Wine: Italian whites for the winter

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 2:54 PM

I'm a big fan of experimentation and trying new things. That's a nice way of saying I really hate rules. In my other life, as the spirits columnist usually occupying the right-hand side of this page, that is seen as a positive. You want to toss aged tequila into a shaker with Benedictine and Lillet Blanc? Knock yourself out. You want to mix up something with peanut liqueur and oloroso sherry and coffee grounds? Have at it, big guy. Who's to say? It just might work out and become a classic.

But when it's time to shift gears, to think and write about wine, suddenly things aren't so freewheeling, and the Fun Police step in.

For instance, I recently told an acquaintance, a wine educator with an embossed certificate, that I was on a quest to seek out interesting, complex, crazy and possibly profound white wines. In response, he said: "What's the point? White wine just isn't serious. Serious wine people always prefer red wines over white. Everyone else just orders pinot grigio and calls it a day."

I'm amazed by how often I hear some version of that ridiculous sentiment, and I guess that's why I try to avoid hanging out with so-called "serious" wine people.

The problem is that this sort of thinking has a way of infecting the entire wine-buying public. White wine, in particular, unfortunately has become seen as a summertime dalliance. "No white between Labor Day and Memorial Day" is equally vapid advice in both fashion and wine. Sure, every winter you'll see columns suggesting Rieslings or Gewurztraminers, but come on: After reading umpteen of those columns over the years, are you any more able to translate those German labels?

As I write this, days after the latest snowstorm, I'm sitting at my desk listening to "White Christmas." In honor of breaking stupid rules, I am dressed in a white blazer and white pants and white canvas boat shoes, and alternatively sipping from glasses of Italian whites.

Italian whites! Wait! Wasn't a law passed that clearly stated those wines were for only the deck or the pool or perhaps girls' night out? Occasions, anyway, where they would be purchased by the glass or in 1.75-liter bottles? Yeah, no.

Certainly, favorites such as Vermentino and Frascati and Falanghina and (sometimes) pinot grigio are best left to warmer months. But when winter comes, here are the Italians I'm drinking: Arneis, Friulano, Lugana, Kerner and a Sicilian blend of Ansonica/Catarratto.

Maybe we should back up a moment. What exactly is a winter white, anyway? It's not as if we're drinking these wines while ice skating in a blizzard; hopefully we're sitting in a heated room of some sort. It's all about the winter table. Dishes such as casseroles and soups, root vegetables and roast pork and fowl, fondue and creamy sauces: all of those pair beautifully with bigger, richer white wines.

This being wine advice, I cannot, of course, avoid a few rules, but let's call them tips. In winter, we're looking for whites that are more full-bodied, perhaps with a more oily feel in the mouth. We still want freshness but not necessarily refreshment; we want a wine that's more rounded and not too crisp. We opt for less acidity and more aromatics. Spice and honey and fleshy fruits are welcome, and if there are citrus notes, we prefer tangerine and lime rather than lemon. A little bit of breadiness or funk is cool, too.

Perhaps the most important tip about winter whites is this: Don't drink them very cold. If possible, serve them at cellar temperature (around 55 degrees or a little higher) and avoid the refrigerator altogether. If you do store them in the fridge, give them time to warm up a bit before serving. Too much chill masks the desired richness and aromatics.

At the right temperature, all of these wines will give "serious red" people something to think about.

Wilson is filling in for regular columnist Dave McIntyre, who returns next week. Wilson is the author of "Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits" (Ten Speed, 2010).

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