WineInk: Six white wine grapes to sip in Aspen
Chappellet Signature Chenin Blanc 2020
Last August the fires in the Napa Valley burned near the Pritchard Hill vineyards that have been home to the Chappellet family since 1967. Fortunately, heroic locals banded together, using D-9 tractors to save the iconic vines on the trademarked Pritchard Hill. The Chappellet Chenin Blanc was produced once again by longtime winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus, and it is a spectacular vintage of the French born grape. Rich, structured and deeply concentrated, this wine, which includes Molly Chappelet’s signature on the label, is a summer treat.
With apologies to Bob Dylan, when I think of white wines, images of blondes often pop into my mind. It’s funny, I don’t think of redheads when I open a rosé and hair color never enters the discussion when I’m drinking a deep dark glass of red wine. But white wines just seem to me to be blonde.
And since it is summer, this is a good time to get to get know a few of the fairest-haired wines on the planet. Oh sure, you may be a lover of Chardonnay and you may have had a dalliance with Sauvignon Blanc, but what about some of the more exotic white wine grapes that inhabit the planet? There are hundreds of white wine grape varieties — most are actually green — that populate vineyards, and there are some that you may have never heard of that are astonishingly prevalent.
The Spanish Airén, for instance, is a pretty obscure grape. But thanks to its role as a grape spirit often used in brandies, it is, at least in terms of acreage, the most planted white wine grape on God’s green Earth. Well, it was as recently as 2016 when the most recent global figures were compiled. My guess is that Chardonnay has supplanted Airén by now (see what I did there) as it has gained popularity throughout the wine world. While I have tasted hundreds of Chardonnay wines, I must say I have never tasted a bottling of Airén.
Ah, but there are other Spanish white wines that can be delectable. The blondes, er, whites, from Spain have shown considerable improvement in recent years as winemakers have been experimenting with ancient varieties and stepped up their game. Wines produced from Spanish grapes like Godello from Gallicia, Verdejo from Rueda and Xarel.lo from Catalonia are all becoming more widely available here in the U.S.
But the grape to know now is Albariño. Produced in the northwestern climes of the Rías Baixas region of Galicia, where Spain meets the cool winds from the Atlantic Ocean, the wines can be fresh and elegant. Typically dry and full of the flavors of summer fruits and melons, with occasional hints of fresh grass, Albariño wines are transportive. And they are a perfect accompaniment to foods from the sea, especially shellfish. You can try a 2019 La Cana Albariño by the glass while sitting on a summer afternoon at the Victoria +co espresso + wine bar and imagine that you’re seaside on the Spanish coast.
Riesling is another grape that has the ability to take you places in a glass and it has traveled well in its own right. You may think of sweetness when you think Riesling, but dry wines, those with little to no residual sugar, made from the grape can be revelatory. Flavors range from green apples to pineapples but it is the acidity that allows it to pair so well with food. Native to the Rhine River wine region of Germany, delicious variations of the wine are now found from Austria to Australia, where wines from the Eden and Claire Valleys are stellar. Here in the States, New York produces some very fine wines from Riesling. New York? Order a glass of the Forge Cellars Dry Riesling from Seneca Lake at Clark’s Oyster Bar in Aspen to pair with a selection of New Brunswick oysters and tell me what you think.
Talk to sommeliers and the word “minerality” will often pop up as a descriptor when discussing wines made from the Austrian Grüner Veltliner grape. Never mind that “minerality” is a vague, un-defined euphemism. Often it is thrown out there to impress, but in the case of Grüner — or groovy as some call it — it just sounds right.
Bright, with solid acidity, citrusy flavors, a white pepper pop and that sense of “minerals,” the best examples of Grüner Veltliner can be perfect complements to a wide variety of foods. It is no accident that Element 47 at the Little Nell Hotel has a Grüner Veltliner by the glass that you can try, the Weszeli Grüner Veltliner “Terrafactum” Kamptal, Austria 2019. It is a wine that is certified as both organic and vegan.
Part of the appeal of white wines is that they can be so easily paired with dishes that otherwise are not necessarily wine-friendly. The aforementioned vegan Grüner Veltliner, for example, can match with many vegetarian dishes (think cauliflower steak). And the Forge Riesling can also stand up to a spicy yellow curry dish. But what about spicy Thai or Chinese dishes or even sushi? What goes well with those cuisines?
At Jing in Aspen, which specializes in the various cuisines of Asia, the wine list features many bubbles, including Champagne and domestic sparklers. But a split of Mionetto Prosecco, a sparkling wine made in the Veneto region of Northeastern Italy, in Valdobbiedene, in the rolling hills just north of Treviso is also on the list to pair with the foods of the Far East. While the grape used in Prosecco was formerly called Prosecco, after the village Prosecco, it was renamed by the European Union as Glera in 2009 in a controversial decision that was made for political purposes. Just so you know.
But the point is that Prosecco wines made from the Glera grape have the acidity, the bubbles and a creamy mouthfeel that make the wines great for pairing with spicy Asian foods. Be it Jing’s Hot Pepper Prawns, the Spicy Baby Octopus, or even the Kung Fu Eggplant, bubbles make it all just a bit better.
And since we are talking Italy, I recently received a bottle of sunshine from the Italian island of Sardinia. The wine was a Surrau “Sciala” Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Superiore with Vermentino as the grape. This wine came from a stony, windswept corner of the island in the center of the Mediterranean Sea. The wine had a rich complexity and it reminded me of Sauvignon Blanc with heavy doses of tropical fruits, and to use that word again, minerality. Vermentino is a grape on an upswing as well, and it is being grown in the Lodi region of California and, under the name Rolle, is a grape used in many white and rosé wines in Provence.
Wanna give it a try? Steakhouse 316 pours by the glass an Antinori “Tenuta Guado Al Tasso” Vermentino from the Bolgheri region of Tuscany — a Ferry ride away from Sardinia — that is superb as well. Give it a go with some King Crab legs. It will not disappoint.
So there it is: five blondes or white wine grapes to keep you busy this June. You may have noticed there was not a French variety in the bunch. We’ll keep those for a future column.
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