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Need some help on white wines

As a wine newbie, I have been trying a lot of different wines over the last several months to sample new varieties and to try to learn of great wines I had not tried before. I have limited myself initially to reds only to make the task a little less daunting. My biggest surprise has been the noticeable difference in modern versus old world wines. We have found, so far, that we have a strong prefernce towards the European wines, particularly a French Bordeaux and Burgundy, to their domestic counterparts. We have done a lot of blind taste tests to make sure we are not biased one way or the other, and we always end up selecting the European. The one thing we know for sure is that we the fruit forward component of the modern wines does not appeal to us as much. My question for this group is if this distinction between modern and old world (excuse me if I am using the terms incorrectly but I am still learning) is as distinct in white wines as it is in reds? For example will there be a notable difference between a California Chardonnay and a White Burgundy? We stopped drinking many white wines a few years ago primarily because we felt that they were a little too fruity for our taste. I am hoping the European counterparts may be different. Our taste tends to be more towards a dry wine but we also appreciate the tannins in a red. Any advise and specific recommendations are greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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  1. While it's always risky to make generalizations (especially at a time when many Old World producers are consciously imitating the New World style), the short answer is yes, the differences between New World and Old World whites generally parallel those between New World and Old World reds. Old World whites tend to be less extracted, lower in alcohol, often higher in acid, less about fruit and oak and more about other flavours (minerals chief among them) than their New World counterparts. They also tend to have a greater sense of place.

    To take an extreme example, a California (warm climate) Chardonnay made from superripe grapes, extracted to the max, allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation and given heavy oak treatment is going to be a dense, fat, unrefreshing wine that tastes and smells of tropical fruit and vanilla. An unoaked Chablis (cool-climate Chardonnay) that undergoes no or partial malolactic fermentation is going to be zippy, even tart, and taste and smell of minerals (slate, chalk, gunflint) with hints of green apple, lemon and maybe even straw and oats.

    Recommendations? Hard given the breadth of choice and the fact that my lunch break's over. Here's hoping others chime in, as will I when I can find a minute. In the meantime, look over some of the tasting notes I and others have posted.

    1. "My question for this group is if this distinction between modern and old world (excuse me if I am using the terms incorrectly but I am still learning) is as distinct in white wines as it is in reds?"

      YES.

      Let me start by saying I wouldn't describe it as "modern" and "old world," but rather "modern" and "traditional." Old World (i.e. European) wines can also be made in a modern style, just as some wines from California, Australia and Chile may be described as "traditional."

      But *presuming* you try a California Chardonnay made in a modern style side-by-side with a white Burgundy made in a traditional style, the differences will be significant -- especially if, for example, you try a Chablis or Chablis 1er Cru with a Monterey or Santa Barbara Co. Chardonnay (as opposed to, for example, a Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast or Santa Cruz Mtns.).

      Specific recommendations depend largely upon where you live. What is available to me here in Berkeley, California, might not be the same as what you can find.

      General recommendations, however, are easy: three white Burgundies (Chardonnay) -- staying within your budget (do *not* feel you have to spend more than you want) -- try a really good Chablis, a Meursault, and a Macon-Villages; then, look for a Chardonnay from the appellation Vins du Pays de Jardins de France (Loire Valley) or Vins du Pays d'Oc (Languedoc). Four Sauvignon Blancs -- a good white Bordeaux from the appellation of Pessac-Leognan, and another from the less expensive but tasty appellation of Entre-deux-Mers; and two from the following Loire appellations -- Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume (do not confuse thise with Pouilly-Fuisse), Quincy, or Reuilly (don't confuse this with Rully). Also, do not pass up such other dry Loire Valley whites as Muscadet, Vouvray sec or even demi-sec, Savennieres (though these are better with age); or wines from Alsace, such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztramienr -- all dry (unless you purchased wines made by Zind-Humbrecht, or those with the Selection de Grains Nobles [SGN] designation).

      1. For example will there be a notable difference between a California Chardonnay and a White Burgundy?

        This is just a generalization, but in a typical year you may find California Chardonnay to be "heavier" than their average French counterpart...

        My own bias is that these generalizations aren't that helpful and since I'm more focused on food & wine matching than just wine by itself I don't find the differences in most cases to be profound enough to matter. You're going to have well-developed chardonnay essence in both California and French bottlings and they tend to complement the same types of food.

        Assuming that the French bottling may be a bit more "elegant" then you might enjoy contrasting a French and California chardonnay with two different dishes. One a subtlely-herbed chicken dish and another a heavy garlic, cheesy/buttery, shellfish alfredo...

        See whether for each dish you prefer the more stylish French offering or the richer California version.... Each wine matches each dish but your palate will probably prefer one style of wine for each style of food...

