WineLine No. 26
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Jan. 13, 2003

In defense of white wine

Dear Friends:

White wine has been getting a lot of bad press lately.

President Bush, explaining to Associated Press reporter Scott Lindlaw why he would want to spend last August sweating out the toxins of our nation's capital on his remote ranch on the Texas prairie, said "Most Americans don't sit in Martha's Vineyard, swilling white wine."

Okay, Bill Clinton and his famous Martha's Vineyard vacations aside, why pick on white wine?

The slander goes beyond politicos. A wine columnist for a major metropolitan daily on the East Coast wrote with evident relief in late summer of the imminent return of "red wine season."

Huh? What calendar is he smoking?

And now that it's winter, and the country is being blasted by the Alberta Clipper, have you seen many white wines recommended in your local paper lately?

Wine Spectator published a survey that found four of five American wine lovers prefer red wine over white. Now what pusillanimous tyrant is going to give any self-respecting wine enthusiast an either/or choice like that??

The novelist and food writer Jim Harrison took a Quixotic tilt at stainless steel tanks in importer Kermit Lynch's newsletter. Harrison's hilarious screed had me falling out of my chair even as I found myself disagreeing with his argument. (His description of Tai Chi is priceless.) The piece was titled, "My Problems With White Wine" and basically dissed anything other than Meursault that wasn't the color of blood. "We certainly don't celebrate the Eucharist with white wine," Harrison writes. (The Methodist Church in which I grew up celebrated it with Welch's, but that's another story.) "Christ couldn't have spent thirty days in the wilderness alone fueled by white blood .... White snow calls out for red wine, not the white spritzers of lisping socialites, the same people who shun chicken thighs in favor of characterless breast and ban smoking in taverns."

Part of Harrison's nicotine-starved complaint relates to bang for the buck. "The heart still cries out for a truly drinkable white under twenty bucks," he wails. But his preference for reds is fundamental, and he admits that as he savors a favorite Meursault with a sauté of sweetbreads, "my eye flickers to the red sitting on the sideboard in readiness for the substantial main course."

To be fair, Kermit Lynch responds in the same issue in defense of the "apéro," especially white wine. "Never a red without a white to precede it," he argues. "Never a white without a red to follow it. I am convinced the Creator had a plan, if only in this specific instance."

Lynch, one of the best wine writers out there (if you don't receive his newsletter, call his store at 510-524-1524 and get on his list – tell him I sent you!), blames the "dread enologists" for imposing a depressing sameness on white wines in the name of cleanliness, reliability and scientific rigor. He also bemoans the tendency to limit or skip malolactic fermentation in white wines, which at least gives me something to disagree with him on. (As well as a reason to enjoy other importers ...)

But his main point is crucial. White wines have their role to play, and not just in summer – "white wine season" for wine writers who need an excuse to clear their shelves of unwanted, unred samples. Yes, hot weather is an ideal time for crisp whites like Picpoul de Pinet or a racy Sauvignon Blanc from Montravel or New Zealand. Most of these will go forgotten in colder months, unless the in-laws or work colleagues are coming over.

The bias against white wine has permeated oenogeekdom. I've been to countless dinner parties where white wine – an oaky Chardonnay, a decent non-vintage Champagne, or more likely a Pinot Blanc from Alsace or Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre – is served as a warm-up, with a dish of cashews, a plate of cheese, some bread, maybe a tranche of store-bought pâté de campagne or smoked trout mousse. Once the small talk is over and dinner is ready, the red wines are produced and the evening begins in earnest.

"White wine is Apollonian," Harrison writes, without explaining what the hell he means by that. (I risk proving his point by not getting it.) He calls white wine "the wine of polite and dulcet discourse, frippish gossip, banal phone calls, Aunt Ethel's quiche, a wine for those busy discussing closure, healing, the role of the caretaker, the evils of butter, the wine of the sincerity monoethic. ... I'm sure that even the cheaper varieties have brought thousands of soccer moms sanity-healing sex fantasies." (Address your angry letters to Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, 1605 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702-1317.)

Now I've seen some cute soccer moms and ... well, do we need a better reason to drink white wine? ... (address indignant e-mails to McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.)

Do you get the cumulative message here? Real Men Don't Drink White.

Oh yes we do.

There's a one-word answer to this nonsense: Riesling.

Riesling is arguably the single most food-friendly wine grape. It is also extremely versatile, producing zesty off-dry quaffs from the Finger Lakes to racy, complex wines from the Rhinepfalz or Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, to unctuous botrytised dessert nectar.

Austria's upstart Grüner Veltliner, which is similar in profile to Riesling, is enjoying a boomlet on restaurant wine lists and in some less blancophobic wine columns. (I've even seen it referred to as "GrüVe," as though we need to trivialize something in order to popularize it.) But Riesling has the track record, and if it can ever overcome the image of sweet Liebfraumilch, it should stand tall as the chief alternative to innocuous Chardonnay. The 2001s should do that, if any vintage can. Give me any bottling from Von Kesselstadt, or Gunderloch, or Reichsrat von Buhl and I'll try to make a white wine believer out of you.

And there's a two-word answer to this nonsense, as well: Chenin Blanc.

Sure, you say, for those expensive Savennieres from the Loire. But scrape, dig, cajole or bribe yourself a bottle of the Casa Nuestra 2001 Dry Chenin Blanc, St. Helena Estate (http://www.casanuestra.com). From what must be one of the few remaining Napa Valley Chenin Blanc plantings (40-year-old vines!), this wine could make you forget Chardonnay. And at $16 from the winery, it's a steal compared to the Loires.

Oh, and another one-word answer to this anti-white wine nonsense: Semillon. That's sem-a-lawn, as they say it Down Under in Oz. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Neil McGuigan, chief winemaker at The Rothbury Estate in New South Wales. (The wines are being imported by BeringerBlass Estates.) Neil was plugging some nice bargain quaffs as well as his fine "Brokenback Ridge" Shiraz bottlings that will be targeted to the restaurant market, but I kept coming back to his Semillon. It enticed me with its racy acidity, vibrant fruit, and long finish that tickled my palate like a child prodigy performing Mozart; its greatness now is eclipsed only by the promise of things to come.

Except for one hitch: The Rothbury Estate isn't importing its Semillon into the United States.

After all, this isn't white wine country.

Cheers!
Dave McIntyre

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