.Shades of White

Representative white varietals from California, Alsace, and South Africa have more in common than not.

In honor of the official launch of summer, we turn this week to
three refreshing whites from three strikingly different wine regions:
Alsace, coastal South Africa, and the general California appellation
(read: Central Valley). Despite the usually vast differences between
both the regions and the varietals we picked, these wines had lots in
common — and lots to like.

Even jaded oenophilic travelers can’t help but gush about the Alsace
region of France, an area littered with wineries that retains a
medieval village feeling sharply contrasting with the country’s
better-known wine regions. Pinot Blanc is one of Alsace’s most prolific
grapes, and although it’s considered something of a workhouse, that
shouldn’t diminish any expectations about its quality. Made from
biodynamically grown grapes, the 2006 Rayon de Lune Pinot Blanc
($24.95)
had an aroma of apple and pear, with more pear on the
palate; I also smelled something a bit flinty and metallic. Token
Winemaker speculated that the grapes in this wine might have had Muscat
in their parentage. The good acid, delicate body, and slight sweetness
would be a nice complement to spicy Asian food.

As Pinot Blanc is to Alsace, so Chenin Blanc is to South Africa. A
workhorse wine long made with little emphasis on craftsmanship, Chenin
Blanc has emerged from South Africa’s wine renaissance as a serious
contender still available at workhorse prices. The 2008 MAN Vintners
Chenin Blanc ($7.99)
had little fruit in the aroma — instead
I got stone, honey, and subtle oak, and we both noted a slightly
vegetal scent. In past reviews, we’ve noted herbaceousness in both
MAN’s Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc, so “grassy” must just be the theme at
this Stellenbosch-based winery. Token Winemaker complained of a
“cloying graininess” to the taste of this wine, as well as excessive
residual sugar and acid, but I found it pretty inoffensive — if a
bit ho-hum.

We tasted blind as usual this week, and I for one expected to rank
Ironstone’s 2008 California Chardonnay ($10) last in terms of my
favorites. That’s not a knock on Ironstone, whose wines I often like
— it’s more a symptom of fatigue with California’s most-popular
varietals. Plus, I still have fond memories of the fabulously dry,
unoaked Chards we tasted from Mendocino a few weeks back (“Hold the
Oak,” 4/15/09). Well, Cali Chard producers get the last laugh, as the
Ironstone was my favorite of the three. I found it pleasant and
versatile — drinkable on its own but easy to imagine with a
variety of foods. The bouquet evoked tropical fruits, baked goods, and
vanilla, and the wine was smooth and well-balanced. Token Winemaker was
shocked to learn that this wine was a Chardonnay; “big” as it was, it
just didn’t have the varietal’s classic characteristics. Full of
surprises, it makes for fine bargain.

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