White made right

Pub date March 12, 2008

Although "white" carries generally favorable connotations in our race-haunted society, the spell breaks at the gates of the wine kingdom. When Californians mention wines they like, the wines are almost always red ones — and more often than not, cabernets sauvignons. White wines? What are those?

To an extent, this bias can be explained by the great and unexpected success of (red) California wines at the famous Paris blind tasting of 1976, in which French judges ended up preferring the New World wines. But the vestigial glow of this triumph doesn’t explain why so many young people I know, many of them recently converted from beer to wine, already equate "wine" with red wine. Are red wines inherently superior?

Part of the issue could have to do with the fact that white wines are by nature more naked and skeletal than their red cousins. Their flaws tend to show, and they don’t have rich color or fruit-bomb radiance to distract us from noticing them. Another and more pertinent factor is the lackluster quality of so much California white wine. Many of the best whites still come from difficult little swatches of Europe (rainy Galicia, stony Sardinia, chilly Burgundy, the chalky Loire Valley), while our homegrown grapes, having lived the high life in rich soil and warm sunshine, too often produce wines that are flabby and flubbery (in the case of chardonnay) or aggressively grassy (in the case of sauvignon blanc).

Of course, I overgeneralize — but with intent. There are good white wines of California provenance to be found, and it’s fun to try to find them. You might have met despair while locked in the bathroom at a party, spitting up yet another overcooked chardonnay, but you will be all the more grateful when you take your first silvery sip of Navarro’s dry riesling, or Dry Creek’s utterly Loire-like chenin blanc — or if you are bound and determined to find a good California chardonnay, the unoaked chardonnay from Clos LaChance. The winery is slightly off the beaten path, in the foothills south of San Jose, and the wine is nearly Burgundian in its well-managed acidity (like a sharp knife with a sumptuous handle), crisp apple-y character, and wondrous lack of buttery bloat. If you’ve gagged on your last slug ever of party chardonnay, a gentle tipple of this stuff should settle you down nicely.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com