Flower Power: Getting ready for a summer of aromatic whites

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

02 May 2018

In the world of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, floral whites are a tough sell. Matt Walls asks top somms which varieties might be ready for a summer of love


The tastes of sommeliers are sometimes at odds with the wine-drinking public. I am talking about what they wear, of course – formal monochrome went out with Kraftwerk – but also what they like to drink. It is safe to say that your guests probably like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinian Malbec considerably more than you do...

Conversely there is one category of wines that, even if you love it, can be tough to shift. Floral whites such as Viognier, Gewürztraminer, dry Muscat and Torrontés are distinctive, food-friendly, great value and have a strong sense of place. But for your average wine drinker they’re as trendy as a giant pair of loon pants worn with platform shoes.

We talked to some of the UK’s trendiest sommeliers to see how best to work with this particular style of wine, and if any of them might make a comeback.


Viognier

Fashion equivalent: floral maxi dress
Little black dress matchability score: 8
Next big thing comeback rating: 7

Viognier is the most widespread of our four grapes, but there was a time when it nearly died out completely. The variety was once only found in Condrieu in the Northern Rhône, where plantings dwindled to just six hectares in the 1950s, as growers abandoned the steep terraced vineyards in favour of an easier life. It has since made a comeback and can now be found planted anywhere from California all the way to New Zealand.

‘Some people love it, some hate it,’ says Jacopo Mazzeo, head sommelier at The Pig in Brockenhurst, Hampshire.

‘I don’t see many people actively looking for classic expressions of Viognier, but Viognier from the New World, in my experience, appears to be a little bit more popular.’

Full-bodied and opulent, with aromas of peach, jasmine and almond, it’s nothing if not distinctive. But it’s not the easiest grape to handle, and less successful examples can be flabby, oily or overly pungent. It usually offers good value for money, but as with all powerfully flavoured wines, it divides opinion.

Neil Tabraham, owner of Wine Geeks Wine School, says there’s value to be had at the top end too with Viognier.

‘A good Viognier can compare to a good white Burgundy with broader pairing appeal, but for a much smaller price tag,’ he says. ‘They can also age well, which is a consideration at the top end, which may not sell so quickly.’

How does it work with food?
Fish and shellfish are common food matches for Viognier. Nacho Campo, sommelier at London steak specialist Hawksmoor Borough, suggests scallops, lobster and lemon sole, but would even match it with beef, such as ‘a lean steak, like a fillet, with béarnaise and cauliflower cheese.’
Paul Amsellem, of leading Condrieu estate Domaine Georges Vernay, suggests asparagus, lobster, scallops and goats’ cheese with his wines, but says it’s important to remember to avoid acidic sauces, which can show up the lack of acidity in the grape, which is its calling card.

So, is it likely to make a comeback?
Support for Viognier seems to be strong. Mazzeo believes we are going to see a lot more Viognier from the New World, especially South America and New Zealand, in the coming years. But some sommeliers have said they want to keep the good stuff for those in the know.
‘I do not wish Viognier, and especially Condrieu, to be fashionable!’ says Stamatis Iseris of The Strathearn at The Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire. ‘I would very much like it to remain a diva.’


Gewürztraminer

Fashion equivalent: 1960s French haute couture
Little black dress matchability score: 7
Next big thing comeback rating: 4

Often thought to be a German speciality, Gewürztraminer is actually much more common in France, specifically Alsace, and is growing in plantings worldwide. It’s another full-bodied, exuberantly aromatic grape, but this time the floral allusions are roses rather than jasmine, backed up by lychee, citrus and Indian spices.

Most of the sommeliers we spoke to love it – but with reservations. Valentin Radosav, head sommelier at Indian fine dining restaurant Gymkhana in Mayfair, London, describes it as ‘a tricky grape’ that can lack balance.

‘Sometimes too floral, other times too heavy in texture, it lacks that ripe citrus element (orange, grapefruit) to balance the heavy or floral texture,’ he says.
A major sticking point with Gewürz is knowing how sweet it’s going to be. Thankfully, in a couple of years in Alsace, it will be obligatory to state this on the label.

Iseris admits it’s an unpopular grape, but blames this on its name. 'With or without an umlaut, it’s a tongue-twister,’ he says, but he praises its versatility.

Tabraham agrees. ‘I’m sure I could create a fantastic and varied tasting menu just using Gewürztaminer to pair with,’ he says. ‘In fact, I may just try that one day. It’s also hugely appreciated by guests served as a pairing wine.’

How does it work with food?
Its affinity with Indian and Asian dishes is well known, and confirmed by Radosav. ‘It’s very good because it’s expressive in flavour and has the texture and consistency on the palate,’ he says.

‘At Gymkhana we have various Gewürztraminer from France, Italy, Germany and Chile. My favourite is the 2008 Steingrubler Grand Cru from Barmès-Buecher in Alsace. It’s very complex, well balanced, and a great value wine that I recommend for rich and hot spicy dishes.’

