THE LEARNING process of any up-and-coming wne enthusiast can be greatly facilitated by learning the names, types and characteristics of the grapes responsible for the world's finest wines. Today begins, therefore, a three-part series on wine grapes, to run on consecutive Sundays.
This first part lists the six principal white vinifera grape varieties that consumers commonly encounter. In addition, I have described the dominant personality traits of the particular grapes, the various styles of wine produced, and concluded with several recommended selections that typify the specific grape variety. The selections encompass picks for the budget-conscious consumer as well as splurge choices for someone who wants the highest quality, irrespective of price.
I will review the major red vinifera varietals in part two, and in part three discuss the hybrid grape varieties that are commmonly planted by many East Coast wineries.
As you digest this material, you should remember that part one and part two deal only with the vinifera grape varieties. Vinifera (Vin-nif-fer-ah) grapes are the native European and East Asian grapes that produce most of the world's finest wines. These grapes have also been successfully planted in North and South America and Australia. In contrast, hybrid grape varieties are the product of crosses between the native European vinifera grapes and the native American grape variety called lambrusca. CHARDONNAY
Chardonnay is the undisputed top-priced white wine grape in the world. It produces a fully flavored dry wine that can provide flavor sensations of apples, melted butter, nuts and occasionally more exotic types of fruits. It is almost always at its best if given some oak aging. The degree of oak aging varies from several months to a year or more, a matter of personal taste for the degree of oak extract a person prefers. The chardonnay grape is responsible for virtually all of the French white burgundies including the crisp, steely, austere chablis, and everyday macons. Chardonnay can produce marvelous wines in California as well as New York, Maryland and Virginia. It can take aging, but is best drunk within five to six years of the vintage. Being the white wine most sought by connoisseurs and restaurants, and usually publicized the most by the press, its price is accordingly high. Recommended examples.
Splurge: 1979 Robert Mondavi($11.95); 1979 Puligny-Montrachet "Les Combette" LeFlaive ($32.95).
Thrift: 1980 Parducci ($5.99); 1980 Cavit ($3.99). SAUVIGNON BLANC
This grape provides the backbone and character for much of the white grape wines of Bordeaux and all of the character and personality of such highly sought Loire Valley wines such as pouilly-fume' and sancerre. The grape has done remarkably well in California, where it is bottled under the name of sauvignon blanc or fume' blanc. The grape has a very distinctive personality that can be described as quite aromatic with a grassy, herbaceous, sometimes smokey bouquet. It is usually a medium-bodied wine and is at its best when vinified quite dry. It can take four to five years of aging, although most sauvignon blancs today are bottled within a year of the vintage and generally consumed when fresh and young. Despite the trend toward immediate consumption, the best white grapes from France can improve for six to 10 years in the bottle.
Splurge: 1980 Sterling Sauvignon Blanc ($9.99); 1979 Sancerre "Clos des Bouffants" or "Des Villots" ($9.99); 1979 Laville Haut Brion($34.95).
Thrift: 1980 Parducci Sauvignon Blanc ($5.99); 1980 Vin de Haut Poitou ($3.99). CHENIN BLANC
Chenin blanc is responsible for the dry and sweet wines of Vouvray and Layon in France's Loire Valley. It has also done quite well in California, where more and more vintners have learned how to capture its fresh, perfumed, delicate character. Except for the sweet wines from Layon in the Loire Valley, it is a grape that produces wine for near-term consumption, almost always within the two to three years of the vintage. Since it is produced in a wide range of styles, it is frequently misunderstood by consumers. When well made, as it is by many of California's top wineries, this fresh-scented, delicately floral and fruity, medium-bodied, off-dry wine offers delightful drinking. It can be a splendid apertif wine and is usually a good value to boot.
Splurge: 1980 Robert Mondavi($6.49); 1980 Simi ($5.49).
Thrift: 1980 Fetzer ($3.99); 1980 Parducci ($3.99). GEWURZTRAMINER
This intensely scented wine is indeed spicy and pungent, and almost always richly flavored as well as dry on the palate. It reaches great heights in Alsace and has demonstrated it can produce fine wines in California, although California gewurztraminers tend to be slightly softer and sweeter than the French kind. Gewurztraminer is an ideal wine with aggressively flavored fish and poultry dishes and is best consumed within five to six years of the vintage.
Splurge: 1976 Hugel Reserve Personnelle ($18.95); 1978 Mure' Clos St. Landeln ($8.99).
Thrift: 1981 Fetzer ($5.99); 1979 Simi ($6.49). RIESLING
The grape responsible for Germany's greatest wines, it has also done well in California, Austria and Alsace in France. In California, it is called Johannisberg riesling. The riesling produces wine that is flowery and quite perfumed. It is generally made in an off-dry style with increasing ripeness and sweetness indicated on the German bottlings by the words spatlese, auslese beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese. If fall weather conditions are just right, the grape is subject to the fungus known as botrytis or "noble rot," which can result in the production of majestic sweet rieslings. The wine rarely sees or needs a lot of oak aging, and its alcohol level should never exceed 11 percent. The California rieslings, except for the sweet, late-harvest versions, have not held up too well with aging, but the best German rieslings from good vintages have no problem lasting six to 10 years in the bottle.
Off-Dry Selections: 1979 Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberger Kronenburg Kabinett ($8.99); 1980 Sokol-Blosser ($6.95).
Sweet Selections: 1979 Chateau St. Jean "Robert Young" or "BelleTerre" late harvest ($24.95); 1979 Oestricher Lenchen Auslese Eiswein ($31.95). SEMILLON
This grape is responsible for the lush, sweet, viscous wines of Sauternes and Barsac in France. It is also planted in California, where wineries such as Sterling, Congress Springs and Mondavi blend small portions of semillon with their sauvignon blancs. It is very prone to botrytis infections and provides most of the body and character in the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes.
Splurge: 1976 Ch. D'Yquem ($75) 80 percent semillon ; 1976 C. Climens ($24) 85 percent semillon .
Thrift: 1976 Ch. Nairac ($10.95) 95 percent semillon .
These are the major white vinifera varietals which make up the bulk of the better white wines on the market. Other high-quality white vinifera that can be found include the vernaccia and trebbiano from Italy, muscat, muscadet, viognier, marsanne, tokay and sylvaner from France, the grune veltiner of Austria and the pinot gris and muller-thurgau from Germany.