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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