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Spring Whites
By Michael Apstein
May 4, 2010
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With bright sunshine and temperatures flirting with 80 degrees here in the Northeast, it’s time to put parkas and boots away.  Grilled fish dribbled with olive oil and other lighter fare replaces hearty long-simmered stews.  To accompany this change of culinary seasons, lively whites will appear in place of those robust reds.  So here’s a quick roundup of whites—some predicable, such as Muscadet from France’s Loire River, and others more obscure, such as Greece’s Assyrtiko or Spain’s Txakolina—to take you into summer. Let’s start with the more obscure.

Assyrtiko

The Assyrtiko (pronounced ah-seer-tee-ko) grape, native to the Greek isle of Santorini, makes wines with a firm minerality balanced by a refreshing citrus quality that makes them perfect for simply prepared seafood.  The grape’s inherent ability to retain acidity even in a hot climate explains why winemakers outside of Santorini in other parts of Greece have been planting it.  Domaine Porto Carras’s 2009 Assyrtiko from central Macedonia in northern Greece, with its Granny Smith apple-like bite, is easy to recommend. Still, the most distinctive  Assyrtiko, such as the 2008 Thalassitis from Gai’a or Argyros Estate’s 2008 Assyrtiko, come from Santorini. 

Txakoli or Chacolí

Coming from three tiny DOs, comprising only 500 acres in total in Spain’s Basque region, this wine has two spellings, Txakoli in the Basque language and Chacolí in Castilian. (both pronounced chock-o-lee). It’s made primarily from the Hondarribi Zuri grape, which does well in this cool rainy climate, producing a slightly fizzy, low alcohol (11%) and entirely refreshing wine with palate cleansing acidity. Traditionally, the wines from the Txakolina Getaria DO are “broken”—served with great fanfare by pouring the wine in a stream from the bottle held at arm’s length over head into small glasses.  Although this aeration softens the wine slightly, do not try this technique at home.  I do suggest you try the 2009 Txakoli de Getaria from Ameztoi, or from Txomin Etxaniz, two of the area’s leading producers. Txakoli in general are the perfect foil for picnics, informal pool-side dining, and spicy seafood preparations because of their enlivening acidity.

Muscadet

Few regions deliver the extraordinary diversity of wines, especially whites, like the Loire Valley.  From the flinty Muscadet in the west to the herbal Sancerre in the east and the lush sweet wines from Coteaux du Layon, consumers can find every style of white wine perfect for summertime fare.  The Loire producers with whom I spoke recently are very enthusiastic about the quality of the 2009 vintage there.  The 2009 Muscadets I have sampled confirm that assessment.

A vertical tasting of Marc Ollivier’s Muscadet Sèvre et Maine (Domaine de la Pepière) a few years ago etched in my mind that these wines—his at least—develop beautifully with bottle age.  That said, I still prefer the cutting vibrant flintiness they deliver when young and highly recommend those from the 2009 vintage for current consumption.

Although, the most well-known Muscadet comes from the appellation Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, consumers should also look for ones from Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu, the western-most part of the area.  Especially noteworthy are two 2009s from Domaine de Herbauges, Clos de la Sénaigerie and Clos de la Fine   and Eric Chevalier’s 2009 Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu. Also easy to recommend is the 2009 Domaine de Quatre Routes, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine.  All are designated “sur lie” on the label, which means that the wine is aged on the lees, or dead yeast, for a minimum of four months.  Lees-aging acts both as an anti-oxidant to maintain the wine’s freshness and imparts an extra dimension as flavor is extracted from the yeast cells. These are invigorating crisp wines perfect for summer seafood. And none will break the bank.

Riesling

You can savor Riesling’s pleasure equally well sitting on the deck as an aperitif or at the dinner table.  It’s arguably the most versatile wine for food, appropriate for everything from simple grilled fish to spicy Asian fare.  My mantra remains, “When in doubt, serve Riesling.”   

Although Alsace competes with the Loire for providing the consumer with a wide spectrum of white wines, Rieslings from this area in eastern France remains king. Since Alsace is the only place where French appellation controllée regulations allow varietal labeling, they are extremely friendly to American consumers who are accustomed to that system of naming wines.  No need to remember obscure, hard to pronounce appellations when ordering Riesling from Alsace. 

The big impediment for Riesling remains determining the level of sweetness before pulling the cork.  The International Riesling Foundation has a simple, yet informative, “taste profile” sticker for bottles to give the consumer an idea of the level of sweetness, which many US, Australian and New Zealand wineries are utilizing.  Alsace producers have yet to embrace it, although some do have an indication of style on the back label. 

Riesling from Alsace tend to be bigger and pack more power than those from Germany, the United States, Australia or New Zealand. In addition to those top-quality producers with wide distribution, such as Trimbach and Hugel, both of whom make superb Riesling, it pays to search out producers with more limited distribution, such as Beyer, Ostertag, Albert Mann, Sipp-Mack, Boxler or Lucien Albrecht, to see if they are available in your locale. 

As in the Loire—and the rest of France—producers in Alsace are thrilled at the prospect of the 2009 vintage.  For them, it would be the third excellent vintage in a row.  Riesling from Alsace develops beautifully with a few years in the bottle, so consumers should not ignore those from 2007 and 2008 and even 2005, another very good year, if any are lingering on retailers’ shelves.

Since Riesling does best in cool climates, it’s counter intuitive that Australia, generally a warm weather site, is home to stylish Riesling.  But Gossett, Mount Horrocks, Knappstein and Wakefield are four of many producers in South Australia’s Clare Valley who show that region is a consistently fine source for that varietal.  Another consistent winner is Wolff Blass’s Riesling, made from a blend of grapes grown in Eden and Clare Valleys. 

Australia’s other great site for Riesling is Western Australia, where in the southwestern tip, Frankland Estate, Alkoomi, Plantagenet and Howard Park show a unique style that lies between the fruitiness of German Riesling and the power of Alsace Riesling.

Although New Zealand’s icon wine is Sauvignon Blanc, don’t overlook some of their stellar Rieslings, such as Craggy Range’s 2008 Fletcher Vineyard.

Unlike the producers in Alsace, the Aussies and Kiwis have embraced screw caps for their Rieslings, which means you can have a glass or two, put the cap back on and store the bottle in the refrigerator to enjoy it over the next several days.

While Washington State Rieslings, especially Chateau Ste Michelle’s 2009 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling and their 2008 Eroica, are seductively delicate and floral, my vote for the leading ones from the United States goes to those from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.  Those from Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars—look for his 2008 Dry Riesling—and Hermann J, Wiemer are worth the search.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

You cannot speak of refreshing whites without including the zesty citrus-edged Sauvignon Blanc coming from the Marlborough region of New Zealand.  The 2009 vintage there was especially successful.  The list of easy to recommend 2009s is long and includes Kim Crawford, Villa Maria Private Bin, Nobilo Icon, Matua and Allan Scott, to name just a few.  But this is a category where new producers appear like mushrooms after a rain so it pays to experiment.

Questions or comments?  E-mail me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com.