Every time I stick my nose over a glass of Riesling, I feel a little smug. Riesling falls into the category known as aromatic whites, and those of us who like them can sometimes feel like we're in a tight little club. While most of the wine world looks to Chardonnay for a white wine with depth and distinction, or so it seems, those of us who enjoy other white wines can spend less for as much pleasure.
Don't get me wrong. I love a good Chardonnay. But the price of admission drains my wallet faster than my membership in the aromatics club. On the wine list at a casual restaurant I visited recently, the best buy for a Chardonnay-based white is Domaine du Château de Puligny-Montrachet 2005 for $65. But I could spend only $32 for Domaine Ostertag Sylvaner Vielles Vignes 2006.
A good reason exists to spend more, of course. Chardonnays can achieve more complexity, depth and sheer grandeur that most aromatic whites. Riesling requires years of aging to achieve the kind of complexity that Chardonnay can get on release. Except for sweet, dramatically ultraripe styles, aromatic whites other than Riesling lose more than they gain with age. (The sweet versions are more appropriate on their own, however, than at the start of a meal, and they usually cost as much as a good Chardonnay, or more.)
What accounts for the price difference? Partly it's demand. Chardonnay is more popular. Also, most Chardonnays see at least some oak, and the best ones almost always ferment in oak. That's a good thing, in my book. Do not list me among the anti-oak naysayers. But really good Chardonnay requires a year or more of aging before release. The time and all those barrels cost money.
Aromatic varieties can dazzle after only a a few weeks or months. Wines such as Alsace Sylvaner or Pinot Gris, Italian Friulano or Fiano di Avellino, Spanish Albariño or Oregon Pinot Gris depend on freshness and fruit flavors. And those of us in the club know the silly secret, that these wines taste better with a greater range of foods than Chardonnay does.
Sauvignon Blanc can qualify as an aromatic variety. The grape certainly has a pungent profile, the good ones often reminiscent of green apples, limes, passion fruit and fresh herbs. But consider the style. Many Sauvignons from California, Washington and France are barrel fermented in whole or part, which takes them out of the aromatic club.
Riesling is the king of aromatic whites because it has the capacity to age. In Australia, Riesling has the well deserved reputation for aging years longer than Chardonnay. I've had Rieslings 20 and 30 years old that had developed tremendous complexity without losing their essential freshness. German Rieslings, even those with relatively little sugar in them, often taste best at 5 to 10 years.
The most aromatic whites are Gewürztraminers and Muscats. Nearly all of them have some degree of sweetness, but the drier styles make wonderful apéritifs and their floral character can sing with compatible foods. They are better than red wines with most cheeses, in my book. In fact, stinky or extra-creamy cheeses seem not to bother aromatic whites, which is better than you can say about reds.
This is a sketchy list. Come on, aromatic white fans. Which ones make you smile the most, and what do you like to drink them with?