Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Three Royal Sisters– Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc– reign supreme over the world of white wine. They are as different as can be.
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First, a little Grumpy Old Mansplaining– At its most basic, white wine is fermented grape juice… as contrasted with red wine, which is the juice of fermented grapes. Why the distinction? Because the skins of red wine grapes (whether red, purple, blue, or black) are loaded with flavorful components (phenolics, etc.) as well as deep crimson pigments and tannin. In order to extract all such available flavor components and color, red wine grapes are usually crushed whole and then the resulting mash is given a long soak– for several days, sometimes weeks– before the fermented liquid is drained from the solids. Aside from a few specific instances, skin contact adds nothing to white wine, and so upon harvesting the juice is quickly separated from the grapes and then fermented.
It follows that without the benefit of the pigments, phenolics, and tannin contributed by the skins of their red wine counterparts, white wine grapes need to entertain our palates with only the charms of their inner juice– the œnological equivalent, perhaps, of Ginger Rogers mirroring Fred Astaire’s every move, except backwards in heels. The white varieties that have secured their place in the pantheon of great wines have done so by engaging us with prominent, enticing aromas and flavors from the realms of apples, citrus, flowers, and herbs. In the absence of all the goodies provided by dark-skinned grapes, their shimmering, clean acidity shines through and takes center stage (which is why we drink white wines chilled; imagine drinking warm lemonade.)
And of all the light green or yellow-skinned grapes on God’s Green Earth that have danced backwards in heels from vineyard to cellar to bottle and then finally across our tongues to delight us with only their inner charms, three varieties rate above all the others for yielding world-class wines of distinct flavor and structure in multiple regions worldwide–
Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.
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It was really just during my lifetime that the wine industry fully switched from categorizing wines by their geographic origin (e.g., Bordeaux, Chianti, Rhine, etc.) to “varietal labeling,” i.e., by grape variety. That’s because when the greatest varieties from France, Germany, and Italy found success in distant lands, we learned that the grape variety is the single greatest determinant of a wine’s character and quality. It also played right into the hands of my inner wise-ass, because I like to think of varietal wines as people. So here we go–
Chardonnay in France (L.) and California (R.) Same print, but a whole different look.
In France she invariably wore Chanel– cool and elegant, the epitome of understated perfection. Her throngs of admirers had difficulty defining her beauty; they just knew it when they saw it. Indeed, her attractiveness was a holistic package– much more than the sum of its individual components… blessed with good genes, born into the right soil and climate, schooled in the proper oak, etc… But then she expanded her realm to a far-away but promising region… and beneath the sultry Golden State skies she burst into rip-roaring full womanhood, sun-ripened flesh all a-jiggle beneath her overworked bikini. Everything about her suddenly seemed exaggerated… her figure, her tan, her hair, and even her scent– aggressively fruity like a tropical Easter bonnet rather than subtly exquisite like pricey Parisian perfume.
Chardonnay might well be the single most important wine grape (white OR red) in the entire world, for no other commercial variety performs so well in so many different countries and climates. While the Cabernet Sauvignon grape is more widely planted, Chardonnay succeeds in a much wider climate range, from the chilly hillsides of New York and Champagne to the sun-roasted Hunter Valley of Australia. Chardonnay also far outperforms Cabernet Sauvignon (and just about every other common variety) in its sheer diversity of styles, ranging from ultra-dry and crisp Chablis to oaky and buttery-rich Californian bottlings… not to mention those Champagne and Chardonnay-based blanc de blancs sparkling wines.
Chardonnay is the sole ingredient of the greatest bottlings from France’s Burgundy region– the very finest of which, with critical unanimity, comes from a 20-acre patch known as Le Montrachet. A single bottle from the 2018 vintage will set you back about nine Benjamins. The Le Montrachet vineyard straddles the towns of Puligny and Chassagne, allowing both of them to hyphenate their names to their most famous property, as per Burgundian custom, and so we see the label names “Puligny-Montrachet” and “Chassagne-Montrachet” on bottles selling for considerably less money than Le Montrachet itself. Such village wines can be excellent, but they mustn’t be mistaken for their coyly-appropriated namesake. Elsewhere in Burgundy the vineyard Corton-Charlemagne (130 acres) enjoys a reputation nearly as stellar as Le Montrachet’s, and a bottle of the 2018 can be yours for a $200… a comparative bargain, one might suppose. And yet interestingly, at least to me, it was a far humbler white Burgundy that seized the American public’s attention and perhaps cemented Chardonnay’s prime position among whites in the Great American Wine Boom that began in the early 1970’s.
