The White Stuff
'Tis the season for azaleas, sunny afternoons, and gross grigios...
It happened one recent afternoon at a party. My friend Sarah opened a freezing cold bottle of Santa Margherita pinot grigio. As usual, the Santa Margherita was neutral, characterless, bland. How to explain the continued popularity of pinot grigio in the States? Does it combine America’s dreams of la dolce vita with its interest in insipid white wine? Anyway, it is consistently the biggest rip-off in the wine shop. The pinot grigio seems to be a straight-from-fridge-after-mowing-the-lawn kind of drink. Like a Bud Light.
Every spring, the champions of pinot grigio reappear, like pollen or poison ivy, to make their annual pitch for drinkers to embrace light, fruity banality. The Pinot Grigio Defense is generally a variation on the following form, which I take from last week’s Wall Street Journal: “Some critics dismiss pinot grigio as a characterless, flavorless grape variety — not surprising, given the amount of below-par pinot grigio….But a glass of [FILL IN BLANK] proves what the varietal can achieve.”
This has been going on for some time. In summer 2006, the New York Times’ Eric Asimov did a tasting of 25 pinot grigios in which he claimed “Pinot Grigio has come a long way in the last 20 years.” Judged only against one another, guess which pinot grigio won? Yep, Santa Margherita, at $22 a bottle. So how far exactly did we come in 20 years?Sarah told me she’d picked up the Santa Margherita “on sale” for $21.99. “What do you think?” she asked. My friends know I try very hard not to come across as a wine snob, but they also know my feelings on such matters. They enjoy testing me.
“Did you really pay $22 for this?” I asked, taking the bait as usual.
Sarah was ready. She said: “Oh relax, Jason, you’re just being fussy. It’s just white wine on a sunny afternoon. White wine’s not supposed to be serious, fancypants. If I really want something serious I’ll drink red.”
This was a fascinating assertion: White wine is not serious. The others at the party nodded their heads in agreement. It seemed to be an article of faith among the group. Before I could respond, the conversation moved on to other, more pressing, topics, such as the upcoming school board election. But I wasn’t listening. White wine isn’t serious? I often hear this sentiment, and it sticks in my craw. Perhaps it’s one of those persistent myths that allow companies to sell millions of $22 bottles of bland wine. Whatever, the idea is completely untrue.
Profound whites spooled through my mind. If my friend would have tasted the rich, full-bodied 2003 Château Haut-Brion Blanc that a winemaker opened for lunch two weeks ago, she would understand how elegant white wine can be. Or maybe she’d think more about her whites if she’d been with me when I tasted the 2005 Movia Lunar — a wild, light-orange-hued Slovenian wine made from the obsure Ribolla Gialla grape that’s aged for nine months, 25 feet underground, then bottled with its yeast lees, meaning it must be decanted. You drink Lunar cloudy, and the citrus-blossom-and-wet-stones tastes like something untamed, untouched by human hands, as if from a primeval forest. I will remember it my entire life.
Still, like most people, my friend would scoff at the prices of these wines: $40 to $45 for the Movia Lunar; $200 to $300 for the Haut-Brion Blanc. “Of course you can find a serious white at that price!” she would retort. Fair enough. Which is why I’d keep those two bottles to myself.
But if Sarah had been stranded in Italy with me last week, she would have experienced a decidedly different outcome in the white-versus-red debate. I was at dinner with a husband and wife who happened to be rival winemakers. “All of the wines I would call ‘unforgettable’ are white wines,” said Cinzia Canzian, who owns Le Vigne di Alice. “Certainly I drink a lot of wonderful, profound red wines. But for me, white wines are much more often surprising and memorable.” Her husband, Umberto Cosmo, who owns Bellenda, protested vehemently.
But Cinzia’s argument was tough to refute since the white wine we were drinking at that moment, the one Umberto had ordered, was totally unforgettable: Vigneti Massa Timorasso Derthona — Timorrasso being an ancient grape grown only in a tiny region of Piemonte, around Tortona. This was another strange, complex white, one that felt like everything at once: honey, ripe fruit, freshness, minerality, and a unique nuttiness (not to mention a hint of yeasty funk since, like Lunar, it spends a year in contact with the its lees, though they’re filtered before bottling).
Needless to say, the Timorasso was the complete opposite of a mass-produced pinot grigio. Yet, at $20 to $25, it was living proof that white wine could be profound and affordable at the same time — especially if you’re already spending $22 on a pinot grigio. • 23 April 2010
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin) and writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post.