pecorino, Gavi, Greco di Tufo and many others, along with the newly rediscovered Timorasso from Piedmont.
France has a long history of holding its treasured whites from Burgundy, Rhône and Champagne as equals with its famed reds. Spain is realizing that whites are important members of their vinous family and have now officially recognized them in the Rioja. The New World has long held white wines as noble additions to their portfolios, and California leads the way with a broad range of Old World varieties in the forefront.
When we think about whites, the dry styles may be among the first that come to mind. However, let’s not forget the “sweet” splendor of Bordeaux’s Sauternes, Germany’s late-harvest Rieslings, Italy’s Vin Santos and more. If fortified styles appeal to you, look for White Port, Madeira and Sherry.
Whether spring, summer fall or winter, whites always have a prominent role at our table. Seasonal dishes may dictate the course(s) best suited for their welcome and engaging brightness, delicacy and refined fruit-driven personalities, but their presence is always a welcome addition.
Versatility is the key when thinking about white wine as the options are endless. However, today’s market has also seen the expansion of the relatively new category of “orange” wines that have found a welcoming audience. While these wines may appeal to many (mostly the younger female demographic) they have yet to prove their resilience and food compatibility in an ever-changing wine market.
White wines are traditionally produced by first pressing the berries and immediately drawing the juice off the skins to ferment on its own. In contrast, when producing a red wine, the berries are placed in the fermentation vessel while fermentation proceeds with the juice in contact with the skins to extract tannin, color, flavor, etc. When fermentation is completed, the juice is drawn off the skins and transferred to barrel or another vessel for aging.
When whites are produced in this traditional method, we see wines of varying shades of pale golden hues, aromatic notes typical of the variety and growing area, purity and brightness on the palate and a captivating flair on the finish. However, when white berries are handled as reds and fermented on their skins (as with orange wines), a very different result occurs.
Orange wines display a far deeper color (i.e. the name), less fruit and delicacy on the nose and more density on the palate and finish. This aromatic/flavor profile lies somewhere in “no man’s land” between the delights of a white and the depth and character of a red. The length of time the juice and skins remain in contact with each other will determine the depth of color extracted and the weight on the palate.
Wine has been an age-old companion to food at the dinner table since its beginnings 7,000 years ago, I’m not sure where the orange category fits into this role. Perhaps it is more conducive to the cocktail category as its most visible presence appears at the restaurant’s bar as a wine-by-the-glass selection.
Last week, I opened an Albariño from its native home in the Rías Baixas area of northwest Spain. I have enjoyed wines from this producer and have lately noted a deep golden color rather than a lighter more inviting hue of past vintages. On first view, I thought the bottle may be oxidized, but I did not detect any adverse notes on the nose. On the palate, it seemed heavier with less inviting brightness and minerality than I’ve always expected and admired from the variety.
After dismissing oxidation as the reason for its dull light amber color and noting the weight and odd nature on the palate, I can only attribute these observations to extended skin contact during fermentation. There may be a place for this style in the market, but why isn’t the style or production method acknowledged on the label? While this wine was not offensive in any way, it did not make it to a second glass and had no relation to my experience with Albariño, especially from Rías Baixas.
If a wine is packaged in a flint (clear) bottle, then the buyer has a clue of what to expect by its color alone. But, when packaged in an amber or green-toned bottle (as this wine and many whites are today), there is no indication of its intended style.
The natural wine movement is an attempted throw-back to the techniques of wine production from the ancient past with no advanced technology or additions of any kind including sulfites to inhibit oxidation. It is based on organic farming and a hands-off approach in the winery. The natural movement has gained popularity in Italy and other Old World countries and will be on display at the Slow Wine conference coming to San Francisco in March.
In concept, the model of natural wine production is laudable, but looking back through the centuries, wines made in this fashion were mostly unstable and did not withstand the rigors of travel or shipping. Wines were produced for current drinking at or near their point of origin and not to withstand even short term aging.
Since natural wine production eschews the addition of sulfur and the use of filtration in the process, oxidation is common and most wines appear cloudy with a hint of spritz from incomplete fermentations. While much of this is hidden in natural red wines, the deeper amber tones, off flavors and murkiness is readily obvious in whites.
Lovers of natural wines willingly accept the altered aromatics and flavors of oxidation, telltale spritz and cloudy appearance as part of the total experience. However, those not expecting these characteristics when pulling the cork, may view them as flaws.
The white wine world is truly a landscape in motion with new discoveries and additions appearing in rapid order. Thankfully, there’s plenty of room for the traditionalist who appreciates the purity and grace of whites made in a more conventional style and for the adventurers seeking new horizons with the orange and natural “newcomers” on the scene.
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 40 years.