note: this article was published a couple of years ago, so the wine
reccomendations here are now a bit out of date, but I've left it up
for archival purposes.
Wander into a trendy London wine bar or
bistro, and you'll hear young sophisticates order not a glass of white wine, but 'a glass
of Chardonnay'. Stroll along the supermarket shelves, and the white wine selection will be
dominated by Chardonnays from virtually every wine-producing nation on earth. Chardonnay
is everywhere, it's all pervasive; you can't get away from it. In the wine-drinking world
of today, the word 'Chardonnay' is synonymous for 'dry white wine'. It's easy to forget
that wines with the 'C' word on the label more-or-less didn't exist until about 30 years
ago. No wonder wine drinkers have been tiring of Chardonnay, to the extent that a new term
has been coined: 'ABC' (anything but Chardonnay). Although I'm an ardent fan of this grape
variety, even I have found myself wanting a break from its rather obvious charms. Here I
consider some of the alternatives, if you are after a dry white wine with some real
character, and illustrate each option with tasting notes of a couple of examples.
One of the great bargains of the wine world, the Riesling grape is largely unloved in
Australia and hence is undervalued. In cooler regions such as the Clare and Eden Valleys
of South Australia, it makes lovely, intense wines laced with citrus fruit that are bone
dry and make excellent food matches.
Pewsey Vale Eden Valley
Riesling 1998, Australia
Huge, fresh, exhilarating nose of lime fruit. On the palate this is concentrated and
intense, with fresh citrus fruit and some honey notes. Nice, crunchy intensity and good
balance. Australian Riesling can age well, but I'd drink this while it has its youthful
freshness. Excellent. (£5.99 Oddbins)
Tim Adams Riesling 1999, Clare
Huge, powerful nose of lime fruits. Complex and intense, this wine is richly concentrated
with an amazing array of citrus-like flavours. One of the most dramatic Aussie Rieslings I
have tried. Very good + (£7.99, Tesco, Fortnums and Mason)
The obvious choice? Originally hailing from the Loire Valley of France, where it
makes Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, it is almost as good a traveller as Chardonnay, making
characterful, crisp wines with flavours of gooseberry, grapefruit, elderflower and green
pepper, right across the globe. Reaching its zenith in New Zealand's Marlborough region
(although Chile is fast catching up), the only problem with Sauvignon is that it is
becoming as ubiquitous and predictable as Chardonnay. In fact, in the USA it is often made
to taste just like cheap Chardonnay by overcropping and overoaking.
Dashwood Sauvignon blanc
1999, Marlborough, NZ
This is the second label of Vavasour, made for early drinking, but don't be fooled into
thinking that this is therefore not a worthy wine. It has an amazing nose of gooseberries
and fresh-cut green peppers, with a slight herbaceousness and some tropical fruit thrown
in. On the palate it is zingy and intense, with bright acidity. This is a tremendous
effort, with good intensity and concentration at a very good price. Made from Wairau
Valley and Awatare Valley grapes. Very good, but perhaps a little tart without food.
Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve
Sauvignon blanc 1999, Marlborough, New Zealand
Astonishing, piercing flavours of pure gooseberry fruit, with a touch of herbaceousness.
This is very much at the lean and zippy end of the Sauvignon blanc spectrum, with taut,
firm acidity and structure. Fine example -- almost Loire-like. Very good. (£9.99 Oddbins)
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon blanc 1999,
Marlborough, New Zealand
The 1999 incarnation has a huge nose of gooseberries and elderflower, which on the palate
are joined by grapefruit-like flavours. Crisp and intense, very well balanced. Notes of
grapefruit, gooseberries and elderflower combine with freshly cut green peppers to produce
a mouth-watering and sophisticated wine of real impact. (£11.99 Fortnum and Mason)
The two 'V's: Viognier and Verdelho
Viognier has been trendy for a while now; Verdelho is getting that way.
