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Size matters

Watch out for great whites

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

It’s drilled into our wine-drinking subconscious: first white, then red. But why?

While it’s tempting to blame the usual “bigger = better” delusion, everyone else does it this way as well. And there’s a sensible reason. Bigger wines obscure their lighter brethren, trumping elegance and complexity with superior force. It takes careful concentration to pick up the nuances of a delicate wine after your palate’s been pummeled by something brawny. And who wants to work that hard?

However, all this traditional good sense relies on an unsupported assumption: that a red is always the bigger wine. We’ve already talked about lighter-styled reds in this space, so now it’s time to talk about their counterparts – the plus-sized whites that box in a higher weight class that most of their tinted peers.

When wine folk talk about size, they tend to mean a few different things. The first is what one might term the raw power of the wine…the initial impact that fruit and other components make. This is where reds usually have the advantage, with the bite of dark, intense berries paired with tannin – the structural, drying, and sometimes embittering component that very few whites possess in identifiable quantity, as it comes from the skins and seeds with which white wines are in only brief contact during the initial steps of winemaking. (That’s why they’re white, as color comes from the same steps.)

But the second, and the real key to size, is body, a measure of a wine’s “fullness.” The best way to conceive body is with analogy to dairy products: skim milk would be light-bodied, whole milk medium-bodied, and heavy cream full-bodied, with all the variations in dairy fat inhabiting the continuums in-between.

Body in milk comes from fat; body in wine comes, primarily, from alcohol. The more alcoholic a wine, the fuller-bodied it’s likely to be. Thus, grapes from warmer places, where the sugars at harvest are high, ferment into fuller-bodied wines than their cooler-site counterparts. Secondarily, body is supplied by something winemakers call “dry extract” – other solids that survive the journey from grape to wine – which also tends toward elevation in warmer climates. Sugar also plays a role, which is one reason many supposedly dry wines carry a significant bit of sweetness these days (the other is that you’ll never go broke selling sugar to Americans).

While winemakers can influence a wine’s body by leaving residual sugar in the wine, they can also add to it with the use of new oak during fermentation and/or aging. Oak adds flavor (butterscotch, chocolate, vanilla, toast, spice, etc.), it adds tannin (from the wood), it adds color, and it adds heft. But, for the most part, the size of a given wine is largely predetermined by the time its grapes leave the vineyard, based on their sugars, their dry extract, and, also, their varietal identity. Because some grapes are just bigger than others.

The biggest, baddest brawler on the block is probably gewürztraminer, with its fat, oily texture and its waves of spicy, nutty stone fruit…often with, no kidding, a significant and smoky porcine element. Alsace is the key supplier of this grape’s heftier qualities, as it’s just about the hottest region where it’s successfully grown, but a few areas of New Zealand – especially Gisborne – show great promise.

Sticking with Alsace for a minute, there’s also pinot gris to consider. And here’s an example of why heat matters: elsewhere, pinot gris (a/k/a pinot grigio in Italy) is lighter, crisper, and more refreshing. In hot-summered Alsace, it’s big, spicy and pear-dominated. And there’s something else: despite it being used to make white wine, pinot gris is actually a red-skinned grape, so in Alsace it’s the white wine they serve with red meat. Yes, really. Give it a try sometime. Speaking of white wines that act like red wines – and this example ups the tariff a bit – look for ribolla gialla, a relatively obscure white grape from Friuli in northeastern Italy. In the hands of a few producers, most notably Gravner and Radikon, it takes on so much weight, color and tannin from long exposure to the skins (a very unusual and controversial technique for whites) that it needs to be served at room temperature, like a red wine. It’s very individualistic, and not for everyone, but it certainly doesn’t lack for size.

The other major member of the pantheon of love-it-or-hate-it grapes is roussanne. It forms part of white blends in the southern Rhône Valley (Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Côtes-du-Rhône, Hermitage, St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage), and it plays the same role in both similar and single-variety wines from the New World (notably Paso Robles in California). Wide-bodied and chock-full-o’-nuts, sun-baked stones and Provençal earth, it’s a grape that’s completely indifferent to your affection; take it, or leave it…it couldn’t possibly care less. In other words, it’s the cat of the wine world.

The fat cat.

(First published in stuff@night, 2007.)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.