This article originally appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.
CONTINUING MY theme of looking at white wines (even though the majority of my cellar is dedicated to red wines), this week I want to discuss some great white wines that many people never knew existed.
Mention Rioja or Chateauneuf-du-Pape to the average wine consumer and they are more than likely to think of big, brooding red wines. You know the sort: bold, oaky, full of spice and bursting with the flavour of sunshine beating down on the rocky soil in which the grapevines grow.
Obviously these famous red wines make up the vast majority of the production in these regions, but for every yin there is a yang and, in this case, that is a white wine that can be characterised by profound power and complexity when done right.
White Rioja makes up just a small amount of the region’s annual production, somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent depending on whose statistics you read. This is too bad, because it is a great wine, albeit an acquired taste for wine drinkers who are more accustomed to sauvignon blanc, chardonnay or any of the other popular varietals.
Made from the viura grape (also known as macabeo), which is planted in much fewer numbers than, say, sauvignon or chardonnay, white rioja often displays oxidised flavours that often go against the preferred flavour of a white wine. That is to say it can taste of caramel and a nuttiness, which is most common in sherry.
However, the best white Riojas have a fresh flavour and a pleasant fruity quality to counteract that nutty edge. And because producers are now able to add sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to their blends, the wine will likely take on a more international flavour that is likely to attract more drinkers, even if it means it loses some of its traditional characteristics.
White Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CdP) is an entirely different beast. CdP in general can be made from any combination of 13 different grape varieties, five of which are white. A producer may use just one or all six – depending on how ambitious they feel.
These white varieties are grenache blanc, roussanne, bourboulenc, clairette, picardan, and picpoul. None of these is necessarily a household name for the average wine drinker – much like the viura in white Rioja – although the grenache is probably the most abundant in world wine production.
Because winemakers have freedom to pick and choose white grapes make the final blend in their wines, a white CdP can be quite different from one producer to the next. Clairette may be the main grape in some wines because of its fresh acidity, whereas many producers believe the rousanne should be the main grape because of it tends to have more body and structure than the others.
White CdP is one that divides opinions. Wine collectors say they are short-lived and should be consumed within a couple of years of the vintage, while their producers say they can outlast their red counterparts in the cellar. But that is not the main dig. A lot of wine buffs think white CdP comes up a bit short, but the fact is when they are at their best they can be downright Burgundian and much like a grand cru Chablis.
These wines, full-bodied and lush with fruit, can be fabulous food pairings when done well. Unfortunately, they don’t come cheap. Any CdP selling for less than £15 is likely to be a dud unless it has been heavily discounted.
If your budget won’t stretch to £15 or more for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, go for the white Rioja. You can find the Spanish white for less than £10.
Wines to try:
Cune Barrel-Fermented Blanco 2009/11, Rioja, Spain (Waitrose, £9.01)
Selling for less than £10, this is affordable enough to be a weekday wine but will also go with your weekend dinner. Made in a rich, creamy style and not too overpowering with the fruit,it has notes of citrus on the palate and that nutty, smoky vanilla aroma this wine is famous for.
Rioja Blanco, Barrel Fermented 2009/2010 Marques de Caceres (Majestic, £9.99, Min six bottle order)
This has pear and citrus fruit flavours and the buttery, vanilla notes that come from being fermented in barrel. Made in a dry style, this goes well with food, particularly seafood.
Clos Saint Michel 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhône, France (Waitrose, £18.99)
Full-bodied, rich and fruity, this is a complex wine as CdPs tend to be. It will go well with food, particularly those from the South of France and the Mediterranean. While many white CdPs are mainly mixtures of roussanne and one or two other grapes, this one is a blend of grenache blanc, roussanne, clairette and bourboulenc.
Domaine des Saumades Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2008, Rhône, France (Berry Bros & Rudd, £23.45)
This wine has a backbone of equal measures of grenache blanc and clairette to make up 80 per cent of the wine, the remaining 20 per cent being mostly bourboulenc and small amount of roussanne. This has the typical notes of peaches and fruits in it for freshness, along with some nuttiness and a creamy quality. It would pair well with fish or cheese, particularly goat’s cheese.