Friday, 13 June 2008

Searching for the great white

When I first started taking an interest in wine, it was Chardonnay. Then when we’d tired of over-oaked, overdone Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio took over as the “default” white. Now you only have to look at the shelves in the off-licence or supermarket to know that Sauvignon Blanc has become our white wine of choice.

But as soon as any wine has achieved that level of popularity and ubiquity, we start to get dissatisfied with “the usual” and an itch to find the next big thing. If you get the feeling that Delboy would be ordering a glass of Sauvignon Blanc today instead of Beaujolais Nouveau in his Peckham wine bar, you know it must be time to move on.

But where next? What are the candidates for the next big white wine? Here is my shortlist for wines that could make it to the top spot.

Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc’s home is the mid-section of the Loire Valley in France. There they use the grape to make a huge range of wines from light, fresh sparkling Crémant, to bone dry Savennières, Vouvray and Anjou Blanc, to lusciously sweet Côteaux du Layon and Bonnezeaux. Made well, Chenin delivers plenty of round, crisp fruit, sometimes with a hint of honey on the nose, even when bone dry. It has crisp acidity, like Sauvignon Blanc, but tends to be rather more rounded in character, without the herbaceous, grassy character that marks out Sauvignon. Do beware though: Chenin Blanc needs lowish yields to show its true character and South Africa especially is guilty of producing vast quantities of cheap, dull Chenin, so it’s best to spend a little bit more than bargain basement prices.

Waitrose have La Grille Classic Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2006 for £8.25, with plenty of crisp, well-defined fruit and good length. They also stock one of my favourite white wines, Domaine Huet Le Mont Sec Vouvray 2005 at £15.25. Not cheap, but a truly special wine with fantastic depth of flavour, great length, deliciously ripe but crisp fruit – it’s a certified biodynamically-produced wine too.

Wine writers bang on about Riesling, each year predicting that this really will be when Riesling makes its comeback, which then fails to happen. Why on earth do we bother, when it seems clear that most wine drinkers just can’t take Riesling to their hearts? It’s because Riesling is such a fascinating, expressive grape that makes some fantastic wines from around the world. Part of the trouble for many drinkers is that Riesling is unfairly associated with sweet, industrially-produced German wines like Liebfraumilch – which is not even made from Riesling. However, German wines are generally perennially out of fashion, the crimplene flairs of the wine world.

So if you want to ease yourself into the world of Riesling, without fear of coming across something sweet and sickly, I’d head for Australia, which is making some truly exciting and always dry Rieslings. Try O’Leary Walker Polish Hill River Riesling 2007, £8.99 at Waitrose for a taste of this deliciously crisp, racy grape. Majestic have Paulett’s Riesling 2006, Polish Hill River (obviously a hot spot for Riesling) for £9.99, or £8.49 if you buy 2 bottles. Thresher/Wine Rack have the 2006 Leasingham Magnus Riesling from the Clare Valley for £8.99 or £5.99 at the 3 for 2 price, which is textbook Aussie Riesling: crisp, waxy and limey.

Viognier is definitely becoming steadily more fashionable, going from a little-known variety found only in a tiny part of France’s Rhône Valley, to an international grape grown in Chile, Australia, New Zealand – as well as in large swathes of the south of France. In contrast to Chenin and Riesling, Viognier is not characterised by crisp acidity: indeed it can be rather “fat”, even flabby, if not treated carefully in the vineyard. But Viognier’s trump card is its delicious peach/apricot fruit character, sometimes with a little spice. Perhaps the pinnacle of Viognier is its original home in the tiny appellation of Condrieu in the Northern Rhône: Chapoutier’s Condrieu “Invitare” 2006 can show you what all the fuss is about, but it will set you back £25 at Majestic. For more everyday enjoyment try Waitrose’s d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne 2007 for £8.99, hailing from McLaren Vale in Australia, or Sainsbury’s Stamford Brook Viognier 2007 from South East Australia at £5.99.

So will it be one of these three that will ultimately triumph? I’ll let you know in about five years’ time.


Tony Debono said...

Hi Heather,

great blog! About the white wine, Chenin Blanc in particular, I guess that if the French finally decide to put the varietal label these "less favourite" grape varieties will get a great boost. Take Alsace Riesling, it sells pretty well, but when customers want a Chenin Blanc, they play "safe" and go for a South African....."I'm not really into Vouvray, I prefare Chein Blanc" !!!??

Heather Dougherty said...

Tony - I absolutely agree that it is downright confusing for most wine drinkers who have not memorised which French appellation = which grape variety. Maybe the day will come when we will see "Chenin blanc" on the label of a Vouvray...