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Whiter shades of pale
All the white-wine vocabulary you need

Whenever I ask my guests what they’d like to drink, those choosing wine prefer red to white about 80 percent of the time. Some people like the taste of red wine more; others find red wines more complex; a third category, at least at my place, think their chances of getting a “better” wine increase if they pick red — and they may be right. But in truth, most wine enthusiasts love white wines as much as they do reds — just differently.

Two whites top my list of favorite wines: Le Montrachet, a chardonnay from Burgundy, and Château d’Yquem, the ultra-expensive sweet wine from Bordeaux. Most white wines are a far cry from these powerhouses, but there is a distinct pleasure in drinking a perfectly chilled white. The key, besides knowing when they’re appropriate, lies in understanding what you are tasting. This column will arm you with some descriptors — words you can use to articulate your appreciation of the tastes found in the best white wines.

Red wines imply big flavors, but great white wines often prove more subtle. One reason for this is that white wines have less contact with the skins of the grapes, and much of the complexity in red wines (and, not coincidentally, the tannins) comes from the skins. With fish, white wines are better than most reds (other than pinot noir) because the tannins in bigger reds tend to make most fish taste slightly metallic. White wines must be more balanced, because other than oak and sugar, there is nothing in them to hide any faults.

Most whites should taste fresh (there are exceptions, but they tend to exceed the price range favored by this column). Many whites will have a citrusy taste, such as the grapefruit flavors in many sauvignon blancs, the lime in great viogniers and some dry rieslings, or the almost orange taste in some muscats. Other fruits include peaches and apricots (in the Rhône wines such as viognier and roussanne), lychee nuts (often found in good gewürztraminers), and apples and pears (in rieslings, chenin blancs, pinot gris, and pinot blancs). I taste pear in great chardonnays (like those made by Staglin Family Vineyards in Napa) and sometimes pineapple, too. Tropical-fruit tastes like papaya and mango crop up more rarely, but I often detect the flavor of gooseberries in really good sauvignon blancs (especially those up-and-coming wines from New Zealand like Cloudy Bay, Brancott, and Goldwater).

Sometimes white wines present not-always-unpleasant vegetal characteristics. People speak of asparagus flavors in sauvignon blancs (some say that both these wines and Müller-Thurgaus smell a bit like cat’s pee!), or use the words “herbaceous” and “grassy.” Good white Burgundy often has certain vegetal notes, but I find them less in chardonnays from other regions. In arneis, an Italian white, I taste either licorice or anise (or maybe it’s fennel — Tom’s of Maine has a toothpaste in this flavor). Other white wines suggest nuts: almonds in roussanne and Italian tocai; hazelnuts in marsanne, chardonnay, and Alsatian pinot blancs; chestnuts in grüner veltliners. Great chardonnays also often have a mineral taste from the soil, and when no oak is used, as in Chablis (made from chard) or Pouilly-Fumé (made from sauvignon blanc), you can get hints of flint. Other times, these wines can taste smoky.

Sweeter white wines almost always suggest a degree of honey (especially sweet chenin blancs and mature chardonnays). But there are other flowery elements in many white wines: honeysuckle in riesling and gewürztraminer, floral notes generally in viognier. Very rarely a wine will taste grapey to me, especially muscats, rieslings, and gewürztraminers.

Great rieslings probably have the widest assortment of flavors: some people describe a petrol smell or flavor, as well as baked apple (with the sugar and cloves thrown in for good measure) and the honey notes alluded to above. Chardonnays have the second-widest range, with flavors including butter and fat (resulting from diacetyl, a byproduct of malolactic fermentation, which converts the greener, sharper acids into the softer malic acids), tropical fruits, honeysuckle, and hazelnuts. The flavors in complex exemplars of these wines may seem subtle at first, but the more you drink, the more you will taste: fruits, flowers, vegetation, minerals — the bounty of this earth.

Isn’t that what makes wine great in the first place — the fact that experience yields new pleasures in taste? The more white wines you taste, the more you will taste in them. And next time you visit, you may change your mind and ask me for a glass of white instead. You probably won’t be disappointed.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: May 10-17, 2001

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