In many wine publications, reviews and restaurant wine lists you may notice the phrase “aromatic white wines” popping up.
It’s an interesting concept, and may lead you to explore some newer wine styles that are becoming quite popular.
These hot-weather white wines may come from anywhere in the world, but especially from cooler regions, and grapes that are not fermented or stored in oak barrels.
There is no standard or legal definition regulating the use of the term, but there is general agreement that these wines should be fermented in stainless steel or concrete, at cooler temperatures that preserve and enhance the aromas.
Grapes are usually picked at lower sugar levels, to keep the acidity high and the pH low; as a bonus, this means a percent or two less alcohol in the finished wine.
Among the grapes most commonly made in an aromatic style are chenin blanc, gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, pinot gris and riesling. When kept away from new oak or excessive ripeness, chardonnay (often called naked or unoaked), sauvignon blanc and viognier may also fall into this category.
What is especially pleasant about these wines at this time of the year is that they may be served chilled (not ice cold, but chilled) and in tumblers.
Their higher acidity and youthful freshness are perfect on a hot day; they don’t tire your palate or hurt your head the way heavier, oakier, more alcoholic wines might. You’ll taste zesty fruit – lemon and lime and grapefruit especially – along with floral scents and sometimes a refreshing minerality.
Perhaps the most popular are the pinot gris/grigio wines, especially those from northern Italy. But the grape has also found a good home here in the Northwest; it is the second most widely grown grape in Oregon, and rapidly expanding its Washington acreage as well.
Look for releases from such Oregon producers as Adelsheim, ArborBrook, Boedecker Cellars, Chehalem, David Hill, Eyrie, Lemelson, Ponzi, Sineann, Soléna, Vista Hills and King Estate. King Estate is the leader in terms of sheer quantity, and offers pinot gris in a range of styles and prices.
In Washington, you’ll find good pinot gris from Alexandria Nicole, Hyatt Vineyards, Lone Canary, Mercer Estates, Milbrandt Vineyards, Seven Hills, Waterbrook and Willow Crest. The best bets for value are Hyatt, Acrobat, A to Z Wineworks, Waterbrook and Willow Crest.
I’m especially fond of sauvignon blancs, and happiest when they express a certain grassy character, as long as it doesn’t go too far. Sweet grass and fresh herb are fine; asparagus and cat-box aromas, not so fine.
Often the less expensive sauvignon blancs are the most aromatic, because they have not touched a barrel. Chilean sauv blancs are a good bet, as are some from New Zealand. The Loire valley of France produces some excellent and inexpensive examples, especially from the village of Quincy.
From California, try the Woodbridge 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (about $7), rich and persistent with flavors of melon, green apple and sweet grass. The alcohol is just 12.5 percent, yet the wine is quite dry.
Arbor Crest has been a sauvignon blanc specialist for decades, and Lone Canary does a delicious version also, priced around $10.
At a higher price, but really worth seeking out, is the Stevens 2009 Another Thought Sauvignon Blanc (about $19). It’s sourced from Klipsun vineyard grapes, stainless steel fermented and richly textural, with a creamy minerality. The fruits are tart and racy, a mix of citrus rind and pulp, tangerine and pineapple, finished with natural acidity.
Riesling is perhaps the most versatile and diverse of all the aromatic white grapes, and we are fortunate in Washington to have both Ste. Michelle, the largest producer of riesling in the world, and riesling specialist Pacific Rim, a relatively new project from California’s Randall Grahm.
Among the dozen or more offerings from each of these producers are versions that may be quite dry, off-dry, sweet or ultra-sweet. A sweetness scale, developed by the International Riesling Foundation and shown on back labels, is being used by some producers to give consumers a better idea of the style in any particular bottle.
Depending on that sweetness level, riesling can accompany almost any part of the meal, from appetizers through dessert. It is a surprisingly flexible wine, especially the driest styles, that can take on most main courses other than red meats.
Top producers in Oregon include Amity, Anam Cara, Argyle, Chehalem, Daedalus, David Hill, Lemelson and newcomer Trisaetum Cellars.
Along with the wines from Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and Pacific Rim, look for Washington rieslings from cooler sites, especially the Evergreen vineyard (in the Ancient Lakes region) and newer vineyards around Lake Chelan.
Arbor Crest, Kungfu Girl, Columbia Crest, Willow Crest and Idaho’s Ste. Chapelle are where you’ll find the best values.