This time of year activates my contrarian impulses. While everybody else is radiating good cheer, I sink into a “bah-humbug!” mood – damning Santa, snarling at children, barking at puppies, and warning my friends to stay away until mid-January. Slush, sniffles, and omnipresent retail: That’s too much of what Christmas means to me.
So naturally, since almost every other wine column at this festive time of year is touting the glories of big red wines, I feel the need of a great white. It may be the shark-like echoes that appeal – but more likely it’s simply that full-bodied, complex white wines make ideal companions to turkeys, hams, big pork and veal roasts, pheasants, and guinea hens.
I’ll never underestimate a big red wine – I love ‘em, and usually the more the merrier. But there’s a whole long winter before us to enjoy red wines. And summer wasn’t the time for big white wines; light and cooling was the order of the day a few months back. So this is my moment for digging into my wallet and splurging on some first-rate whites.
A really fine white plays a different game than a big red. To exaggerate, it’s the difference between American football (red) and soccer (white): Both are complex, both display power and grace, but they do so in very different ways. Take, for instance, a well-known white like Chablis – not the simple AOC Chablis, but at least a premier cru from Montée de Tonnère or Les Vaillons, if not one of the grands crus. Don’t serve it with oysters for a change (though few wines marry as well with oysters in any style), but alongside a noble veal roast or a lovely, moist, sweet-fleshed fresh ham. Dishes like those will show the body and fruit and depth of Chablis, not just its refreshing minerality.
This amplification effect is even more marked in the great whites from the Burgundian Côte d’Or. If you’ve fallen into the habit of drinking any old Chardonnay and have forgotten about fine white Burgundy – well, you’ve lost sight of what that grape can do. As my friend Charles likes to say, there is Chardonnay, and there is Burgundy, and never the twain shall meet (or at least they haven’t yet).
I’m less impressed by the wines of Meursault than many other wine critics (that contrarian streak again), but there are many other Burgundy appellations to choose from: Monrachet and all its villages, especially Chassagne; the great Cortons; and the Drouhin monopole, Beaune Clos des Mouches, which for my palate, deserves to stand with the finest Burgundy can offer.
There are many excellent Burgundian négociants who are reliable sources of white Burgundies: Bouchard, Jadot, and Latour are among the best-known and most widely distributed. I happen to have a soft spot for the less-publicized house of Drouhin. For decades it has been one of our most reliable suppliers of fine Burgundies. In a highly confusing, highly competitive market, its consistently high quality has often been taken for granted, and I think the family – it is still a family-owned and family-run enterprise – doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for the altitude of its accomplishment and the moderation of its pricing.
Burgundies like these offer the kinds of suave complexity that transforms a dinner into a feast – and they don’t require sophisticated cookery or complicated recipes to do their magic. Sure, Corton Charlemagne and lobster thermidor are a marriage made in heaven – but it will be just as wonderful with veal or pheasant or even a good, flavorful chicken.
This kind of food/wine chemistry is not true just of Chardonnay-based wines. By and large, Americans haven’t yet caught on to the pleasures of Riesling, a grape many experts regard as at least equal, if not superior, to Chardonnay. The bracing, steel-spined Rieslings of Alsace and the more delicate, floral, dry Rieslings of Germany will do wonders for simply prepared fowl and white meats. Just make sure the bird or meat you start with is top quality, and the wine will take care of the rest.
Other Alsaces: For greater spice and zest, choose Gewürztraminer or especially Pinot Gris. The latter is the body-building big brother of the adolescent-skinny Pinot Grigio and offers a taste adventure of completely different dimensions from that light-bodied, essentially cocktail wine. Hugel and Trimbach are among the most reliable and widely distributed producers.
Farther off the beaten track, try the barely known white wines of the Rhone – not the simple Côtes du Rhone blancs, but those of Chateauneuf du Pape and Hermitage. They can be costly, but they are almost always worth it.
I’m going to give myself a holiday break so I can enjoy some of the wines I write about. My next post will appear on or about January 15, 2010. And to show that I’m not a total Grinch, here’s a seasonal serenade to enjoy. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!