Viognier's home is the Northern Rhone, where it makes Condrieu, an expensive but sometimes
breathtaking wine all full of apricots and spice. Now increasingly planted in the South of
France, Australia and the USA, but results are mixed. Good ones are memorable, though. On
the other hand, Verdelho, a Portuguese grape, uniformly seems to excel in its home from
home, the Hunter Valley of Australia. Almost every producer there has now planted this
grape, because it seems to do so well, making a full flavoured unoaked white that is a
versatile food match.
Brokenwood 1999 Verdelho,
Hunter Valley, Australia
Fruit sourced from the Cowra region of NSW. Lovely aromatic peach and melon nose. Soft and
intense on palate, with plenty of character. Good, but perhaps slightly technological.
Petersons Verdelho 1998, Hunter
Lovely lifted nose with apricots, peaches and melon character. On the palate the fruit is
joined by some nutty and spicy notes. Lovely stuff. Very good +. (A$18.50)
Fetzer Bonterra Viognier 1998,
Barrel fermented and aged for three months on the lees in 100% French oak, 4% new barrels
and 3.8 g/l acidity. Exotic peach and apricot nose. Dry and fresh on the palate with a
touch of spice. Good; a particularly good food wine. (£9.99, Fuller's)
Fetzer Viognier 1998, North Coast,
Yellow gold colour. Lovely nose of peach, grapefruit and apricot, with an esoteric floral
element. On the palate this is full and rich, with plenty of fruit (mango and apricot),
some spice and a touch of oak. Very strongly flavoured, bold wine. Slightly sweet finish.
Very good. (£7.99 Tesco)
It may seem unorthodox to single out Argentina's 'own' variety, but I think it deserves
more attention than it currently receives. Capable of making uniquely floral, aromatic
wines when handled carefully, which almost always represent great value for money.
Norton Torrontes 1999,
This is a good floral, aromatic quaffer with a delightful nose, and a touch of spice. On
the palate it is reasonably simple (it is a very pale wine), but the aromatic qualities
really make this a super match for strongly flavoured foods. Recommended. (£4.49 Oddbins)
Etchart 'Rio de Plata' Torrontes
1998, Salta, Argentina
A hugely enjoyable wine that represents great value for money, from Argentina's 'own'
white grape variety, Torrontes. Beautiful open nose of sweet floral notes is followed up
on the palate by grapefruit and spice. Bone dry: a bit like a cross between a
Gewürztraminer and a Sauvignon blanc. Very good + (£3.99, Asda)
It always surprises me that Alsace wines are not more widely appreciated. It's
probably because there is no real 'entry level' Alsace wine. The good stuff is relatively
expensive, and the really cheap stuff not worth investigating. Or maybe it is the shape of
the bottles. But, for the price of a mid-ranged Aussie Chardonnay, you can get a good,
full flavoured, personality-filled Riesling, Tokay Pinot Gris, Pinot blanc or
Materne Haeglin Riesling
Bollenberg 1997, Alsace
A serious Alsatian wine at a bargain price. Lovely open nose of citrus fruit and minerals.
On the palate there is a lovely structure: it is light and citrus-laden, with good acidity
and a touch of sweetness in the finish. Harmonious and interesting. Very good, perhaps
even better. (£6.99, Majestic)
Materne Haeglin Pinot Blanc 1997,
An impressive, inexpensive Alsatian. Attractive spice and lemon nose. On the palate there
is good concentration, with sweet floral notes and spice contributing to what is a nicely
balanced and full flavoured wine. Touch of residual sugar? Very good and a steal at
Domaine Mittnacht Frères Tokay
Pinot Gris 1998, Alsace
I'm a big fan of the full-flavoured, food friendly wines of Alsace. This wine displays a
nose of smoky bacon and minerals, and on the palate is smooth, rounded and full-flavoured,
with a touch of spice, some residual sugar, and just enough acidity to keep it in balance.
Nice clean wine, best well chilled with food. Very good. (Berry Bros, £8.45)