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Wine School! (Class #2 – Whites, the basics)

Moving to the other side of the wine aisle…

Jan. 18, 2010
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When I started drinking wine, I thought that red wine came from red grapes and white wine from white grapes. I was a little surprised when I saw a picture of ripening sauvignon blanc grapes next to some cabernet sauvignon grapes.

They're practically identical.

The color of wine has little to do with the color of the grape. If a winemaker wishes to make a red wine, the pressed grapes' skins stay in the fermenter with the juice. This process is called maceration. The skins are not present in the fermentation of whites.

As I mentioned before, there are three major white varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. As before, pick up a bottle of each of these varietals, pour a little, and taste them in this order:

Dancing Bull 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, $8-10

Rabbit Ridge 2008 Central Coast Chardonnay, $10-12

Selbach 2007 Riesling Qualitätswein, $10-12

First, Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon blanc tends to be tart and crisp. As you sniff this wine, you'll smell something a little tropical, as well as what many people describe as "herbaceous"—like freshly cut grass. Some also have a mineral character. On a hot day either after working outside or sunning poolside, sauvignon blanc is a great choice. Sauvignon blancs are incredibly food-friendly because of their high acidity. Spicy foods like Mexican, Indian, or Thai go well with it, as would a simple salad. Light fish dishes also go well.

On to Chardonnay, the world's most popular white varietal. Why? There's more variation in taste among chardonnays than almost any other varietal, red or white. Thus, there's a "flavor" of Chardonnay for almost any palate. In general, Chardonnay generates a full-bodied white wine. Wines termed "Old World-style chardonnays" (such as white Burgundies) tend to be slightly acidic and crisp. "New World Chardonnays" (specifically, California chards) have two additional distinct flavors: butter and oak.

"Butter" flavor comes from a process called malolactic fermentation. This bacterial process converts the malic acid into lactic acid. The result of the process is the buttery flavor and scent. If a wine "undergoes malolactic fermentation," that's longhand for "not very tart."  Many New World chardonnays are aged in charred oak barrels, which makes the wine slightly darker and imparts a character of wood or vanilla. For many years, the California wine industry went overboard in "oaking" wines, leading to a signature flavor but a tough wine for many palates to handle. Because Chardonnay has so much variety, you can find a specific one to go with any number of foods. Old World chards go really well with seafood, while New World ones pair with chicken, cream sauces, and pork.

Finally, Riesling. Many people's thoughts of Riesling stop at the mouth-puckering sweetness of Blue Nun, causing many to pass on this wonderful varietal. Riesling is the most full-bodied white. Riesling is also one of the few whites that can be aged. Some, but not all, have some sweetness. Good Rieslings have delicious fruit character. Like sauvignon blanc, Riesling is an exceptional food wine. Thai or Chinese foods go remarkably well, as does traditional German cuisine. If you're ever at a loss for a bottle of wine to take to dinner, buy a "dry Riesling" (or "trocken"). Dry Riesling pairs with anything from sushi to bratwurst.

I'd suggest you do a couple of these "varietal side by sides" so you can tell the difference among grapes. The next several "lessons" will deal with the varietals individually. First up will be pinot noir.

Until next time…class dismissed.

Contact Mike at thenakedvine@yahoo.com


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