Summer is the season of smells. Sure, spring has its share, but they amount to one shimmering note in the key of green -- and the aromas of autumn and winter are subtle, restrained by cool weather or dormancy. But by the time summer rolls around, the air fills with an altogether different array of perfumes: pungent flowers, expressive herbs, ripening fruits.
There is a category of wines well-matched for this fecundity. Like summer blooms, aromatic white wines can seduce on fragrance alone.
There has never been a better time to discover them. As producers back away from the barrel and wine lovers discover the unmediated pleasures of oak-free whites, aromatic white wines have edged their way onto the stage, as if released from behind the heavy curtain of oak.
All wines are aromatic, whites especially. Certain whites, though, are almost eccentrically fragrant. They can be exuberant, transporting; from the edge of the glass these wines take you somewhere -- a field of flowers, a Persian garden with a trellis of night-blooming jasmine, an orange grove in the spring.
Some, such as Old World Muscats and Gewürztraminers, have been lurking in the margins of restaurant wine lists and specialty shops for years. A few, such as the marvelous, unique Torrontès wines from Argentina, have shown up only recently. Still others, such as American Viognier, have been around for a few decades, but better viticulture and winemaking have allowed us to see them, and smell them, anew. Whatever the case, summer is the ideal time to get your nose around their intoxicating aromas.
Evocative of orange In the panoply of aromatic whites, Muscat is perhaps the most arresting flower in the bunch. Indeed, the very name evokes a smell -- its root is derived from the French word musqué, or musky, which the French use to denote a particularly aromatic variant or grape clone.
Muscat isn't exactly one grape variety, it's several, with strains genetically linked like an extended family. It's a family of styles as well: Muscats and Moscatos can be bracingly dry like Muscat d'Alsace, or sweet and frizzante in Asti; they can even be dark and sherried like the tawny concoctions from Australia.
The most common dry varieties, and the most aromatic, are Muscat Ottonel, Muscat Canelli and Moscato Giallo. Each has its subtleties, but there's no mistaking the family resemblance in the glass. Muscat's aroma is bright, forward and invigorating, floral and fruity at once, often never quite settled on one or the other. Those florals are marvelously exotic -- now frangipani, now camellia, now peach or citrus blossoms. So too are the fruits -- sometimes white peach, but even more often citrus: orange and lemon, as well as lemon verbena. In fact, no white grape is as consistently evocative of orange as Muscat, and until you smell that fresh note of orange oil or essence, you'll never fully appreciate how much one fruit can mimic another so convincingly.
Some of the world's best dry Muscats come from Alsace, in eastern France. There on sun-kissed grand cru slopes the grape seems to develop more body than in other places (palate complexity is not usually Muscat's strong suit). There are several to choose from, and they are among the most reasonably priced grand cus in France. One of my favorites is from Dirler-Cadé, whose Muscat from the grand cru Spiegel Vineyard is high-toned, pretty and light yet possesses impressive length and concentration.
A dry Muscat's clean florals and high-toned fruit aromas make it a lively summer aperitif, but it can be a challenge to pair with food at times. Because of its angularity on the palate, it glances off of most chicken and fish, but it can sing with a salad with fruit -- mâche with peach slices and almonds, for example, or a citrus salad with shaved fennel. Most dry Muscats have the acid to hold up to a mild vinaigrette, as long as it employs a little sweetness.
The Muscat family has a few aromatic relatives -- wines that fall within a comparable aromatic spectrum. There is, for example, the honeyed fragrance of Malvasia Bianca, an ancient variety still found in Greece, Italy and Spain, though in diminishing quantities. (The Italian district of Friuli still makes some of the world's finest -- or stick closer to home with a bottle of Bonny Doon Vineyard's Ca 'del Solo Malvasia.)
New American arrivalsA
recent newcomer to the American market is a spicy relative of Malvasia called Torrontès, a grape transplanted to Argentina from Spain, possibly arriving with the conquistadores. But in the last few years, it's taken off. More Torrontès is planted in Argentina than anywhere else in the world; it has emerged as Argentina's emblematic white much the way Malbec has become the country's signature red.
Torrontès has a little more flesh in the palate than Muscat does, a little more honey and herb to go with a fruit blossom fragrance, and in well made wines, a creamy pear-like weight to go with its fresh, citrusy scent. All of this certainly describes Crios, one of the country's best exported whites. It's made by the talented Susana Balbo, from fruit grown high in Mendoza's mile-high Cafayate Valley, and those cool nights at high altitude contribute to the wine's pretty aromas.
Grape-growing regions in the American West are less well-known for their aromatic whites than are those of Alsace or northern Italy. But Viognier, a fairly recent transplant to American soil from the northern Rhône Valley in France, is just now refining its aromatic personality and is proving to be very distinct from its Old World counterparts.
