FEBRUARY 2010: In Defense of White Wine
After about a decade of studying and drinking wine, I've become the de facto "expert" amongst our group of friends. Which is to say I've read more wine books, taken more classes and wine tasted in more regions than them, but what I've learned is just the tip of the wine iceberg. That being said, since I have this website, I get asked a lot of questions about wine, but there are two that always seem to come up with the answers usually engendering surprise.
1) What are my favorite Napa wineries?
2) Do you really LOVE white wine? Really?
My response that I don't make a pilgrimage to Napa several times a year is akin to saying something like "I hate puppies." The shocked looks are quite amusing to me. I've been all over California, tasting in every region where wine is grown, including Napa, yet there are just other places I'd rather go. I've come up with an equation that should explain this apparent break down in my mental faculties.
(Too far away x snotty attitude + $$$$ bottle price = Unhappy Wine Traveler)
We drink wine everyday. If I spent too much of my bottle budget on Napa wines, my lovely collection would be much, much, much smaller. It is a beautiful place to visit and I enjoy the regions wines. Believe me, when someone gifts me a bottle, I do a little jig of joy, but if you're trying to learn about wine or build a cellar – which means getting out on the road and tasting, tasting, tasting – most people, including me, don't have the cash for it. Don't even get me started about the tasting fees and short pours.
What really shocks ME though is the looks of disbelief I get in regards to my answer about white wine. Like I'm pulling their leg or making fun of them. It's the sort of look you'd get if you said you believe in aliens. I then spend the next few minutes trying to explain why they should branch out and embrace the white, but it's like I'm speaking another language. As a lover of all things vino – except for sherry and believe me I've tried – it's so frustrating to see people who claim to want to learn more, so easily dismiss an entire style based on color. That counts for rosé as well, though that style finally seems to be recovering from it's unfortunate and inappropriate linkage to White Zinfandel.
I've pondered this discrepancy for quite some time and think I've come up with the main reason why people don't like/don't want to drink white wine: they just haven't had enough good ones. Or are just tired of Chardonnay. Now "good" is a relative term – ask those buying cases of 2-Buck Chuck – but since most wine drinkers are concentrating their purchases in the under $20 market (under $10 for white), I can understand their lack of enthusiasm in spending their hard-earned money on mediocre bottles. From my experience it IS harder to find "bang for the buck" in the white realm, to discover a bottle that truly makes you think about the wine you're drinking instead of merely banging it back on the way to your glass of red.
There are more steps to making red wine than white, yet there's more tricks to the trade that enable a winery to craft a memorable bottle of the former, rather than the latter. Since the juice from white grapes is immediately pressed off with virtually no contact with the skins or seeds, what you pick is what you get. Sure, the winemaker still has plenty of decisions to make – what type of yeast to use, whether to encourage malolactic fermentation or leave the juice on the lees – the list goes on and on and on. In the end, the quality of the fruit is key, especially in whites that aren't going to see an oak barrel, which is pretty much all varietals except chardonnay. There's nowhere to hide the flaws of a poor vintage or marginal winemaking practices. This leaves the consumer with a lot of choices, many of them nothing to write a review about.
Granted most wines aren't meant to age or be anything more than a beverage used to enhance your meal or the company you keep. Even I'm much more likely to take a chance on an inexpensive red I've never had before than a white, just because I hate being disappointed. We've all encountered versions that were too acidic, too oaky, too flabby, too bland. Yet without taking those chances you might never find your new favorite grape like Albarino, Roussanne, Viognier or Torrontés. Or understand what these vibrant, fragrant, complex varietals actually bring to the table. The wonderful thing about white wines is that when you spend a bit more, the quality truly soars, especially in the $25-$40 range. This may be a lot for a white, but not, if you think about it, for a great wine.
There's nothing wrong with being a wine drinker and just enjoying what you like, but for those who want to expand their palate, when you're out and about don't shrink away from or dismiss the whites on the tasting list. They count towards a wineries reputation too, and for me, sometimes tell the tale of quality long before the Cabernet ever reaches the glass. Sure, many of them are the perfect sidekick to an afternoon by the pool or an aperitif before dinner, but some of them just might make you fall in love with white wine. Really.