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Wine Tip: Thomas Matthews Suggests Wines to Discover in 2014

Look off the beaten path for light, crisp whites offering quality for value

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2014

Note: This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in the February 28, 2014 issue of Wine Spectator.

In recent years, I've found myself increasingly choosing white wines, both as aperitifs and to accompany a widening variety of dishes at the table. And among whites, I'm turning more frequently to lighter, crisper versions.

Many grape varieties and wine regions around the world deliver this fruit-centered style. Fine examples include Sancerre from France, Pinot Grigio from northeastern Italy, Assyrtiko from Greece and Albariño from Spain.

The wine types I've chosen to highlight here come from different countries and are based on different grapes. What they have in common are pleasing herbaceous flavors to balance their fruit, a general avoidance of oak influence and a consistent delivery of value for money. I hope you'll find them as appealing as I do.

CRISP VERDEJO FROM RUEDA

Rueda, like so many emerging wine regions in Spain, has been growing grapes for centuries but only turned toward quality winemaking over the past few decades. And, as is often the case, outsiders triggered the change.

In the 1970s, benchmark Rioja producer Marqués de Riscal decided to look beyond its appellation's borders for a good place to make crisp, dry white wines. It turned to Rueda, a high-altitude, arid plateau in central Spain. The bodega drew on the expertise of Bordeaux enologist Émile Peynaud, planted Sauvignon Blanc to supplement the indigenous Verdejo grapes, and employed temperature-controlled fermentation. This winemaking vision revitalized the sleepy region: Rueda earned status as an official Denominación de Origen in 1980.

While Sauvignon Blanc is still popular in the region, Verdejo has proved to be the star, expanding from 40 percent of the appellation's vines in 1995 to represent more than 80 percent today. Most versions are made in a clean, crisp style, but experiments with skin contact, lees aging and barrel fermentation have successfully added richness and depth to a handful of examples.

Today's Verdejo-based Ruedas are generally full-bodied wines, with ripe melon notes balanced by zesty orange flavors and backed by almond, floral and mineral details. They consistently show a fresh, herbal element that keeps them compatible with food.

Riscal continues to produce good-value Verdejo from Rueda, and its success has inspired a host of other producers. Peripatetic Spanish winemaker Telmo Rodríguez makes a Verdejo called Basa. Javier Alen, who owns the pioneering Viña Mein winery in the DO of Ribeiro, joined with highly regarded local winemaker Eulogio Calleja to open Bodegas Naia.

Vicente Gandía, a fourth-generation family business based in Valencia, in southeastern Spain, purchased 250 acres in Rueda in 2006 and launched its Nebla brand with the 2010 vintage. The Lurton family of France, U.S.-based importer Jorge Ordoñez, and many others also now deliver firm, food-friendly whites at reasonable prices.

90    Bodegas Naia Rueda Naiades 2009    $33
89    Agricola Castellana Verdejo Rueda Quatro Rayas Viñedos Centenarios 2012    $19
88    Jorge Ordoñez & Co. Verdejo Rueda Nisia Old Vines 2012    $16
86    Vicente Gandía Verdejo Rueda Nebla 2012    $10
86    Viñedos de Nieva Verdejo Rueda Pie Franco 2012    $28
86    Telmo Rodríguez Rueda Basa 2012    $15

RACY VERMENTINO ALONG THE MEDITERRANEAN

The Mediterranean Sea is synonymous with sun-washed beaches, fresh seafood and crisp, light wines. But Vermentino, the white grape that is arguably most at home along the Mediterranean coast, is largely overlooked by wine lovers in the United States.

The origins of the grape are obscure, but it seems to date to the late Middle Ages, possibly spreading from Spain—a country from which it has now largely disappeared—east across the sea to Italy's Piedmont region, where it was first documented in the 17th century as Favorita. Like many ancient grape varieties, it is known by many different names: Vermentinu in Corsica, where it is the most widely planted white; Rolle in France's Provence; and Pigato in Italy's Liguria.

Wherever it is grown, Vermentino is usually harvested quite ripe; the wines often reach 13.5 percent alcohol, giving them a silky plumpness on the palate. They rarely see oak, except perhaps during fermentation in large, neutral wood vats, keeping their inherent fruit and mineral notes dominant. Some producers use skin contact while others induce malolactic fermentation. These techniques can add richness, but the chief goal is to retain freshness and vibrancy in the wines.

In general, I find the wines from Liguria to be the raciest, with mineral and briny notes. Sardinia's Vermentino de Gallura, a DOCG at the northern tip of the island, can show true elegance. The Vermentinos of Maremma, the coastal area of Tuscany, tend to be modern in style, with bright fruit and plush textures. Corsica often produces powerful versions, especially from traditionalists such as Antoine Arena.

Vermentino is not always inexpensive, but it typically has more to offer than many value-priced wines in terms of depth, complexity and the ability to pair well with a wide range of foods—especially those salt-kissed, herb-accented dishes common to the Mediterranean coast.

91    Antoine Arena Patrimonio Carco White 2011    $45
90    Cantine Lunae Bosoni Vermentino Colli di Luni-Liguria Black Label 2011    $32
89    Collemassari Vermentino Montecucco Melacce 2012    $18
88    Rocca di Montemassi Vermentino Maremma Toscana Calasole 2012    $15
87    Argiolas Vermentino di Sardegna Is Argiolas 2011    $23
85    Poggio al Tesoro Vermentino Toscana Solosole 2012    $20

SAUVIGNON BLANC AND SÉMILLON IN BORDEAUX

Bordeaux is arguably France's most important red wine producing region; its top Cabernet- and Merlot-based blends have been famous for centuries.

But Bordeaux also makes terrific white wines, both dry and sweet, based on the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grape varieties. At their best, these wines are just as long-lived—and nearly as expensive—as the region's top reds. The 2010 Pessac-Léognan from Château Haut-Brion, for example, scored a classic 96 points and was released at $1,250; the 2009 Sauternes from Château d'Yquem, a white made in an unctuous sweet style, earned 98 points and was released at $800.

Yet the region also makes fine inexpensive whites. In fact, in the 1960s, there was more acreage of white grapes in Bordeaux than of red. Most of this was Sémillon, used to make lightly sweet aperitif wines. As consumption patterns changed, however, Sémillon plantings declined.

François Lurton is part of a family that owns numerous important châteaus in Bordeaux, including Château Bonnet, which makes good-value red and white wines under the generic Bordeaux designation. "In the 1980s, we were growing two-thirds red grapes," says Lurton. But the tide has turned once again. "By the late 1990s, we were more than half white."

Today, white grape types make up about 12 percent of Bordeaux's total vineyard acreage. Labeled with appellations such as Graves, Entre-Deux-Mers and simply Bordeaux, these whites generally blend Sauvignon Blanc, with its bright citrus and herbal notes, with Sémillon, which provides body and riper fruit flavors. The wines are fermented at cool temperatures in stainless-steel vats and bottled in the spring following their harvest in order to retain freshness.

The vintage in current release is 2012, which produced good quality dry whites.

A little rain in early September of that year helped keep the wines generally crisp, lively and fresh. They are clean, balanced and food-friendly, and show tremendous early-drinking appeal.

88    Château Haut Selve Graves White 2012    $20
87    Château Bel Air Perponcher Bordeaux White 2012    $15
87    Château Rauzan-Despagne Bordeaux White Reserve 2012    $15
87    Château Rousset-Caillau Entre-Deux-Mers 2011    $13
87    Château d'Uza Graves White 2012    $20
85    Château Bonnet Bordeaux White 2012    $13

Executive editor Thomas Matthews has been with Wine Spectator since 1988.


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