White wines best known to be red

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:

White Rioja

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.

White Cheateaneuf-du-Pape

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.

Photo: Stoonn

Look to Argentina

It was Steven Spurrier, the wine critic, who once said, “If some higher being were to tell me my years with Old World wine had to end, it would be to South America that I would turn.”

I have to confess I find it difficult to refute his statement. So much great wine is coming out of South America right now and it is only getting better as time goes by.

Sure, great wines are made in other areas known as the New World, but they couldn’t match the variety that South America can. Australia has only a few specific regions where great wine can be made. Same with New Zealand. The USA produces some great wines, but quality comes at a high price. And while I’m a big fan of the better Canadian wines from the Okanagan region, it is only a tiny production area compared to what can be found in South America.

Argentinian wine, in particular, is a compelling choice right now. While the malbec grape has dominated its red wine production for years and torrontes is known as its signature white grape, there is more going on than these two stalwarts.

The big thing in Argentina right now – as has been passed on by word of mouth and also is evident on wine retailers’ stock lists – are blends. No more are we just seeing malbec and a small scattering of other grape varietals. The cabernet-merlot blends and even shiraz-malbecs are hitting the market in droves.

Grapes like carmenere are being blended with cabernet sauvignon, while white grapes like chardonnay, viognier and marsanne are coming together to produce some racy wines.

While I’m not completely sold on much of the wine coming out of South America – much of it can be undrinkable plonk – I’m finding it a safer bet when I am presented with an unknown, and often limited, wine list form which to choose the evening’s drink.

Winemakers like Tabali in Chile and Altos Las Hormigas in Argentina are among many producers doing great things at a price that might be impossible for any other New World wineies to match.

Skip sauvignon and pinot grigio – try albarino

In the world of wine, it seems most people stick to the same grape varieties day in, day out. This means there are dozens/hundreds/thousands of delicious, but perhaps a little bit obscure, wines that are simply ignored by the masses.

So, on that basis, wow many white grape varietals can you name right now? Go on…give it a try.

How many did you get? Three? Five? After sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pino grigio, riesling and semillon, what else can you name?

Did you get chenin blanc? Roussanne? Marsanne or viognier? Maybe even melon de bourgogne (used to make Muscadet) or gewurztraminer? This may seem like a lot of grapes to remember, yet they are just a few drops in a sea of wines to discover.

There are so many well-made, fruity and fresh white wines out there made with lesser-known grape varieties, but they are unfortunately overshadowed by the marketing machines behind sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Italy alone has dozens of excellent white wines that few people outside the country could pronounce – let alone commit to memory – yet the average person still defers to the same international grape varieties over and over again.

This leads us to albarino, which is grown primarily in Spain and Portugal, two countries probably better known for their red wine production. This is a shame because both countries produce some beautiful whites; I need only point to white Rioja as an example of another great wine that all too often goes unnoticed. Perhaps the reason for white Rioja’s low profile is its minute production compared to its crimson cousin, but perhaps also because it is often an acquired taste among white wine drinkers who prefer zingy acidity and freshness to white Rioja’s nutty, slightly oxidised flavours.

Albarino in Spain most often comes from the Rías Baixas region in the northwest. Until recently it was used in blended wines but these days it has emerged as a varietal in its own right, producing wines fresh wines that come with ripe fruit flavours.

As with many white wines, albarino makes a good match for seafood, poultry or creamy pasta dishes depending on its style.

Two albarinos to try are Orballo Albarino Rias Baixas 2010 (£9.99, Virgin Wines) and Val do Salnes Albarino 2010 (£11.99, Marks and Spencer).

Orballo’s albarino has wonderful lemon and peach aromas mixed in with a hint of sea breeze and minerality, followed by a nice layer to acidity, that make it a fine accompaniment to seafood. It also goes nicely with creamy chicken pasta dishes. For slightly less than £10 a bottle, this is affordable enough to have during the week or even on the patio for a Sunday afternoon lunch.

Meanwhile, the Val do Salnes albarino comes in a little more expensive than the Orballo but offers up intense fruity flavours of peach and apricot with a good zing of acidity to follow. This is a little more off-dry than the Orballo version but is not at all sweet. It will go nicely with rich seafood dishes, such as those cooked with butter or other flavourful sauces, but it will also match nicely with scallops and squid.