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Shades of spring
As the weather warms, try some quirky whites
BY DAVID MARGLIN

Come the warmer weather, my wine " mood " changes, and I start gravitating toward refreshing, quirky white wines. I tend to drink fewer whites in winter ó and according to many wine retailers, Iím not alone.

Chardonnay dominates the US white-wine industry as the most popular varietal by far, in terms of dollars and volume. Itís both an accompaniment to food and an easy bar drink. Chards are safe, and I happen to love them. But in early spring, during these days of renewal and promise for the future, my palate longs for new flavors, new twists. White wines are almost always served chilled, and chilling wine reins in its flavor. Then, as the wine warms in the glass or in your mouth, the rising temperature unleashes some of its flavors.

Quirky wines are those with unusual tastes and unexpected aromas. Such whites are a challenge to pair with food; theyíre more delicate, so care must be taken not to overwhelm them. Most wine drinkers have a pretty good idea of what foods go with chardonnay. But what do you serve with a viognier, chenin blanc, or albariño? It helps, of course, to sample the wine once before trying to pair it with food. But even if the pairing isnít perfect, itís still worth your time and effort to seek out some of the more obscure white varietals and ascertain which suits your particular palate.

Iím a huge fan of the Rhône varietals viognier, roussanne, and marsanne. These wines tend to be floral, with peach or apricot flavors. They can be a bit sweet, they arenít light, and the latter two often remind me of nuts ó almonds, pecans, pralines. I find Rhône varietals work well with garlicky, lemony pasta-and-seafood dishes, and they can handle most green vegetables. American winemakers are starting to put some attractive wines out there at reasonable prices, and Iíve recommended two below.

Chenin blanc, from Franceís Loire Valley, South Africa, and a bit of the US, makes a delightful accompaniment to fresh shellfish like oysters ó itís racy and lean, and its apple and mineral notes play nicely off brininess and salt. You can drink chenin blanc with spicy Asian food too, especially a crispy sea bass or snapper. Some have hints of sweetness, others donít.

From Spain, thereís albariño, which grows mainly in Galicia. Again, this wine is light, crisp, and racy ó great for fresh shellfish, as well as paella, stews, lobster bisque, cioppino. Itís not a complex wine, but it loves washing down such food, and itís always under $20. Another fine Spanish white, Basa from Rueda, is a delicious blend of sauvignon blanc with the Spanish varietals verdejo and viura (a/k/a macabeo). I find it irresistibly floral, almost laurelesque, with a fruit-nut finish ó great with fried shellfish, calamari, or bird.

From Italy, thereís vernaccia, which can be one of many varietals (the word vernaccia basically means " indigenous " ), most notably vernaccia di San Gimignano, although excellent vernaccia is made in Sardinia as well. I also like arneis, a grape that reminds me of anise, which nicely undercuts antipasti and smoked meats or stuffed grape leaves.

From Austria, grüner veltliners are delicious. These have been taking restaurant wine lists in Manhattan by storm, and theyíre excellent with fusion cuisine, especially slightly spicy Thai-based dishes (grüners love lemongrass and those Vietnamese spring rolls with mint). Most wine stores sell only one or two grüners, and their price tags can be a bit steep, but trust me when I say grüner veltliners are as quirky as white wines come.

While you might not think of them as quirky, because theyíre so well-known, the Alsatian and German white varietals ó riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc, and pinot gris ó all make excellent accompaniments to food. Rieslings love food, but they can be hit and miss, and the best are way beyond tight wine budgets. Gewürz is great with spicy Asian foods; the lychee-nut and apple notes deftly undercut most heat. Pinot blancs are tightly wound, focused wines, not as expansive as chardonnay, but reminiscent thereof. Pinot gris tastes of pear, apple, and peach blossom; it does chicken, turkey, and other fowls proud.

More often than not, I advise people to stick to wines they know. But in springtime, my advice is to explore new tastes: find varietals youíve never tried before and give them a whirl. Thereís a whole world of quirky whites waiting for you to come along and discover their secret delights.

2000 Karmis Vernaccia della Valle del Tirso Contini (Sardinia). Clean and vibrant, slightly fruity on the finish, sort of a mélange, but crisp and delicious. Try it with a ginger-marinated grilled salmon, swordfish kabobs, or simple pasta with garlic.

2000 Zaca Mesa Viognier Santa Barbara County. Big flowery wine, loads of peaches and daffodils, well-heeled enough for ahi tuna, smoked salmon, or any fish with a lemony bite, or with Mexican food like guacamole or tacos.

2000 Vinum Cellars Chenin Blanc California. Fresh and lively, not sweet like a Loire, but apple, minerals, vivacious finish, great with raw oysters, chicken caesar, a turkey dish, even a mustardy sandwich.

2000 Ojai " Vin du Soleil " Rhône Blend. Vintner Adam Tolmach scores again! Fresh, fruity, ripe peach, flirtatiously floral, bouncy wine that wows sausage pizza, Greek and niçoise salads, or fresh-grilled catfish.

2000 Frascati Superiore Conte Zandotti. Cheap, easy, reliable, dry. Made from a host of Italian varietals; really light and luscious.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]phx.com

Issue Date: April 11-18, 2002
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