It would seem that most wine geeks have, in their past, experienced that special bolt from the blue moment which forever changed them from having a mere interest in wines to becoming the equivalent of a vinous train spotter! This sudden conversion could be compared to those criminals, evildoers and other unpleasant characters of our childhood stories who, after a lifetime of harassing and robbing honest citizens, get struck by an unknown force, fall on their knees, give all their wealth away and become humble and pleasant. My bolt from the blue was provided decades ago by a half bottle of Meursault and I recall that I could hardly believe that such elegant, gold-like flavours could be made from the humble grape. Whilst I had tasted many white wines before, mostly Spanish, I had certainly never tasted anything quite like that Chardonnay!
It would seem that Meursault and other white wines are involved in a high percentage of vinous conversions, surprising given that many of us start by preferring red over white. Perhaps our expectations of white are low and something like a good white burgundy, tasted for the first time, may well catch us unaware!
So what exactly is a white wine and why is it so different from red? What are the main differences in the production of white and red wine? Can white wine be made from red grape varieties? Why can some countries like Spain be considered excellent producers of red wines but hopeless at making great white wines? (Sherry is an exception but is considered a fortified wine and not a table wine. The Palomino grape used to make sherry, one of the great wines of the world, makes a refreshing but poor table wine!). Let’s start by considering why it appears that it’s easier to obtain good red wine than white.
When making red wine the ‘must’ or juice is left to macerate with the skins and stems, sometimes for a few weeks. This releases all sorts of compounds from tannins, acids, flavour and colour compounds making a heavy, dark purple soup. During fermentation oxygen will be encouraged to enter the wine by ‘remontage’ or pumping over. This is an essential part of red wine making.
White, on the other hand, will be made by destemming the grapes, crushing gently and ensuring that the must will have minimal or no contact with the skins, avoiding extracting harsh tannins and other undesirable compounds. Many producers will cover the must or juice with inert gas, ensuring that oxygen is excluded during the whole white wine making process and the fermentation temperature be very cool, even when picking grapes at night. Eventually, both red and white may be kept in oak barrels where some of the flavour compounds of the wood will be taken up by the wine, usually giving flavours associated with vanilla or wood. Once finished and ready to drink, the white wine will have none of the red wines’ tannins, heavy flavour compounds, dark colours to fool our brains or lush red fruit flavours to enhance a simple wine. The white wine will stand naked before us showing all its faults and shortcomings and greatness will only come through if those grapes used had the necessary pedigree. Unlike red wine, fully clothed in heavy capes, there is no hiding for white wine!
What makes a good or even a great white wine? It’s undoubtedly “terroir” (soil), that controversial expression invented by the French to denote everything involved in viticulture: climate, weather (will change from year to year), soil, vineyard orientation and grape variety. If you are thinking that this may be marketing and possibly rubbish then consider what Robert Arnoux, a wine writer in 1728, wrote about Le Montrachet, France’s most famous Chardonnay vineyard in Burgundy. In fact, he couldn’t find words neithe
r in French or Latin to describe the qualities of Le Montrachet other than to confirm that the wines were very expensive and one needed to reserve these a year in advance! If you are still not convinced, then consider the common arrangement whereby Burgundy producers may hold plots of vines in different vineyards. Assuming one lucky producer held some vines in Le Montrachet, the top white wine vineyard in France, and other vines in the lesser, but virtually adjacent, Les Folatieres, don’t you think he would give his or her right arm to produce all his wines to the level of Le Montrachet? Of course he would, bearing in mind the massive difference in price, but he simply can’t. It’s the grapes! That’s why Spain (or many other countries) can’t produce good white wines. They haven’t got the terroir! It’s interesting to note that even the white lab coated Australian wine industry are now adopting the concept of terroir.
Let’s have a look at a few of the main white grape varieties. Let’s start with Chardonnay. Its homeland is Burgundy where it’s virtually the only grape variety used to make white wine. In itself, the grape is fairly characterless but has the great ability to change its character depending on where it is grown. You may have noticed that the French traditionally don’t nam
e the grape variety on their labels expecting the consumer to have some knowledge of wine. This was seized upon by the Australians in the 80s who virtually made a brand of the word Chardonnay and saturated the market very successfully with over-oaked, mouth-filling but simple and uninteresting wines. So successful was their marketing that scarcities ensued and massive Chardonnay plantings took place all over the world. When fashion began to change in the 90s, many Australian producers went to the wall or chopped the heads off their vines, grafting other varieties, which by this time had become fashionable, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. It was in the 90s that the words “Anything but Chardonnay” came into vogue with many extolling the virtues of white burgundy over Chardonnay!
Sauvignon Blanc has been in fashion for some time. Its apogee is the Loire in France or more specifically, the area around Sancerre. New Zealand is also famous for its fine examples and typical SB will taste of lychees, grass and even tropical fruits. French SB tends to be more restrained than New World examples, but even after spending a week around Sancerre, I failed to find exceptional wines there. The area of Sancerre when the vines are turning brown is amazing and its goats cheese around the village of Chavignol, magnificent. For me, the best examples of SB are found in Bordeaux where it’s blended with other grapes such as Semillon to produce world class wines.
Riesling may well be my desert island white wine grape variety. It is the grape variety mainly associated with Germany, probably the Mosel, Nahe and other areas. In theory, Germany is too cold for viticulture, but the steep, sun catching slopes bordering the “warm” Rhine or tributaries, results in a microclimate suitable for Riesling. Acidity of the resulting wines is very high and traditionally, wines have had residual sugar left unfermented to balance the acidity making the wines taste sweet. Its high acidity makes these wines last 50 years or more and, as they age, the sweet/acid interface makes these some of the most complex and alluring wines on the planet. It’s a pity that many non-wine geeks turn their noses at these wines because of their sweetness. A great mistake that is incomprehensible to the average wine geek! Another area producing world class Riesling is the Alsace which has been fought over between France and Germany in the past, but is now French! In Australia, Clare Valley and Eden Vale, they produce seriously good Rieslings with a distinctive lime nose. I have had a case of Australian Riesling by Skillogalee maturing for a few years, occasionally opening a bottle to check progress. I have served it blind to friends but the petrol/lime nose is a dead giveaway and one of the easiest wines to identify blind.
Chenin Blanc is the Loire and the Loire is Chenin Blanc. This is truly a giant grape variety and very distinctive due to its searing acidity. Like Riesling, it’s a very long-lived wine and I recently tasted a dry 1964 example which still had decades left! Chenin Blanc sweet wines represent some of the finest example of its type. Huet is the most famous producer of
Chenin and was recently bought out by overseas investors. The new owners famously threw Chris Kissack, the Wine Doctor, out of their enclosure, not letting him taste the vintage after he had downgraded some of the wines the previous year! South Africa is also well-known for Chenin as the grape holds its acidity even under very hot conditions.
Other great white varieties include Muscadet from the Loire. This is a seriously underrated wine and even modest examples costing £5 or £6 pounds can enhance smoked salmon or prawns immeasurably. Look out for the word “sur lie” which means the wines have been left on their residue for a whole winter before bottling enhancing the character of the wines. Muscadet tends to be bone dry, very stony in flavour; picture sucking a pebble at the beach and that’s Muscadet. As I write this, my mouth is watering and I am wondering why I don’t drink more of this. Incidentally, the grape variety used to make Muscadet is called Melon de Bourgogne! One for the quiz night.