In 1949, a young Vassar student sailed from New York to spend her junior year in post-war Paris studying French art and culture. She returned a full-fledged Francophile, in love with everything from the French language to their wines. And the tipple that had captured her youthful fancy was a perfectly nice but relatively inexpensive white Burgundy called Pouilly-Fuissé. In the decade after her return stateside, this young lady got married and then accompanied her husband to the White House as our First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and Pouilly-Fuissé suddenly became a lot more popular.
Fast forward to today– undoubtedly aided by Jackie’s love of Pouilly-Fuissé, Californian Chardonnay has become a huge category in the American wine market. From just 150 acres at the end of Prohibition, Chardonnay vines now cover nearly 100,000 acres of California real estate– 156 square miles. Like the Cabernet Sauvignon vines transplanted from Bordeaux, Chardonnay has thrived in the “more-is-more” Californian climate and accordingly has surpassed all other varietal white wines in market dominance… by so much that its success has fostered contrarian backlash– the ABC (“Anything But Chardonnay”) movement. Were grapevines actually sentient, I’m guessing Chardonnay would take that as a compliment.
Every great wine grape variety has a signature interplay of contrasting elements– its “drama”– that unfolds in one’s mouth. With Chardonnay, the nature of this theater varies somewhat according to its level of ripeness. In the frosty northern reaches of the Burgundy region we find the chalky vineyards of Chablis, where Chardonnay struggles to fully ripen but nonetheless conveys beauty, like the barely discernible feminine twinkle in the eyes of an otherwise austere nun. Typically unoaked and sternly spartan in structure, great Chablis succeeds by proffering crystalline mineraliness as a counterpoint to its unapologetic acidity. Meanwhile, in the warmer Burgundian subregion of Beaune, the incomparable cologne of French oak perfectly intermingles with flavors of apple and white peach and such that build upon the soil-driven mineral foundation. In the vineyards of California, sassy flavors of pear and fig enter the chorus, and the dynamic duo of glycerine and high alcohol fill one’s mouth. What’s more, what would normally be the counterbalancing acidity is commonly lessened by a malolactic fermentation, which essentially turns tart apple acids into softer dairy acid, leaving the wine with a “buttery” mouth-feel. Add to this the ripe flavors and aromas of tropical fruits resulting from a sunny Californian ripening season and the perfect counterweight to this raucous cacophony is oak– not just oak, but French oak. And not just French oak, but new French oak… and not just new French oak, but toasted new French oak, which introduces a hint of char equivalent to the green pepper edge that contrasts with the dense fruit in California’s Cabernets. At its most extreme, Californian Chardonnay is a wine with serious “presence,” as impossible to ignore as that tanned platinum blonde stepping out of a pool.
And finally, “White Wine with Fish,” right? Not so fast… not only can you enjoy red wine with fish, but you can pair Chardonnay with all kinds of things other than seafood. If you want a white that can stand up to spicy hot food or other aggressive seasoning, Chardonnay is the way to go. I love to pair a brassy and ripe Californian Chardonnay with a marinated and grilled veal chop. Meanwhile, the lighter and more acidic Burgundian bottlings– from Pouilly Fuissé to Chablis– are a natural fit with raw oysters and just about everything else from the ocean.
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Big and Small Screen Rieslings Katherine Hepburn and Shelley Hack –
could the side-part be a dominant trait?
It can’t be easy being Chardonnay’s sister. Riesling is every bit as beautiful, just different. VERY different… like, Lap Dancer vs. Ballerina different. Whereas Chardonnay is often voluptuously sexy and noticeable as such from a distance, Riesling is long and lithe, her beauty crystalline and brittle… a distinction unintentionally yet uncannily mirrored by their bottle shapes.
Think for a moment about World War II in an alternative universe– if, in 1940, a militarily belligerent France had invaded and overrun peace-loving Germany (stop laughing) then Riesling, not Chardonnay, might well have become the go-to white for the Great American Wine Boom. Jackie would have spent her year abroad in Berlin rather than Paris and fallen in love with, say, J.J. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese (or some other Teutonic tongue-twister) rather than Pouilly-Fuissé. Accordingly, our wine stores might now be loaded with multiple floor stacks of Riesling from several different wine-producing countries rather than Chardonnay… prior to WWII, German Rieslings actually enjoyed sufficiently high regard for that to have been a conceivable outcome.
