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A White Wine Refresher

TIMES WINE WRITER

A decade ago, some California winemakers referred to their Sauvignon Blancs as “poor man’s Chardonnay,” a sobriquet that was inappropriate at the time, because the two wines were different in a number of ways.

Today, more and more Sauvignon Blanc is made to taste like Chardonnay. Recently a caller even asked why there was so little difference between the two wines. She also asked where she could find out how the basic wine types are supposed to smell and taste.

While the answer to the first question is fairly straightforward (marketing), there is no simple answer to the second. Winemakers use all sorts of tricks to make the fruit in grapes smell and taste like things other than fruit. So explaining the basic wine types requires also a description of various styles.

Here is a brief overview of the basic white wine types, what they should smell and taste like, why they might not and how they often are rendered.

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* Chardonnay: The basis for almost all French white Burgundy is Chardonnay, the most popular white wine in this country today. It is a delicate grape variety that makes wine with the aroma of tropical fruit (pineapple, guava, even banana) and citrus (grapefruit or lime) when grown in cool climates. In warmer regions, the aroma approaches apple, pear and peach.

In inexpensive Chardonnays, however, the aroma often is radically different. By law all varietal wines must be composed of at least 75% of the named variety, permitting 25% of something less expensive. So as much as a fourth of cheap Chardonnays can be cheaper grapes such as Muscat or Riesling. It is aromas from these grapes that dominate cheap Chardonnay.

Oddly, though, even expensive Chardonnay may smell little like the grape. Many winemakers tinker with Chardonnay by putting it through a malolactic fermentation that converts the wine’s malic acid (which is apple-scented) to lactic acid (more like milk), producing an artificial buttery scent.

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They also age the wine on the spent yeast cells (lees), which adds an oniony/earthy note. And they also age the wine in barrels, the insides of which are charred, giving the wine an aroma of vanilla (from the oak) and toast (from the char).

These days even cheaper Chardonnays that aren’t aged in oak barrels can have an oak flavor. Winemakers have discovered the trick of dipping giant “tea bags” of oak chips into tanks of wine for flavoring.

Too many California wineries use these techniques to rob the wine of its fruit. Napa Valley wine author Bob Thompson calls these oaky monsters “me too” Chardonnays. “They all want the smell of trees more than they do of grapes,” he says.

This syndrome is even affecting some French Chardonnays aimed at the American market, such as certain versions of Pouilly-Fuisse or Macon Blanc. In the past, the best of these would be very crisp white wines, but a number of these wines are becoming clumsy too.

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One added problem for many cheap Chardonnays is residual sugar in the wine. It may be more palatable to novice tasters who grew up drinking soda, but it doesn’t offer the crispness one needs for accompanying food.

An example of the big, rich, oaky, buttery style of Chardonnay is 1992 Sanford Winery, “Barrel Select” ($20). Chardonnay like this is fun to sip on a patio as an aperitif, but the oak, butter, vanilla, toast and other non-fruit elements make it awkward to match with food.

Among the few delicate yet flavorful Chardonnays that use oak deftly, I like the crisp acidity of the 1992 St. Clement Vineyards ($16), an excellent food match.

Few California Chardonnays age very well these days--far fewer than the white Burgundies from such regions as Meursault, Montrachet, or Corton-Charlemagne.

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* Sauvignon Blanc (also called Fume Blanc): The basic aromas of this grape are more herbal than fruity, with tarragon and sage overlaying melons, pears, lemon peel and even--to some tasters--to weeds and chile peppers. The aroma of some cold-climate Sauvignon Blancs of the past, such as those from Monterey County, once was compared to boiled asparagus, but recent advances in the vineyard have weeded out the vegetal odor and replaced it with a milder “green melon” or mild bell pepper character.

Though a few wineries do make Sauvignon Blanc with residual sugar and oak aging, this grape is generally not put through as many contortions as Chardonnay. With less oak and rarely any malolactic fermentation, it often smells more like the fruit and thus is more predictable and food-friendly.

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France’s Loire Valley makes excellent Sauvignon Blanc. For me, the classic American Sauvignon Blanc is from Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma County. Those from Kunde Estate, Ferrari-Carano Winery, Buena Vista Winery “Lake County” and Kenwood Vineyards all are exceptional wines that show off the delicate herbs.

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When Sauvignon Blanc goes through malolactic fermentation and is aged in new oak casks, the aroma can approach that of Chardonnay, making it “poor man’s Chardonnay,” but distinctiveness is lost.

The most interesting thing about Sauvignon Blanc for me is the great tastes I have found in aging them. Conventional wisdom says you drink Sauvignon Blanc young, yet well-stored, older Sauvignon Blancs have proven far more interesting and tasty than almost any other white wine (except Semillon). Even the cheapest of these wines can take on fine, mature character that I find more rewarding than most of the aged Chardonnays I’ve tasted.

* Riesling: The greatest Rieslings of all are from Germany. These range from the delicate Mosels (bottled in green bottles) to the richer, aromatic Rhines (in brown bottles). They are made in styles that range from steely dry to unctuously sweet.

The aromas I associate with Riesling most are of apples and pears, but many Rieslings also have a note of petroleum (some call it kerosene). That, to the uninitiated, may seems like an odd thing to like, but as long as it’s not out of balance with the more fruity and spicy elements, it actually can be engaging. In fact, lovers of German Rieslings say the oily aroma is essential.

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Equal to the Germans and different in many ways are Rieslings from France’s Alsace, whose aromas include such fascinating elements as basil, kumquat and pine.

Riesling, perhaps the greatest wine grape of them all, is not a big seller in the United States, but a number of California wineries make fine Rieslings, notably Trefethen Vineyards, Geyser Peak Vineyards and Claiborne and Churchill.

* Gewurztraminer: A marvelous wine to match with Asian foods when made dry or off-dry, Gewurztraminer grown in cooler climates makes a wine that smells like litchi nuts, gardenias, carnations and pine, with hints of pear and allspice.

Rarely is the wine aged in new oak barrels, so the only textural element beyond the alcohol is the amount of sugar left in the wine. In the Alsace, the sugar is almost entirely absent; in California, it’s usually about 1%, though the most widely marketed version, from Fetzer Vineyards, is about 3%.

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The best are from the Alsace (Domaine Weinbach, Zind Humbrecht and Trimbach are reliable producers). Californians who do well with it are Navarro Vineyards, Thomas Fogarty Winery, Z Moore, Hop Kiln Winery and Bouchaine Vineyards.

* Chenin Blanc: When made dry, this wine, with its melony, leafy aroma, is a wonderful alternative to Chardonnay. When off-dry (such as from Dry Creek Vineyards) or even a bit sweeter (from Pine Ridge Winery) the wine has broader appeal than most Chardonnays. One of the state’s best, from Simi Winery in Sonoma County, has inexplicably been discontinued.

* Semillon: An aroma more of figs, hay and (from colder climates) pears sets this wine apart from its cousin Sauvignon Blanc. The wine can be fresh and appealing when young (versions from Washington State are especially nice), but the best take on marvelous bottle bouquet. Cold-climate versions can have a distinct asparagus-y aroma.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and Hogue Cellars of Washington make splendid Semillons, along with California wineries Alderbrook Winery, Clos du Val and Wente Bros.

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