        1 Reply
        1. re: Chicago Mike

          Great point about food and wine matching. One of the primary reasons we started to look at white wines was a change in our diets to include more poultry, fish and lighter food that don't match as well with many of our red wines.

        2. Thanks for your very thorough response, it is appreciated. I did purchase a wine from Sancerre yesterday but I was told by the wine store owner that it was a white Burgundy. Is that incorrect? From your response it would appear that a Sancerre is a white Bordeaux. The bottle was not in the Burgundy or Bordeaux section of the store but in a separate area for Loire Valley. I did want to try a Chablis but I will do that next time.

          6 Replies
          1. re: bobby06877

            White Sancerre is 100% Sauvignon Blanc from the Sancerre appellation in the central Loire. Sauvignon Blanc is also found in some white Bordeaux (e.g. Graves, Pessac-Léognan), either by itself or as part of a blend. Burgundy's St-Bris appellation makes lovely Sauvignon Blanc that's stylistically about as far away from the fruity New Zealand style as you can get.

            1. re: carswell

              "Burgundy's St-Brice appellation makes lovely Sauvignon Blanc that's stylistically about as far away from the fruity New Zealand style as you can get."

              From my wine education i've learned that there are only TWO white wine grapes in Burgundy... Chardonnay and Aligote. Where is this "St.-Brice" appellation?

              1. re: ChefJune

                'Scuse the brainfart; it's St-Bris.

                Formerly a VDQS, "St-Bris was granted full appellation status from the 2001 vintage for its crisp, cool climate Sauvignon ... About 100 ha/250 acres of Sauvignon vines in the communes of St-Bris-le-Vineux [one of the best names ever!], Chitry, Irancy, Quenne, and parts of Vincelottes south of Auxerre and west of Chablis are currently in production." (Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edition)

                Besides Chardonnay, Aligoté and Sauvignon Blanc, white Burgundy can be made from Pinot Blanc (it's allowed but not often found in Bourgogne blanc and some white Mâcon). There's also a minuscule amount of white Pinot Noir grown and made in Nuit-St-Georges.

            2. re: bobby06877

              Sancerre is NEITHER a white Bordeaux (which are generally Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends), NOR a white Burgundy (which are generally 100% Chardonnay, unless the label reads "Bourgogne Aligote [which are 100% Aligote], though they may contain other grapes -- Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and a tiny amount of other varieties). It is from the Loire Valley, and is 100% Sauvignon Blanc.

              There are hundreds if not thousands of appellations in France. These are contained within seven major (both famous and large) regions: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Languedoc-Roussillon, the Loire Valley, the Rhone Valley and Champagne. There are also several minor (in size) regions; the best known include the Jura, Provence, and the Sud-Ouest, which includes the Basque region. There are many fine if not excellent wines found throughout all of them.

              1. re: zin1953

                >>white Burgundy (which are generally 100% Chardonnay, unless the label reads "Bourgogne Aligote [which are 100% Aligote], though they may contain other grapes -- Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and a tiny amount of other varieties)<<

                Can Pinot Gris be used to make white Burgundy? I thought its use was limited to red Burg (when it's called Pinot Beurot).

                1. re: carswell

                  There is quite a bit in Corton, where it's used in whites . . . in theory, new plantings are no longer allowed, but -- trust me: it's there. ;^)

            3. "will there be a notable difference between a California Chardonnay and a White Burgundy? " Oh boy, will there! Actually, not quite as much as a few years ago, as some Cali producers have finally gotten the hint and are producing chardonnays that are much less oaky than before. That said, in general, I prefer Burgundian chardonnays to Californian.

              I am a big fan of Chablis, especially Premier Cru and above, but I also enjoy St. Veran for everyday, as well as a "baby Chablis" from Vezelay.

              Among the California Chardonnays I like are Far Niente, Trefethen and Sonoma Cutrer.

              Hope this helps.

              2 Replies
              1. re: ChefJune

                We opened up our first White Burgundy last night, an entry level Bize Bourgogne Blanc, and we could not believe it was a Chardonnay. It was terrific. The Chablis will be our next wine since I heard it was a nice, dry wine. I heard Montrachet is outstanding but a little too pricy at this point, I will work up to it.

                1. re: bobby06877

                  Eye-opening, isn't it!

                  Don't worry about Le Montrachet (single vineyard Grand Cru) -- try the wines of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault (villages within the Côte de Beaune). They are much less expensive by comparison, though by no means cheap.

                  When it comes to Chablis, try a "straight" Chablis, a Chablis 1er Cru AND a Chablis Grand Cru . . . all from Chablis, but three different yet extraordinary wines.