Nothing on earth smells like American Viognier, with its unabashed fruit scents of apricot, peach, mango and pear, and its intoxicating hothouse florals of hibiscus flower and peach blossom.
Historically, the charms of Viognier as grown in the cooler climes of its home in the northern Rhone were somewhat elusive. It was rare for the grape to show off its aromatics. However, subjected to Western sunshine and its heat, the wine has blossomed into a more exotic range of fragrances. These can occasionally get overblown and blowzy, especially when the fruit is too ripe. But a balanced American Viognier is as compelling as a bowl of ripe peaches.
The cool-climate Viogniers of Morgan Clendenen's Cold Heaven Cellars in California's Central Coast consistently offer clear-cut peach florals that never devolve into fruit-salad blowziness. And lots of terrific Viogniers are coming out of Washington state, such as the 2006 Viognier from Alexandria Nicole winery.
In still other cases, less is more. The Paso Robles winery Tablas Creek makes a blend called Côtes de Tablas, and the winemaker's judicious use of Viognier -- it composes about half the blend -- actually gives the wine's aromas a sharper definition, almost like a Viognier garnish or spice.
When it comes to spice, however, nothing beats Gewürztraminer. As with Muscat, its very name evokes its aromatic assets: gewürz is the German word for spice. If you're planning sometime soon on taking the blind tasting test to become a Master Sommelier, pray that there's a Gewürztraminer in the lineup. With its pungent sweet rose and geranium scents, and heady tropical fruit accents such as passion fruit and litchi, no wine is more instantly recognizable than Gewürz.
The grape's parentage is traced to northern Italy, near the town of Tramin (hence traminer) in the Alto Adige, where gorgeously lean, aromatic Gewürztraminer is still a regional specialty.
One of the more compelling I've recently tasted is a lean and mineral bottling, Kolbenhof, from J. Hofstätter, with ethereal aromas of rose and orange zest, and flavors of litchi on a palate that's wonderfully focused.
Fine dry Gewürztraminers are found from New Zealand to northern Germany. In California, many of the wineries of the Anderson Valley make whites with a pronounced Alsatian influence, with estimable Gewürz from such producers asHandley, Londer and Navarro.
But perhaps the grape is most at home in Alsace, where it's the region's second-most widely planted variety. As with Muscat, grand cru vineyards ensure a healthy respect for the grape there.
Not counting late harvest and dessert wines, Alsatian Gewürztraminers are among the world's most opulent, intense white wines. To get a sense of the power they pack, not to mention their unbelievable aromatics, check out grand cru bottlings from the likes of Albert Mann and Zind-Humbrecht -- these are among the most lavish white wines in the world.
Complex and confounding West of Alsace, the Loire Valley is home to one of the most unjustly overlooked aromatic varieties: Chenin Blanc. There are many reasons Chenin gets no respect. First, the wines can be confounding. Like aromatic chameleons, they differ dramatically from place to place and glass to glass -- sparkling, bone dry, intensely sweet and everything in between. And especially in dry versions, different soils mean different aromas, and the soils of its principle appellations, Vouvray, Savennières and Montlouis, inflect profoundly different aromatics.
To make matters more confusing, Loire Chenins change dramatically in the bottle as they age, and their aromatics are so mutable they seem almost moody. The same bottling of young Vouvray, for example, can go from brisk and limey to golden and honeyed in a matter of months. Over the course of a decade, they can seem to shut down and then revive with incredible freshness years later.
All of this aromatic unpredictability may account for why so many sommeliers revere the grape -- you always love what you can't understand. Only Riesling has a comparable range of complexity and aromatic potential.
The Vouvrays from François Chidaine and Gaston Huet are terrific introductions to the aromatic wonderland of Chenin. Huet's Sec (dry) bottling is marvelously lively and floral in its 2005 vintage, currently showing a lot of lime and apple fruit to go along with a pronounced whiff of wet stones. The Savennières from Domaine de Closel is richer, more complex and honeyed, with notes of beeswax and honey but girded with a firm mineral base.
Seduced? Well, anyone who falls in love with aromatic whites has plenty more to discover. Lemony Pigatos and Ribolla Giallas from Italy. Salty Albariños and Vinho Verdes from the Iberian Coast. Herbal Moschofileros from Greece (not to mention the pine-barrel-aged Retsina -- doesn't really get more aromatic than that!). Racy Furmints from Tokaj in Hungary, herbaceous New Zealand Sauvignons and Austrian Grüners, and exquisitely filigreed Rieslings from Australia -- and the Mösel and the Nahe in Germany.
All of these are worthy reasons to let your nose take the lead, all summer long.