And yet being associated with Nazi Germany isn’t Riesling’s biggest handicap, nor is being skinnier and less obviously sexy than Chardonnay…Riesling's problem is that way too many people automatically think that it is invariably SWEET. And for that we can blame Blue Nun.
One of my source articles describes German wine as having suffered three major crises– World War I, World War II, and Liebfraumilch. The original Blue Nun wasn’t even necessarily composed of Riesling– under the hilariously complex and seemingly self-parodic German wine laws, it was bottled as “Liebfraumilch” and thus had to be composed of at least 70% of the varieties Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, AND/OR Riesling. It was a well-conceived and intelligently-marketed product– a sweet, easy-to-love white that passed for classy stuff among Americans before they knew better. However, as tastes changed and its market share dwindled, the American public was left with the falsely-reasoned conclusion that all Riesling is sweet. (“Blue Nun is German; Blue Nun is sweet; Riesling is German… therefore all Riesling is sweet.”) And so, as Americans’ wine sophistication grew, it was their love for Chardonnay, not Riesling, that deepened.
There is something about this that seems a little unfair to me. Not only is not all Riesling sweet, but when it is, no other noble grape variety– red or white– wears residual sweetness as dazzlingly as does Riesling. That’s because, unlike a lot of other varieties, Riesling maintains its razor-sharp and refreshing acidity even as the sugar levels rise. That being said, if you want to explore dry versions, look for Germans labeled QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, the highest level of quality) AND Kabinett (the driest of the QmP’s.) If you wish to venture beyond Germany, just remember the “4 A’s”--
Alsace, Austria, Australia, and America.
Alsace sits on the border of France and Germany and has traditionally belonged to whoever won the last war between them. Bottles labeled Vendange Tardive (and, more rarely and dearly, Sélection de Grains Nobles) are late-harvest and sweet dessert wines, but the regular bottlings of Alsace Riesling are perfectly dry and nicely full-bodied, generally more suitable for the dinner table than their lighter-bodied German counterparts. Austria’s finest wine regions, just up the Danube from Vienna, produce bone-dry and razor-sharp Rieslings of undeniable excellence even though they may be an acquired taste, more appreciated by hard-core wine geeks than the general public. Just about every wine grape variety imaginable ripens in Australia, where cool ocean breezes mitigate the powerful ripening forces from the relentless sunshine. Riesling takes on a unique quality in Australia’s Clare Valley– an unmistakable hint of lime rind that puckers away any vestige of sweetness.
Which brings us to America. While California has produced some excellent Rieslings, no other noble white grape variety has thrived in states other than California as has Riesling. With a ripening season both longer and cooler than California's, Washington State has become the seat of Riesling’s power in America. Riesling has also become the signature variety in New York’s Finger Lakes region, where the deep and narrow Finger Lakes mimic the steep valleys of the rivers Rhine, Moselle, and Danube in protecting vineyards from autumn frost well into October. Intentionally or not, Washington and New York versions tend to be more sturdily structured than the Germans, nearly as full-bodied as those of Alsace.
And finally, what are the signature flavor components of great dry Riesling? With the notable exception of that hint of lime in the Aussies, the short answer is apples and wildflowers. For the long answer, you’ll need to treat yourself to a $30 German Riesling Spätlese (the second-driest QmP, but trust me– it is utterly delicious) and marvel at the near-psychedelic progression of apples, flowers, minerals, and even an intriguing whiff of diesel. If you ever feel the urge to drink a really good wine with, say, lobster salad on a very hot day, you could do no better than this, and for the same price as Pouilly-Fuissé. One flavor you won’t find in Rieslings– cheap or expensive, dry or sweet– is oak. Although European Rieslings occasionally repose in wooden barrels before bottling, it is typically in cooperage so voluminous and so old that it imparts no influence.
I once opined at a wine conference that Chardonnay uses oak like teenage girls use makeup– it hides flaws, it enhances beauty, and it makes wine under ten look like grown-ups. Riesling, however– skinny, ethereal, and light-bodied Riesling, less obviously beautiful from afar than Chardonnay– has never needed any such adornment, for she is perfectly lovely all by herself.
