WineInk: Six White Grapes to Sip in Aspen
With my apologies to Bob Dylan, when I think of white wines, images of blondes often come to mind. Funny, I don’t think of redheads when I open a rosé and hair color is never a topic of discussion when I drink a glass of dark red wine. But white wines just seem to me to be blond.
And since it’s summer, it’s a good time to get to know some of the fairest wines on the planet. Oh sure, you might be a Chardonnay lover and you might have had a relationship with Sauvignon Blanc, but what about the most exotic white grape varieties that inhabit the planet? There are hundreds of white varietals – most of them actually green – that inhabit vineyards, and there are some that you may never have heard of that are surprisingly widespread.
The Spanish Airén, for example, is a rather obscure grape. But thanks to its role of grape alcohol often used in eaux-de-vie, it is, at least in terms of area, the most planted white grape on the Green Earth of God. Well, that was as recently as 2016 when the most recent global numbers were compiled. I guess Chardonnay has now supplanted Airén (see what I did there) as it has gained popularity in the wine world. Although I have tasted hundreds of Chardonnay wines, I must say that I have never tasted an Airén bottling.
Ah, but there are other Spanish white wines that can be delicious. Blondes, uh, whites, from Spain have shown tremendous improvement in recent years, with winemakers experimenting with old varieties and stepping up their game. Wines produced from Spanish grape varieties like Godello de Gallicie, Verdejo de Rueda and Catalonia’s Xarel.lo are all increasingly available here in the United States.
But the grape to know now is Albariño. Produced in the northwestern climates of the Rías Baixas region of Galicia, where Spain meets the cool winds of the Atlantic Ocean, wines can be fresh and elegant. Typically dry and full of flavors of summer fruits and melons, sometimes with hints of fresh grass, Albariño wines are transporting. And they go perfectly with seafood, especially shellfish. You can try a La Cana Albariño 2019 by the glass sitting on a summer afternoon at the Victoria + co espresso + wine bar and imagine you’re right by the sea on the Spanish coast.
Riesling is another grape that has the ability to sit in a glass and it has traveled well on its own. You might think of sweetness when you think of Riesling, but dry wines, those with little or no residual sugar, made from grapes can be telling. The flavors range from green apple to pineapple, but it’s the acidity that makes it go so well with food. Hailing from the Rhine wine region of Germany, delicious variations of wine can now be found from Austria to Australia, where wines from the Eden and Claire valleys are stellar. Here in the United States, New York produces some very good Riesling wines. New York? Order a glass of Seneca Lake’s Forge Cellars Dry Riesling at Clark’s Oyster Bar in Aspen to accompany a selection of New Brunswick oysters and let me know what you think.
Talk to sommeliers and the word “minerality” will often appear as a descriptor when discussing wines made from the Austrian grape variety Grüner Veltliner. Never mind that “minerality” is a vague and undefined euphemism. Often it’s pitched to impress, but in Grüner’s case – or groovy as some call it – that rings true.
Bright, with solid acidity, citrus flavors, a hint of white pepper and that sense of “minerals”, the best examples of Grüner Veltliner can be perfect additions to a wide variety of foods. It is no coincidence that Element 47 at Little Nell Hotel offers a Grüner Veltliner by the glass that you can try, the Weszeli Grüner Veltliner “Terrafactum” Kamptal, Austria 2019. It is a certified wine that is both organic and vegan.
Part of the appeal of white wines is that they can be so easily paired with dishes that might not otherwise be wine-friendly. The aforementioned vegan Grüner Veltliner, for example, can be paired with many vegetarian dishes (think cauliflower steak). And the Forge Riesling can resist a spicy yellow curry dish as well. But what about spicy Thai or Chinese food or even sushi? What goes well with these kitchens?
Chez Jing in Aspen, specializing in different Asian cuisines, the wine list features plenty of bubbles, including champagne and household sparklers. But a split from Mionetto Prosecco, a sparkling wine made in the wine regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia in northeastern Italy, is also on the list to accompany dishes from the Far East. While the grape used in Prosecco was previously called Prosecco, after the village Prosecco, it was renamed by the European Union Glera in 2009 in a controversial decision taken for political purposes. Just so you know.
But the point is, Prosecco wines made from the Glera grape have acidity, bubbles, and a creamy mouth feel that make them perfect wines to pair with spicy Asian dishes. Whether it’s Jing’s Hot Pepper Shrimp, Spicy Baby Octopus, or even Kung Fu Eggplant, the bubbles make it all a little better.
And since we are talking about Italy, I recently received a bottle of Sunshine from the Italian island of Sardinia. The wine was a Surrau “Sciala” Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Superiore with Vermentino as the grape. This wine comes from a stony and windswept corner of the island in the center of the Mediterranean Sea. The wine was rich in complexity and reminded me of Sauvignon Blanc with heavy doses of tropical fruit, and to use that word, minerality. Vermentino is also a booming grape, and it is cultivated in the Lodi region of California and, under the Rolle name, is a grape used in many white and rosé wines in Provence.
Do you want to try? Steakhouse 316 serves a Vermentino Antinori “Tenuta Guado Al Tasso” by the glass from the Bolgheri region of Tuscany – a ferry ride from Sardinia – which is also superb. Try it with king crab legs. It won’t disappoint you.
So there you have it: five blondes or white grapes to keep you busy this June. You may have noticed that there was no French variety in the bunch. We will keep them for a future column.