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Exploring Alternatives to Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the undisputed king of the white wine. It is prevalent throughout most of the world's top important viticultural regions and is available wherever wine is marketed. Its versatility, ease of ripening, and vigor make it one of the least difficult grapes to work with. Furthermore, the glorious white burgundies of such villages as Chablis, Montrachet, and Meursault have set the standard for depth, complexity, and longevity for dry white wine.

With this said, it is little surprise that Chardonnay is so immensely popular. Its success is unavoidable. Chardonnay deserves its name in lights; however, there are several other white varietals that merit attention in the wine world. Rather than deter drinking Chardonnay, this article seeks to broaden the horizons of wine drinkers to different varietals that can provide equally stunning wine experiences. After all, experimenting with all kinds of wine is the only way one can truly appreciate the wines they usually reach for.

Sauvignon Blanc

Characteristics - Sauvignon Blanc has a refreshing vibrant nature all its own. Aromas similar to freshly cut grass and grapefruit are often associated with this grape, sometimes becoming excessively sharp due to a lack of ripeness or sun exposure. When properly vinified, sauvignon blanc's fruit and acid balance out perfectly to make for an extremely pleasing wine. On the other hand, heat and sun bring forth fatter melon and tropical flavors that can sometimes weigh down the varietal's thirst quenching acidity.

Sauvignon Blanc is capable of vigorous growth so it is especially important to prune the canopy as well as thin leaves and shoots to focus the vine's energy on ripening the fruit. Excessive growth leads to flat, neutral-tasting wines. An early budding varietal, it can also fall victim to mildew and rot.

Regions Grown - Blending is typical in the Graves district of Bordeaux (normally 75% Sauvignon Blanc to 25% Semillon). Within Sauternes and Barsac, a blend of 60-70% Semillon with 30-40% Sauvignon Blanc is a more usual proportion. When allowed to hang past normal ripeness, the grape flavors are concentrated by Noble Rot, a naturally-occurring mold that allows for the area's famous dessert wines.

Loire Valley wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, such as Pouilly Fum' and Sancerre, are most often 100% Sauvignon Blanc, unblended and usually made without the use of oak. These wines lend toward a leaner more austere style.
California has little consistency when working with Sauvignon Blanc grapes: some are bone-dry wines like the Graves and Loire regions while others opt for a richer, more tropical style often influenced by oak. First success with the grape in California dates back to the 1880's taking root in Livermore Valley. Given the numerous locations Sauvignon Blanc is now grown in California, no singular style has ever taken over.

Sauvignon Blanc has seen great success throughout the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in New Zealand's Marlborough area. Many consider it the perfect melding of new world flair together with a Sancerre-like nerve and perfume.

Food Pairing ' Few white grapes are more versatile with food than Sauvignon Blanc. Oysters, salmon, poultry, strong cheeses and vegetables such as cilantro, bell peppers, and even asparagus are all deemed excellent options.

Examples ' '05 Landcross Estate McLarenvale, '03 Chateau La Mer White Bordeaux, '03 Birchwood Cellars Lake County

Semillon

Characteristics ' The thick skins of Semillon make it a supreme candidate for the process of Noble Rot, a mold that attacks the grape and makes for supremely aromatic and concentrated wines. Flavors of fig and citrus become honeyed and rich while usually being balanced out by Sauvignon Blanc's acidity, making for one of the world's most treasured styles of wine in Sauternes and Barsac. Not known for intense aroma, Semillon's fat yet supple weight makes for a unique wine experience.

Regions Grown ' Semillon's production is essential to the dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac which are considered to be some of the best in the world. Its thick skins and vigor have helped achieve success in Australia as well, particularly in Hunter Valley. The Aussie 'Stickies' have come to market as a cost-effective delicious alternative to Sauternes.

Food Pairing ' Given its hedonistic value as a dessert grape, it should come as no surprise that Semillon is usually found at the end of the night along side cr'me brulee or any kind of fruit cobbler.

Examples ' '98 Redgate Semillon Margaret River, '04 Chateau Marquis de Laguey Sauternes

Viognier

Characteristics ' Viognier has great appeal for even the most diehard Chardonnay drinker. Potential abounds for this grape when it is coaxed to grow well but at the same time not become too alcoholic. Its aroma of apricots, orange blossoms, and acacia are deep and complex. Viognier has full tropical flavors and a creamy mouthfeel. It can certainly carry the same weight of an oaky Chardonnay, but good examples will show more distinctive fruit character. While its aroma-flavor profile may seem sweet, Viognier is made in a dry style. Proper acidity must be maintained for the grape to retain a sense of freshness. The grape's tendency to develop high sugar but low acid can result in wines with muted flavors and high alcohol. These cultivation problems and producer desires to capitalize on the grape's somewhat rarity combine to make many Viognier wines relatively expensive.

