As the recycling truck hauls away the last of the year’s emptied wine bottles, we pause briefly to reflect. Winter is supposed to be the season of red wine, and this year’s red wines were good from a fine St. Emilion with the New Year’s Eve rack of lamb to an excellent Groth cabernet with the New Year’s night cassoulet but the whites, I thought, were at least as distinguished. A Hafner Reserve chardonnay held up to the cassoulet as well as the cab did and maybe, with its clarifying acid, was even a little better as a strong but cooperative accompanist. And a throaty Vouvray (Domaine d’Orfeuilles Silex, 2004) went beautifully with a plate of canapés (guacamole and blue cheese on crostini but not at the same time) devoured en route to one last blowout at Harris’ Restaurant.
Vouvray wines are made from chenin blanc, and silex indicates flinty soil, and so we are talking here about a dry white wine whose composed intensity compares favorably with that of its Loire cousins (of sauvignon blanc extraction), the Sancerres and Quincys, and its nearest Burgundian relations (made from chardonnay), the Chablises. It might be that someday our own viticulturalists will figure out how to do right by an impressive grape that has been largely misused here, grown in bulk for jug wines. I like Husch’s chenin blanc, though it tends toward sweet and, lacking the French wine’s bass notes, the sense of feet planted firmly on the ground, can seem a little untethered. The Vouvray, incidentally, was far more impressive than another French chenin blanc wine I served at Thanksgiving, a savennières called La Jalousie. I brought it forth with considerable fanfare, but it tasted rather watery and got lost amid the other big guns at the table.
The unexpected ability of a white wine to cope with cassoulet struck me as notable. Of course, cassoulet is something of a hybrid in a wine pairer’s eyes, a light-but-heavy blend of white beans and various kinds of meat. Conventional wisdom says you should choose a robust red with good acid, maybe a tempranillo or pinot noir. Conventional wisdom also says that oaky California chardonnays are too much for many foods, at least the sorts of foods (such as fish) conventionally paired with white wines. Conventional wisdom says a lot of things, and sometimes we do better not to listen.