Monday, March 3, 2014

What makes a white wine great

The best white wines can have an array of fresh fruit flavours like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a creamy quality like a California Chardonnay, or a floral note like a German Gewürztraminer. Not only do the varieties offer an array of flavours but a Riesling depending on how it was grown and then fermented can range from sweet with a higher alcohol content to bone dry and with a bracing minerality. This range in flavours and textures is what makes the best white wines so enjoyable.  

White wines can be made with both white and dark grapes. This is possible because to make a white wine all you use is the meat or pulp of the grape. Without the contact of the skins the wine will remain white. Once the grapes have been pressed just the juice (also called the wort) will be put into tanks where fermentation will begin. This is the process of sugar turning into alcohol thanks to natural yeast present on the grapes although sometimes cultured yeasts will be added to ensure specific qualities of a grape variety are present. White wine may also go through one more type of fermentation known as malolactic. It is most commonly used with certain types of Chardonnay, it de-acidifies the wine, making it creamier and less bitingly acidic.  

Oak can play a part in a white wine's life just as it does for red wine but to a much lesser degree. Fermentation can be completed in large oak barrels without affecting the wine at all. The larger the barrel the less impact it has on the wine. However, if a white wine is aged in small oak barrels after the fermentation process is complete it can accomplish two things for the wine. One is to impart flavour into the wine with aromas of toast, vanilla, and butter. The other is to mature the wine by slowly exposing it to a small amount of oxygen. This is typically done again with Chardonnay, although some of the best white wines like Bordeaux's white superstar Sauternes spends time on oak.  

Minerality is a term often used to express some of the finest white wines of the world but what does it mean exactly? When a wine has minerality it is like an extension of the terroir. The minerals in the soil where the grapes were grown have been transported into the wine and can add a dimension of flavour that most love. The best way to describe what minerality tastes like is to think of what the stones smell like at the river's edge. A little metallic, kind of smoky in a flint way, fresh yet rich at the same time. Chablis from Burgundy is Chardonnay grapes grown in the region Chablis, and it seems to embrace the minerality of it's limestone terroir full heartedly. It is one reason Chablis is considered a great white wine and the minerality is what makes Chablis so great with oysters. 

The acidity of white wine is both a pro and a con. A con because it weakens the enamel of our teeth but a pro because acidity is what makes our mouth water and gets our appetite going. The acidity of a wine if properly balanced leaves your mouth feeling refreshed and thirsty for more like a tasty Italian Pinot Grigio. If improperly balanced it can leave you with heart burn and a feeling like your taste buds have been burned off. The finest white wines will all have a level of well balanced acidity to them. Without that refreshing zest the wine can be too flabby and round, boring in a sense. So stock up on enamel building toothpaste, because the acidity of a great white wine is mouth watering. 

White wines are not often blended unlike red wine unless you take into consideration sparkling wine. But there is one partnership that seems to be a match made in heaven. The blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc in the French sweeter style wine of Sauternes is legendary particularly those from Château d'Yquem. There are certainly white blends out there like Conundrum from Caymus Vineyards, but it is more likely to find a single varietal white wine. The best blends tend to be aromatic ones (wines with a powerful scent) like a Gewürztraminer and Riesling blend, or a Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Muscat also makes a great blending partner as on it's own it can be too sweet. 

Lighter white wines like Pinot Grigio should be served between 4º to 10º Celsius (40º to 50º F). While  fuller bodied white wines like Chardonnay should be served between 10º to 15ºC (50º to 60ºF). Tall thin glasses are best, although a Burgundy glass (bowl shaped) is recommended for fine Chardonnay, i.e. Chardonnay over $50. The thinner the glass the less there is to influence the way the wine tastes. Some tricks to chill a white wine in a hurry are an ice bath; where the wine is submerged in a mixture of ice and water. Another trick is a freezer jacket, where you wrap the wine in a cold damp cloth and place it in the freezer, just don't forget about the wine or you will have wine popsicles. 

The best white wines of the world can be aged just as long as the reds of the world up to 25 years. However for a white wine to age gracefully it is best to start with a high sugar and acid content as they act as preservatives. Most of the finest wines with great aging potential are either sweet like a Ice Wine or very dry like a Austrian Riesling. However the large majority of white wines are meant to be consumed within the first year and do not benefit from any aging. Those that are meant to be aged will typically have a Grand Cru type designation and will be above $100 a bottle. 

White wine once opened can last 3 to 5 days as long as you keep it in the fridge with a tight cap on it. There are many factors that decide how long a white wine has before it turns once it has been opened. A lower temperature will prevent the chemicals from destroying the wine hence keeping it in the fridge. Oxygen is wine's biggest enemy so keeping the cap, or cork on the wine will lengthen the wine's life, but the air pocket in the bottle is important to consider. A bottle that is almost empty will decline much quicker than a bottle nearly full. The amount of sugar in a wine will allow it to survive longer as well. A muscat will still be flavourful 5 days after opening, you may even get a week out of it. Have no fear if you have let a bottle of white wine sit in the fridge too long it can still be used to cook with as either a salad vinaigrette or a pasta sauce.

White wine can be a great pairing option for far more dishes than just fish. The important thing to consider is the weight or body of both the wine and the meal and match them accordingly. Full bodied wine with heavier dishes like an oaked Chardonnay with creamy fettucine. The best trick to help you figure out the weight of a dish is to think about how different types of milk feel in your mouth (not taste). For example how light skim milk feels, and how heavy cream feels. Another consideration for pairing is the sauce of a dish, lighter sauces are best with lighter wines. Higher acid wines like Pinot Grigio are great with salads, and Sauvignon Blanc is a treat with goat cheese as they both share a green aroma. Spicy dishes benefit from fruit forward wines like Austrian Grüner Veltliner. White wine can be paired with all types of food a Grand Cru Burgundy Chardonnay can even work with a surf and turf. 

The vineyards of the world grow between the latitudes of  30° and 50° in both hemispheres. The best climate is between 10º and 20 °C (50 and 68 °F). The perfect mixture of soil, climate, topography, and that human element are what makes a white wine great. Although the process can be duplicated there is that extra added element of magic that make some wines so much more valuable and therefore expensive then others. That element of magic can be the soil, it can be the perfect south facing slope or a winemaker with extreme care and attention to his land, the best have all three. The easiest way to think about an expensive white wine is to think about it like a famous piece of art. You collect them for the history of it, for the blood sweat and pain that the artist (winemaker) put into it. For the sheer beauty of them. There are great white wines for bargain prices, just like there are talented artists that are unknown. There are also mass produced copies of the great works of art just as there is mass produced wine. Although they may be much more affordable and certainly still enjoyable some of the magic is undeniably lost. If you can afford it the Picasso's of the wine world are well worth investing in if that is the type of thing you value.

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