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The Joy of Aromatic Whites

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 19, 2007 1:55pm ET

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?

Luke Bowes
November 19, 2007 3:07pm ET
We recently came across a northern Italian wine made from Kerner that was wonderfully aromatic, a gewurztraminer-like nose, and relatively dry. It was excellent with a tuna ceviche. This was a new grape to us and a delightful find.
Ashley Potter
LA, —  November 19, 2007 3:22pm ET

When having a spicy Thai dish or perhaps Mexican food I turn to my staple white: Matua Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. It's incredibly aromatic and its crisp acidity cuts right through the heat these dishes tend to offer. And at only $10/bottle it offers unbelievable QPR.Sincerely, Brian Grafstrom
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  November 19, 2007 4:50pm ET
tank aged rhones from France, CA and Australia...mmmmm
Joshua Becker
November 19, 2007 5:16pm ET
When it comes to aromatic whites I tend to lean towards the wines discussed by Harvey. Rieslings are a great wine that can accompany so many different types of food. Sauvignon Blancs I like to savour in the warmer months and the thought of a picnic in the grass goes well with SB's. Gwertzraminer's I like too but have found much more inconsitency among wineries in terms of quality and profile. I really enjoy a local Gwertz made by Chateau Julien in Carmel, CA.
Michael Mock
West Des Moines, IA —  November 19, 2007 11:19pm ET
My wine fridge is stocked primarily with New Zealand sauvignon blancs (the Kim Crawdford is my "house white") and Aussie Rieslings (love the Wolf Blass). These are great with food or on their own for sipping.
Bobby Chandra
London —  November 20, 2007 6:12am ET
Recently, my wife and son were away for a couple of nights and I went down to the cellar to pick a bottle to enjoy with some Chinese food. I came back up with Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer from the Hengst Vineyard. This is bar none my favorite white wine in the cellar and I actually have a lot of really nice white Burgundies down there. But, with the ZH's QPR, it is such an easy choice and so pleasurable.
Zurich, Switzerland —  November 20, 2007 6:43am ET
Great topic, Harvey! I love aromatic whites. Sauvignon blanc ist high on my list, though I lean more and more towards the mineral austrian versions (Gross, Tement...). I love Gewurztraminer, and even though everyone associates them with alsace, I urge you to try the versions from the region in the alto adige, where the grape originated from and was named after, Tramin. The "Nussbaumerhof" from Kellerei Tramin, is a standout, seminal version. I am happy that pinot grigio has made a comeback, too. Enough has been said about riesling, which is simply spectacular. To me, it is the most versatile food companion I know. But being Swiss, no list would be complete without mention of Petite Arvine, which produces spectacular wines, ranging from bone dry to sweet.
Daniel Grotto
November 20, 2007 5:14pm ET
Luke -- Last month I had Kerner for the first time too, at Vinovolo, a chain of wine bars located in airports. The Washington-Dulles location was pouring it by the glass. The wine (forget the producer) reminded me of Gew¿rztraminer too -- I really dug it. I did some research on it, and from what I've been able to find it's a cross between Riesling and a Germanic red (seriously!) grape known alternatively as Schiava, Vernatsch, Trollinger or Black Hamburg. I haven't been able to find it at wine shops in the DC area, though. Anybody know anything more about this unique varietal?
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  November 21, 2007 11:32am ET
We drink lots of SBs and reislings and am starting to enjoy Voingiers more. The one place I do disagree with Harvey(and many of the WS writers) is with oak and Chardonnays. My wife and I are worn out on over oaked Chards. I've had enough of Wine makers using 100 percent new American oak for umpteen months, creating a product that taste like chewing on green oak cuttings. It's amazing to me that we have wine writers, with encredible sensory abilities that claim to taste Brett or TCA down to 3 ppm or less, but are undaunted by huge amounts of oak. The term "over oaked" is never in their definitions.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  November 21, 2007 6:19pm ET
Harvey;Forgot to add, that a great aromatic white is Domaine Serene's Coer Blanc. What a tremendous wine, a white pinot noir.
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  November 22, 2007 2:11am ET
The first wines I grew to love were Alsatian gewurz and rieslings. I also prefer viognier, roussanne and marsanne. The floral and tropical fruit notes are simply amazing. While I love a good aged chardonnay, for food pairing (esp Asian) I usually go with gewurz and riesling.
Christy Dufault
San Francisco, CA —  November 24, 2007 8:38pm ET
Hi Harvey. At Quince we are pouring a 2006 Moscato Giallo from Bolognani in Trentino, in the foothills of the Dolomites. The guests go crazy for it! The aromatics are irresistable- perfume, exotic fruits, flowers, and more, yet on the palate the wine is crisp and dry with a mineral finish. It is a complete and beautiful wine and even better, it is very affordable. I highly recommend it. Cheers, Christie
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 25, 2007 1:22pm ET
Anybody notice how well these wines fared on the Thanksgiving table? I served a Riesling and a Pinot Gris along with a few Syrahs. All around the table smiled happily.
Daniel Grotto
November 26, 2007 10:03am ET
Harvey -- did you go with a dry or off-dry specimen of the Riesling? Any thoughts on the relative merits of either style in terms of versatility with food and ageability?

We had the '05 Alban Estate Viognier, the '06 D'Arenberg Hermit Crab Viognier-Marsanne blend, and an '05 Williams Selyem Forchini Zinfandel. I actually thought the W-S zin fared best (had less alcohol than the Alban Viognier!!!), followed by the Alban and then the D'Arenberg. I was actually surprised about the D'Arenberg -- not as good as I thought it was going to be.
David R Aldano
Phoenix, Arizona, USA —  November 26, 2007 4:50pm ET
Harvey Sir,We came close to you on Thanksgiving. Since my wife and I enjoy Champagne and Riesling we compromised. We served a German Sekt.It rocked the table. Everyone really enjoyed the wine.Dave
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  November 27, 2007 10:30pm ET
From a past Thanksgiving, I can recall that a modest, unoaked yet boldly aromatic Viognier from Smoking Loon really hit the spot with an orange glazed duck. This year, the somewhat extravagant fresh turkey prepared to juicy perfection by a friend went smashingly with both the Kabinet and the young, new world-styled Syrah that were poured. But it's the floral qualities in Moscatos (as well as Rieslings and Gewurztraminers) that really fly my kite... And if you, too, like floral qualities, from the world of spirits, you must also try St. Germain liqueur, straight or in cocktail form (recipe attached to bottle). It was my first time and it's nothing short of Incredible!
Marc Lipsitch
Boston —  April 15, 2009 9:19pm ET
I love some of the verdejos from Rueda -- great quality, low price, and sometimes wonderfully floral, but lately the ones I can find seem to be more in the NZ sauvignon blanc mode of grapefruit and grass rather than flowers. Navarro's CA takes on Alsatian varieties (Muscat, Gewurz, Riesling) and blend (Edelzwicker) are also great deals, but only available mail order. Alexander Valley Vineyards' New Gewurz is surprisingly good for $11 or so.

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