Jean Boxler, from Alsace legend Domaine Albert Boxler, advises pairing it with cheese – but never dessert.

Likely to make a comeback?
It will continue to gain fans and detractors in equal measure, but it’s unlikely a grape with such eye-popping flamboyancy will ever seduce the mainstream. Iseris thinks it can, but only if sommeliers acknowledge its astounding versatility, and use its diversity of styles accordingly. Now there’s a challenge.


Dry Muscat

Fashion equivalent: Tie-dyed T-shirt
Little black dress matchability score: 5
Next big thing comeback rating: 2

Another Alsace speciality, but Alsatian Muscat is very different to Gewürz. It’s reliably dry, light-bodied and relatively low in alcohol, with classic aromas of orange, fresh grapes and a clean, grassy freshness. Dry Muscat can also be found in the Roussillon, Portugal, Hungary, Italy and Chile.

Most wine lovers know Muscat as a sweet grape. ‘It’s so strongly associated with sweet wines that consumers find it quite hard to change their perception,’
says Mazzeo.

This holds the dry style back, which is a shame, as it can be a refreshing and versatile wine and, from entry-level wines up to Grand Cru level, it often represents very good value.
Tabraham is a fan, but believes it has its drawbacks.

‘It’s generally fresh, crisp and aromatic, and not too challenging or alcoholic, [but] I can’t help thinking it’s too simple, even for less sophisticated palates.’

Radosav agrees that it can lack complexity and length on the palate. Great wines need to be grown on great terroir, however, and all too often it’s Riesling that gets first dibs, as Muscat can be a hard sell.

Marc Hugel of the Alsace producer that bears the family name says things were once very different. Why things changed, he can’t say: fashion can be fickle.

How does it work with food?
Fuller-bodied floral whites often demand food, but Muscat works well both at the bar and at the table. Iseris finds the Vino Lauria Solerte Zibibbo from Sicily to be a perfect match with a dish of his comprising heritage tomatoes, goats’ curd, basil leaves and garden shoots.

In fact, there’s plenty of synergy between the two grapes and their natural partners; think asparagus, white fish and fresh herbs like basil and coriander.

Likely to make a comeback?
Hugel says that Muscat was dying out 50 years ago in Alsace, but it’s coming back. It’s also gaining traction in Chile, where old vines and new approaches to vinification, such as amphorae and skin contact, are being combined to impressive effect.

The De Martino Viejas Tinajas Muscat from Itata, is a good example of this. But until it’s really ‘owned’ and cherished by a major wine region, it’s unlikely that dry Muscat will ever really become fashionable – it’s just too niche.


Torrontés

Fashion equivalent: cowboy boots
Little black dress matchability score: 6
Next big thing comeback rating: 6

Argentina’s signature white grape Torrontés encompasses three varieties: Torrontés Riojano, Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendocino. The first in this list is the most widely planted and considered the finest, but the variant is rarely specified on the label. All three varieties are natural field crossings with Muscat of Alexandria and other local varieties, which accounts for its aromatic profile, which tends towards rose, jasmine and citrus.

Torrontés performs ever more strongly at Imbibe’s Sommelier Wine Awards, and although sommeliers are generally positive about it, it is somewhat hamstrung by a general lack of consumer awareness.

‘It’s not as popular as it could be, if we take into account how popular Argentinian wine is,’ says Mazzeo. ‘Most consumers still associate Argentina with Malbec, and as a consequence there’s little room left for anything else.’

Although uniformly praised for offering good value, buying with care is advisable as quality can be variable; some wines are overly oily in texture or lack acidity. Bodegas Colomé makes a superb example of a Torrontés, and its export manager Nicolás Cornejo Costas believes that times are changing.

‘A new generation of winemakers in the valley have worked on a more elegant and fine style of Torrontés,’ he says. ‘It’s linked to its floral style but also highlights the citrus, white flowers and peach notes.’

How does it work with food?
Like most floral wines, spice is a happy partner. Costas says that Torrontés has found a place alongside the native spicy foods from Asia, Mexico, India, Peru and the Andes. Radosav lists a 2015 Piattelli Vineyards’ Torrontés from Salta, and recommends a dish with a light to medium level of sweet spice intensity – cardamom, ginger, nutmeg – to accompany it.

‘In this way, you can enjoy the flavours of the food and the wines at the same time,’ he says. ‘Something like Ajwaini scallops, mooli sabzi and achar.’ Fish and shellfish seem to be where Torrontés perform best.

Likely to make a comeback?
Could Argentina do for Torrontés what it’s done for Malbec? ‘If Argentinian producers manage to promote Argentina as a valuable wine-producing country, rather than simply associate its name with a single variety, then I see good potential for Torrontés,’ says Mazzeo.

Despite its current success with Malbec, it’s unwise for Argentina to keep all its eggs in one basket. If Torrontés producers can concentrate on lowering yields, increasing quality and reigning in the variety’s more extreme textural and aromatic tendencies, I wouldn’t rule it out.

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