Not too long ago, it seemed as though the only non-traditional wines that got any traction were red. However, in recent years, several categories of white wines have been taken up not just by hardcore wine geeks in the trade, but also by substantial numbers of consumers. We talked to some tastemakers around the country regarding their views on some trailblazing whites to watch.
The recent ascent of Txakoli (also called Txacolina, and sometimes spelled Chakoli) is surprising on many levels. For one thing, it's not exactly obvious how to pronounce it (CHA-ko-lee) or the similarly tongue-twisting names of the producers. Secondly, it is from the Basque region of Spain, not an area known for either global outreach or wine marketing savvy. Further, the wine lacks the overt fruit profile that draws so many Americans to blockbusters such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Lastly, the spritzy white is made from a blend of unfamiliar native Basque grapes (Hondarrabi Zuri and friends.)
So, with so much stacked against it, how has Txakoli broken through? In a nutshell, it is a superlative food-pairing partner. The explosion of sympatico tapas bars around the country has allowed consumers to try the wine without committing to a bottle. It has also introduced consumers to Txakoli's ability to complement a variety of flavorful dishes.
Moreover, the trade has taken up the banner and marched it forward with gusto. Leslie Sbrocco, an influential author and TV personality, is one such proselytizer. She says, "Its lemony freshness is ideal for tapas and Spanish fare, but sip broader. From goat cheese-dolloped salads to soft shell crab, vegetable curry to chicken burritos, its ping of acidity and hint of salinity, makes pairing it easier than pronouncing it."
With the rise of high-end Greek restaurants around the country has come heightened appreciation for Greek wines of all types. And, of course, fond vacation memories of sitting on a Greek beach don't hurt the wines' popularity either. Pungent, piney Retsina has pretty much faded from the current Greek wine scene. More common are high-end, small-production wines brought in by specialty importers as well as some of the larger distributors.
Aldo Sohm, of Le Bernardin, says, "We offered the Thalassitis Santorini by the glass for quite a while and with quite some success. I think Assyrtico [grapes] from Santorini can create quite classy, mineral-driven wines which offer value and also work with seafood incredibly well."
Virginia Philips MS also finds Assyrtiko to be very useful in the beverage program she runs at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach. She pours the Santorini from Estate Agyros, which she values for its "easy to drink character and distinct minerality, its racy acid, and of course it's very unusual."
In New York City, where Greek whites have been popular for several years, Michael Madrigale, of Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, finds consumers will venture beyond Santorini to Malagousia and Moschofilero; he values these varietal wines because they are fresher and have less alcohol than wines from Santorini.
For the true trailblazer, whites from the little-known region of Jura in France present some striking new tastes. Many of these wines are made in an oxidative style, somewhat similar to Sherry, with aging taking place under a coating of yeast (referred to as sur voile). The native Savagnin grape creates big, flavorful wines with a texture similar to Chardonnay but with aromas more akin to a Marsanne-Roussanne Rhône blend.
Joe Campanale, beverage director and partner of dell'anima, L'Artusi and Anfora in Manhattan, notes, "The sur voile wines are definitely for the more adventurous customer and are well embraced by the industry. In general, Jura wines are quite good with food as they have moderate alcohols and umami flavors (mushroom, chicken stock, etc.). Also, the rather bright acid is refreshing and the wines tend to have a grippyness to them that pairs well with food."
On the Front Lines
Any sommelier or wine retail salesperson can tell you that to most consumers, wines like these require a hand sell. So, when Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc will sell themselves, why go the extra yard? Campanale, whose list includes wines from as far-flung places as Croatia and the Canary Islands, will tell you that adventurous wines "have a high level of uniqueness which makes them an exciting new taste experience."
And that's what today's highly-involved wine consumers are after: They want something new and different that makes them feel like they're on the cutting edge. And, who knows–perhaps they are signaling the beginning of a much larger trend. In a few years, who's to say that Santorini won't be more popular than Pinot Grigio?
Keepin' it Real With Riesling
Some other observations from Evan Spingarn on dry Riesling, based on his experience in the NYC market:
"When I try to sell Riesling at certain stores, retailers express much less interest in dry versions than sweet. ‘My customers who ask for Riesling want sweet wine,' they say. What this really means is that when their customers ask for sweet wine, the retailer wants an easy short-cut to identify which wine to put in their hands–and Riesling is the anointed wine that does the trick. Having a dry option would complicate the issue."
"In the more visionary stores where lower-production wines are prized, food/wine pairings are exercised on the sales floor and a serious international approach to wine prevails, there is assumed a need for some dry Riesling on the shelf. However, since that need is comfortably filled by Austria and Alsace, the Germans are sometimes overlooked as also-rans. Again, it is easier here to sell trocken/halbtrocken/feinherb wines by price point than by sheer quality; wines that go over $25 price tend to be deemed unsaleable. There are exceptions, obviously–but that is the overall trend."
"In a few shops, the grosses gewachs wines and other top dry Rieslings are saleable. Why? Only two reasons I can think of. 1) Because the shops have made a personal, somewhat masochistic commitment to pushing them. 2) They have a national clientele via email. That is the crucial difference.
In effect, these few shops own the high-end dry Riesling market."
Summing up: "The smallest shops don't understand or don't bother; the mid-range, quality shops carry them but impose a price ceiling on them; and the best stores offer the whole spectrum, but almost completely to a select clientele online. That system will evolve positively, in large part because the wines are too good to ignore."