Bright Whites

It's a wine world clich麠As soon as the days start growing shorter, you begin hearing that it's time to break out those big, lusty reds in your cellar, as if they were long woolen underwear. In theory, I understand and appreciate this mantra, and when I'm roasting some boar or braising a few ducklings, you can be sure I'll break out a hearty red or two. But the fact is, I don't cook a lot of boar, even in wintertime. I still tend to eat about as much fish and shellfish and chicken as I do in the summertime, so when I go looking for variety in my winter wine selection, I still look for whites. And given the range of white wines on the market these days, there's no chance I'll ever get bored. You could make a case that whites offer a greater range of flavors and aromas than reds do, for all their substance and mouth-filling qualities. The tannins that make a wine feel and taste "big" can also mask a lot of the flavor refinements of the grape varieties they're made from. Also, white wines have to stand on the native quality of the juice they're made from, whereas reds are routinely "flavored" to a fare-thee-well by exposure to more or less toasty oak barrels. When you note how carefully winemakers select their cooperage and the fortunes they're willing to spend on it, you can't help wondering which they think is more important, the grapes or the wood. With most whites, what you squeeze is what you get. Given that fact, the variety of flavors one finds in white wines is truly astonishing. Even a hackneyed varietal like chardonnay yields quite different results in Chablis than it does less than a hundred miles away in northern Burgundy. Experienced wine drinkers aren't likely to mistake a riesling from Alsace for one from Germany's Mosel or Rheingau, and pinot gris is such a chameleon that it's hard to believe those from Oregon, Italy, and France are all made from the same grape. When you get beyond the most familiar white varietals (chenin blanc, semillon, and sauvignon blanc, in addition to those mentioned above), you find yourself in a wonderland of differing whiffs and tangs and puckers. It's tantalizingly difficult to describe the difference between Austria's grüner veltliner and Portugal's albarinho, central France's aligoté and northern Italy's verduzzo, but not hard at all to sense the difference; and when it comes to the pale but potent charm of the melon de Bourgogne (the grape behind muscadet), the rough nobility of Spain's verdejo, and the unmistakable zing of a dry Hungarian furmint, you almost forget that all these distinct experiences arise from one and the selfsame fruit. Most of the rarer white varietals aren't yet grown in the Northwest; one that is and is producing wines of immense promise is viognier, the grape responsible for the rare and extraordinary white wines of France's Rhône valley. There is nothing either rare or extraordinary about the viognier that Hogue Cellars has bottled as part of its Genesis line, but it is a pure and focused expression of the grape's nature, and, at $16, a wonderful introduction to the adventures in tasting available to anyone willing to leave the well-marked path of least resistance.

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