White wine: Sniffing out the unusual suspects for summer

(written for the Los Altos Town Crier)

Some sounds make me long for white wine: the crack of a bat against its intended canvas-covered target, the swell and subsequent crash of an ocean wave repeated again and again and the wooshing of blossom-heavy branches swaying in the wind.
The months of short days and cold evenings have passed. So, too, temporarily at least, has my devotion to red wine. When spring arrives, my taste buds are eager for a change. I am all too happy to oblige.
White wines represent a place on the wine spectrum where people are more willing to experiment. After all, given the right weather and company, a chilled glass of any well-made white wine is pretty easy to enjoy.
What’s more, as California consumers’ palates become more curious and open-minded, an entire world of white wine opens up. No more do we need to drink Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc exclusively – though I’m most certainly a huge fan of both.

Lower-alcohol wines

The recent spring breezes and outdoor dining weather are ideally suited to lighter, more subtle wines. Where many Chardonnays have alcohol ranges of 13 to 14 percent, a group of white wines hovers more in the 9 to 11 percent range – perfect for early-evening sipping.
Vinho Verde wines from Portugal are made with grapes harvested fairly early in the harvest season. Early harvest means lower sugar levels in the grapes. Because sugar equals alcohol when it comes to wine, the wines produced are fresh, bright and sometimes slightly effervescent. I have previously recommended Quinta da Aveleda Vinho Verde, and my loyalty to the label remains.
A varietal I only recently discovered is the Basque white wine Txakoli. This ever-so-slightly sparkling wine will make you pucker in a happy way. It is, much like Vinho Verde, low in alcohol and high in acidity – hence the happy puckering.

Underrepresented vines

Trying white wines from far-flung locales is a worthy endeavor, but there is a huge selection of California wines to explore. Our state has black-sheep winemakers who are producing wines we don’t ordinarily associate with California – wine labels worth getting chummy with.
Among the thousands of acres of wine grapes grown in California, eight common varieties make up 93 percent of the vines planted. They’re the varietals we all know and likely drink, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Among white wines, the most commonly planted grapes include Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. There is plenty to love about both of these varietals, of course. But we should all be pretty jazzed about the wine growers who are using our gorgeous climate and rich soil to grow lesser-known grapes, too.
Vineyards have been slowly introducing European varietals into California soil over the past few decades. They’ve been becoming more readily available. Be on the alert, and I’m sure you’ll start to notice unusual whites on wine lists and store shelves. Look for Albarino, Picpoul, Sémillon, Grenache Blanc and Verdelho, to name a few.
The Albarino grape, originally from Spain, boasts a notable oceanic quality in the Albarinos from the Rias Baixas region. What’s exciting is that California producers are achieving equally “of the sea” qualities in their offerings.
Tangent Albarino from Edna Valley has almost slightly salty characteristics. I discovered Tangent Albarino beside a plate of oysters two years ago, and I haven’t looked back. It is a supremely food-friendly wine, which makes it ideal for weekend lazy lunches.
Another wine discovery came last fall when I was with friends at one of Route 1 Farms’ dinner events. At the dinners, local chefs prepare produce grown on the farm and pair it with a winery partner selected for the evening.
Route 1 Farms, located in Santa Cruz, recently sent me an email with the schedule for its upcoming series of dinners, reminding me how much I enjoyed the Odonata white-wine blend we savored under the watchful chestnut tree along with light appetizers.
2012 River Skimmer Label
Odonata makes its 2013 River Skimmer ($20) with Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne grapes. The wine is a splurge of soft flower blossoms on the nose, with nice minerality and citrus and melon attributes on the palate. You can order the wine directly from Odonata’s website.


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