Regions Grown - Viognier is the only grape used for the Northern Rh'ne appellations of Condrieu and Ch'teau-Grillet. Viognier is also sometimes used to add fragrance and to soften the syrah in C'te Rotie. No more than 10% is typically added to the final blend. In the late 60's, a mere 35 acres were in existence and the grape stood at the edge of viticultural extinction. Plantings now exceed 6,000 acres in France and 2,000 acres in California. Like Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier is vinified many different ways throughout California. While the grape is typically vinified dry, there are many exciting late harvest dessert wines to be found as well.

Food Pairing ' When a meal calls for the strength and power of a red wine but it begs for a white wine, Viognier comes to the rescue. The grape is ideal with strong flavored game and poultry dishes but will do nicely with scallops and halibut as well.

Examples ' '02 Domaine Berard Condrieu, '04 Canopy Grove Sonoma County

Riesling

Characteristics - Riesling has a powerful and distinctive floral and apple-like aroma that frequently mixes in mineral elements from its vineyard source and is often described as "racy.' The varietal has a supreme ability to showcase its sense of place. Its high natural level of tartaric acid enables it to balance high levels of residual sugar. Riesling vines are particularly hard-wooded and tolerant of cold weather and bud late, so are well-suited to the coldest wine-growing climates. The berries are small, round and soft when ripe, with tender, greenish-yellow skins that hang in compact clusters. Bunch rot and non-beneficial molds can be a problem if there is much rain or humidity during in the ripening season.

When dry conditions follow a single day of wet, Riesling grapes left on the vine beyond normal ripeness can develop Noble Rot. The result is the shriveling of the grapes, the evaporation of much of the juice, and the concentration of the sugar. The German names for this which ascends in order of sugar concentration are Sp'tlese (late-picked), Auslese (selectively-picked bunches), Beerenauslese (selectively-picked berries), and Trockenbeerenauslese (only the most affected berries), or TBA. These wines have not only incredibly intense and concentrated flavors, but also remarkable life span.

Regions Grown - Hillside microclimates with cooler climates, lots of sun exposure, and wind protection are essential to top-flight Riesling. The best German vineyards with these conditions on the Mosel and Rhein River produce wines that are unique in their low alcohol, brilliant perfume, and intense flavor. Riesling also does very well in Alsace, France. The Anderson Valley of California has shown promise for the grape as have regions within Oregon and Washington. Australia has also made good headway with the grape.

Food Pairings ' It would probably be quicker to jot down what Riesling doesn't pair with. The dynamic grape works wonders with any spicy cuisine, particular success is found alongside Thai dishes. Any fish or poultry dishes would be a great choice.

Examples ' '02 Jakob Gerhardt Niersteiner Hipping Riesling Spatlese, '02 Oppenheimer Sacktrager Auslese,

Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris

Characteristics - Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio is usually delicately fragrant and mildly floral with light lemon-citrus flavors. Some degree of minerality and white pepper typically carries through on the finish of the wine. Depending upon ripeness at harvest, Pinot Gris can be tangy and light, or can become quite rich, oily and full bodied. Made in an appropriate style, it is one dry white wine that may even age well.

Regions Grown - In Italy, Pinot Grigio can rival the freshness of a top Riesling when made by producers, who pay attention to appropriate ripeness and yields. Unfortunately for its reputation, there are many other Italian Pinot Grigio makers that overcrop and harvest early to produce crisp, but flavorless wines. In Alsace, the pinot gris grape is called tokay d'Alsace (no relation to the Hungarian Tokay). The Alsatians value it as a full-bodied wine that can stand up to food without introducing any flavors of its own. Nearly 1,620 acres are planted in California, mostly in the Central and South coastal areas. Few California producers have had much success to date. Many Oregon wineries, on the other hand, have had good success and are moving steadily away from making Chardonnay while increasing production of Pinot Gris. In fact, Pinot Gris has just outpaced chardonnay production in Oregon for the first time with the 2004 vintage.

Food Pairings ' The vibrant acidity and freshness will make any shellfish a treat. Melon and pruscitto is also considered a great traditional pairing.

Examples ' '04 Magnolia Pinot Grigio Santa Barbara, '05 Claudio Roncade Pinot Grigio