We'll Drink to That: Winter-worthy whites
White wine: the alcoholic beverage of summer picnics, poolside daydreams, and sidewalk café dining. Like a summer fling, white wines make every one of those simple pleasures a little more enjoyable. But whites don’t deserve to be written off as a shallow seasonal romance. There are several styles that bring enough depth, complexity, and warmth to keep your heart aflame during the autumn and winter seasons.
Late harvest wine
Late-harvested styles, for example—where fruit is left on the vine deep into the fall season—enable grapes such as Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Semillion, and Gewurztraminer to achieve sugar levels high enough to make wines boasting higher alcohol levels while retaining noticeable sweetness. Both of these qualities give the impression of more weight or intensity—and in some cases, more complexity—while complementing the heartier dishes and seasonal root vegetables commonly found on our dinner plates as summer fades into fall.
But late harvest wines are certainly not one size fits all. They span the whole spectrum from dry to semisweet and dessert sweet. I’ve really enjoyed Konzelmann’s Late Harvest Gewurztraminer (from Ontario) during holiday meals in the past and was recently seduced by Hermann Wiemer’s 2009 Late Harvest Riesling from the Finger Lakes. As if we needed any more evidence that this style does well locally, Leonard Oakes and Schulze Vineyards & Winery both produce outstanding late harvest Vidal Blancs.
There is also no shortage of late harvest dessert wines. Trockenbeerenauslese (T.B.A., for short) is a German Riesling made from botrytis-infected naturally dehydrated grapes. It yields an unctuous dessert wine. France has its own take on this method with Sauternes (made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion), while South Africa has one made from a type of Muscat grape called Vin de Constance.
Instead of Chardonnay:
The poster child, if you will, for fat, rich, toasty winter-worthy whites is usually Chardonnay, thanks to its oaky reputation; plus, it is given a secondary maloactic fermentation that tends to bring out a creamy texture, imparting flavors reminiscent of butter. While this can be seen as an obvious choice, drinkers aren’t limited to Chardonnay if they are looking for the richness that oak aging enables. Enter Bordeaux: This iconic French region is synonymous with red wines, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as a destination for full-bodied, oaked whites.
White wine from Bordeaux generally blends Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc, yielding the best of both grapes. The most complex white wines will be found in Graves, the only Bordeaux sub-region where the majority of producers make both red and white. Fermenting and aging these varieties in oak is the norm here, a technique yielding significant depth of flavor and texture. Graves producer Château Haut Selve makes a white that delivers enormous value under $20, thanks to a rich, round texture, and generous flavors of peach, honey, and toast that over-deliver on the palate.
The Chenin Blanc grape proves it can also provide good company in winter. In South Africa—and under producer Ken Forrester’s FMC label—grapes are harvested over the course of five weeks, creating several lots which are fermented separately and aged in large oak casks for a year before the final wine is meticulously blended for complexity. It’s lusciously rich and ripe in style with generous notes of toast and spice interwoven with dried fruit flavors of fig and apricot.
I can offer up one more style that I usually refer to as “whites for people who like reds,” something appropriately nicknamed “orange wines.” These wines often appear more orange in the glass than yellow, thanks to the method of fermenting white grapes with their skins, similar to the way red wines are made.
Fermenting with skins completely changes everything about the wine’s color, acidity, and most importantly, its texture. The majority of tannins we taste in a red wine are extracted from the grape’s skin during fermentation. These tannins impart that dry feeling that some describe as “grip” on the palate. Skin-fermented whites are no exception. In this style, it’s common to feel some stringency or bitterness that, when done right, is balanced by a succulent mouth-feel enhanced by slight oxidation.
While this style of winemaking is one of the trendiest, it’s certainly anything but new. In Slovenia, producers such as Movia (the best-known maker of skin-fermented whites from the region) and Gravner have adopted ancient Roman techniques like fermenting and aging wines in clay amphora, where it’s common for the whites to age on skins for six or seven months, remaining in contact with the lees (the natural byproduct of yeast fermentations) for up to two years. Ultimately these methods enable whites to take on robust qualities, generously round textures, and layered complexities that resemble well-made reds.
The indigenous grape Ribolla Gialla tends to be the main variety for Slovenian producers working in this style, and the 2007 Movia Lunar is a great $40 example, with bright notes of grapefruit and lemon zest coupled with balanced flavors of honey and meringue—all amplified by its mouth-filling texture. Gravner’s 2004 Ribolla will set you back twice the cash, but will deliver a meatier texture and more pronounced tannins that— tasted in a blind setting —would be sure to stump experienced wine drinkers. Gravner’s 2003 Breg, a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, and Riesling, is so intensely rich and tannic it further blurs the line between red and white wines.
Fortunately for us New Yorkers, Slovenia doesn’t have a monopoly on this style. Long Island’s own Channing Daughters Winery in Southampton, also looks to skin-fermented whites to create wines with added complexity and character. Their 2010 Ramato, made from 100 percent skin-fermented Pinot Grigio grapes, is a steal at $20 thanks to its spicy aromas of baked apples, dried apricots, and pear. Its signature copper color lets you know immediately that this isn’t the Pinot Grigio you were sipping dockside last summer.
Bryan Calandrelli is a freelance writer who also works as a winemaker and cinematographer.