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.