Madame Curie & Julia Child… two monumentally consequential women who would never have won a beauty contest… and therefore two perfect exemplars of Sauvignon Blanc. If Chardonnay is a lap dance and Riesling is a ballet, then Sauvignon Blanc is a TED Talk– nothing about the speaker catches your eye beforehand, but you are surprised at how much you enjoy listening to her… how brilliant she is… and how downright attractive she mysteriously becomes as she speaks.
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When it comes to dry, light, and crisp whites, most Americans think first of Pinot Grigio. Be it here known, Dear Reader-- I utterly hate Pinot Grigio. I’ve often explained that of all the wines we drink, Pinot Grigio changes the least as it navigates the human body. If Pinot Grigio were human, she would be your annoyingly vapid, gum-popping, teenage niece texting from her pew at her grandmother’s funeral. In contrast, sipping Sauvignon Blanc is like having a great conversation with a highly intelligent woman– as your glass empties, you feel smarter and the wine gets prettier.
If you can get past the notion that expensive Riesling can smell faintly of diesel, then you might be ready to appreciate that really great Sauvignon Blanc can smell a little like cat piss and still taste fabulous. But that is just one of many components in Sauvignon Blanc’s complex and piercing aroma… the snarl of zingy smells pouncing from your glass features everything from melon to minerals, from grass to herbs to, so they tell me, gooseberries. (I’ve never tasted gooseberries, but I think I know what they mean.)
Among the great wine varieties, few are as instantly recognizable as Sauvignon Blanc. And yet, despite its unmistakable olfactory signature, Sauvignon Blanc varies stylistically from one region to another. In France’s upper Loire Valley sits the Sancerre sub-region, where Sauvignon Blanc reaches perhaps its finest, most mineral-driven and age-worthy expression in the chalky soils. Across the river, Pouilly Fumé is grown in slightly different soils that impart a hint of what the experts call “gunflint” aroma. (I’ve never smelled gunflint, but again, I think I know what they mean.) Several of the great properties of Bordeaux, meanwhile, have long produced comparatively small amounts of white wine to accompany their super-premium reds, typically fattening their Sauvignon Blanc with Sémillon and showing it a little oak to produce a well-rounded, complex wine regal enough for the Dover Sole course at a State dinner.
Beyond France, New Zealand has more or less adopted Sauvignon Blanc as its national standard-bearer. Kiwi versions tend to feature sharp, zingy fruit and nipple-quivering, enamel-stripping acidity. In the finest vineyards of California, meanwhile, Sauvignon Blanc tends to soften its edges a little and offer intensely ripe fruitiness. The low-yield, old-vine Napa vineyards that have survived the great financially-driven switchover to Chardonnay will reward your diligent search with incomparably complex and powerful wine.
Matching Sauvignon Blanc with food is easy, especially if you like salmon. Just as fresh dill perfectly enhances salmon, so too do the snappy green flavors and aromas of Sauvignon Blanc. But don’t stop there– Sauvignon Blanc is perhaps the perfect universal seafood wine, and it’s really hard to go wrong there.
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Of the trio of varietal wines in this essay, Sauvignon Blanc might be the biggest stretch in correlating grapes to people and personality types. And yet the connection makes perfect sense to me… If I had to drink only one white for the rest of my life it would be Sauvignon Blanc because, as a man who appreciates all three of the Royal Sisters and their respective charms, I nonetheless find female intelligence the sexiest trait of all, and inner beauty the most powerful beauty of all.
Accordingly, I leave you with three of what I consider the Greatest Moments in the history of Sauvignon Blanc-As-Women (or vice-versa)–
Computer Science pioneer Margaret Hamilton of MIT posing with the lines of code she and her team wrote for NASA’s Apollo guidance computers. (She was too busy overcoming sexism, putting men on the moon, and inventing the concept of “software” to bother getting a Ph.D. in a field that barely existed.)
Dr. Lucy Jones, Ph.D., USGS scientist and young mother, A.K.A. “The Earthquake Lady,” explains seismology to us mere mortals during California’s massive 1992 Joshua Tree earthquake. She became a “breaking news” regular after that, a soothing and reassuring voice of expertise whenever SoCal houses suddenly started changing addresses.
And, of course, the Mother of All Sauvignon Blanc Moments– Susan Boyle’s 2009 audition on “Britain’s Got Talent.” As with a pour of Sauvignon Blanc, there was nothing in her outward mien that remotely hinted at the inner magnificence that would soon reveal itself. (Simon’s expression reminds me of mine the first time I ever tasted great Sancerre.)