These days, whenever I ask winemakers what’s new, the answer is always the same whether they reside in California or Italy. Without hesitation, they answer “white wine.” Winemakers are anticipating that the consumer’s perpetual search for something different will swing to whites after over a decade, during which they overwhelmingly devoted their attention and dollars to reds. As white wine continues to engender enthusiasm, I’m looking forward to adding a white option to the Winemaker Series on both the Californian and Italian sides.
Inspiration for the so-called “New Whites” began in northeastern Italy about ten years ago when young winemakers there began to make white wine like their grandfathers did, fermenting it with the skins like red wine, and if not that, at least soaking the juice with the skins much like Rose` is made instead of immediately separating the two as is the common practice for whites. The results of skin contact are much richer color, aroma, flavor, and texture. The other winemaking innovation was to diminish the influence of oak barrels so that the flavor of the grape would emerge supreme. So winemakers fermented in neutral oak barrels, which didn’t impart flavor, or in small stainless steel tanks instead of large ones, where the wine had more contact with the lees, the solids that fall out of solution and sink to the bottom of the container. Some winemakers feel that concrete barrels are especially appropriate for this richer white wine.
But apart from winemaking technique, in California the race is on for finding old vineyards planted with yesteryear’s white grape varieties like Semillon, Colombard, Riesling, Chasselas, and Muscadelle, among others, all but forgotten after the advent of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Surviving California vineyards were likely to have various grape varieties planted together like the old red field blends. So the new whites may be blended wines instead of single varietals. Apart from the vineyard source, winemakers may prefer to blend for more complex flavor.
If not older plantings, winemakers are looking for unusual white varietals that are relatively new to California, especially Spanish and Italian winegrapes. Spanish whites like Albarino and Verdelho are attracting California winemakers as are Italian winegrapes like Ribolla Gialla, Tocai, and Arnais, which is not to say that Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay aren’t getting the same intensity treatment.
You’re likely to pay over $30 a bottle for these “New Whites” because they can require more love and care than Cabernet Sauvignon, and the fruit itself is likely to be expensive. Jon Bonne’, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, highly respected by wine professionals for its impartial evaluations, recommends Matthiasson Napa Valley White Wine, Spotswood 2010 Napa-Sonoma Counties Sauvignon Blanc, and Arbe Garbe 2009 Russian River Valley White Wine among others. Almost any white wine from Friuli in northeastern Italy, but especially those from the Collio and Colli Orientali appellations, will be stunning examples of the pleasures that white wine can deliver. Known as “extreme winemakers,” Silvio Jermann leads the pack, together with Josko Gravner, Enzo Pontoni, and Edi Kante, among others, who are giving white wine the attention it deserves.