Grapes of steel

Pub date May 29, 2007


If the wine gods should decree that I must no longer be permitted any whites, I would weep — but survive too. While it may be true, as Deuteronomy instructs, that "man does not live by bread alone," he — or we or I — surely could make do with red wine only. The charms of red wine are considerable and inescapable, from the gracious lean strength of a good pinot noir to the cherry-and-pepper bouquet of a côtes du Rhône or zinfandel in its prime. Red wine is, somehow, gravid with life itself.

And yet … I am one of those people for whom white wine is not a second choice or second-rate. A well-chilled white for me can have some of the same limpid elegance as a martini — at least if it is a well-balanced white, crisp with acid and properly founded on minerality. The French make this sort of wine better than anyone else in the world, with excellent examples from Sancerre, Vouvray, and Chablis, to name just a few appellations, and if California-made wines in this style are much harder to find, that just makes looking for them more fun.

At a recent tasting of forthcoming Burgundian and Alsatian bottlings, I was reminded of the gold standard, which in this setting (at Masa’s) took the form of a Chablis: Domaine Faiveley’s Grand Cru Les Clos, a beautiful straw-colored wine made as if from grapes of steel. The fruit used is in fact chardonnay, and some of its appley character could be detected amid the sweeping sense of earth and sky — terroir is the French word — that make Chablis and Sancerre whites more alike than not. Although white Sancerres are made from sauvignon blanc grapes, the two districts are quite near each other and produce remarkably similar wines. (Chablis is one of France’s greatest appellations, incidentally, and how the name came to be slapped on supermarket jug wine in this country is a mystery.)

A few days later, I found myself at a sun-spattered winery open house, breathing in the tropical fumes of various California chardonnays — each quite good in its way, if you like that way, the Barry Bonds, unnaturally big, toast-with-butter-and-vanilla way. I found myself wondering: is there a red in the house, even a simple house red?