In more than four decades of writing about wine, I’ve read perhaps two dozen older books on the history and the personalities of European wines. About 90% of the text in these books is about red wine.
Since almost all of these books were written before 1950, I concluded that white wine development was not a particularly interesting topic for those people who were wine consumers at the time these tomes were written.
Through the decades, red wines have traditionally been wine lovers’ most beguiling interests. Except for a few obvious divergences (i.e., German Riesling, Sauternes, Fino Sherry, Champagne), white wine has always been a curiosity more than a passion.
And historically, the phrase “white wines of greatness” had even less meaning. Look at the examples in the prior paragraph. Two of the wines are typically sweet, one has bubbles, and one is fortified with brandy.
The only example of a widely recognized great white wine has been Chardonnay from Burgundy, a wine that has led to a multitude of imitators. (Dry Riesling is now widely seen as a great wine, but this a very recent phenomenon.)
If you remove those four wines from the overall mix, red completely dominates the wine scene until fairly recently.
Not only is there the king of all reds, Bordeaux, in all its various formats, but there is red Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon from a dozen counties, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah-Shiraz, Barolo, Chianti-Super Tuscan, Cru Beaujolais, Rioja, Brunello, Amarone, and many more.
Today, the worldwide picture has changed so radically most of the old-time authors would be blown away by the new normal: sales of white (and pink) wines now dominate the marketplace.
White wine (and pink, of course) now controls a major share of the wine market. And although wines such as French Bordeaux, red Burgundy, and Italian Barolo all command high prices, the wine today is dominated by reasonably priced whites intended to be consumed quickly.
There are several reasons for this. Little of it ever is explained to consumers.
Capturing the amazing diversity of white wine aromas is a combination of better viticultural understanding and better wine-making tools. Among the the most important for white wine production has been the addition of closed-top, temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks.
This widely used vat permits white wine grapes to be tended cool and thus carefully protected from oxidation and other forms of spoilage that can ruin delicate floral aromas.
Stainless steel wasn’t used much at all until about 60 years ago. Before then, for hundreds of years all wine was fermented in old barrels, concrete vats, or an assortment of other vessels that did not permit fermentations to be conducted cool.
And high temperatures of fermentation can easily destroy a white wine’s personality. Older wine-making methods didn’t hurt the more rugged reds, but whites were hard to make with good aromas and with consistency.
Using better grape varieties, controlling vine vigor, and improvements in wine processing and bottling equipment has led to greater stability, and thus a greater adherence to house style. And it can take what once were thought of as ordinary grapes and turn them into stars.
All white wines have improved significantly in the last 30 years, including the most popular grapes (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling). But the biggest winner in the use of the new technologies has been with white grape varieties that before this never had the benefit of the tools of the modern era.
Varieties like Vermentino, Verdicchio, Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Marsanne, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, and Muscat have all been treated with more delicacy than in the past. The result has been better varietal definition in the aromas of these wines, allowing them to show off their distinctive natures.
In the mid-1980s, I tasted several whites from northern Italy made from the Piemontese grape Cortese. The wines were locally famed, but the versions I tasted here weren’t very interesting.
I visited northern Italy in 1990 and found that the Cortese wines I tried were superb. What I later learned was that most of the Cortese wines I had tried had suffered from poor shipping conditions. As shipping tactics improved, the wines didn’t deteriorate en route.
Today, Cortese wines such as Gavi can be terrific,
One Italian grape growing mainly near Verona is the thick-skinned, late-ripening variety called Garganega. On its own, it can be fairly bland in flavors. It is the principal variety in Soave, making up 70 percent of the blend, by law.
Decades ago, a lot of blah Garganega-based Soave was imported to the United States. In the last few years however, many Soave producers have developed attractive versions at fair prices.
Under the new Italian wine law, one regulation says Chardonnay (a relatively recent addition to the Soave region), may now make up as much as 30% of wines designated Soave.
Wine of the Week: 2018 Scaia Garganega-Chardonnay, Trevenezia IGT ($13): This relatively young Soave-area producer (founded in 2010 by the Castagnedi family) is not located directly in the Soave zone, but nearby. As such it can avoid some of the restrictions of Italian “denomination” system. Garganega remains a part of the Soave-ish mix, but the family also planted Chardonnay to use for its unique white wine blend. This 55% Garganega, 45% Chardonnay offers delightful aromas of lemon peel/verbena with hints of fresh tarragon. The wine is not completely dry, but with its good acidity it finishes dry enough to be a classic to pair with cod, mahi-mahi, or other lighter fish in a lemon-butter sauce.