- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Now that we get to enjoy the lazy, hazy, crazy days of Summer in the Hudson Valley, I think about enjoying crisp, refreshing white wines. I look for wines that do not mightily impress or even overwhelm the palate. Instead, I seek lighter, simpler, fruit and acid-driven dry or slightly off-dry whites, served well-chilled and without fanfare. These are wines that are comfortable on the lower rungs of the food chain, compatible with salads, fresh cheeses, veggies, fish, seafood, mollusks, and white meats.
People often ask me what is my favorite wine-producing country. To be honest, when it comes to red wines I find I can't give a definitive answer, as there are so many great red wines made in both the New World and the Old World, and I really enjoy many of them. But when it comes to choosing my favorite white wine-producing country, I've got to give it to France. The reason for this decision is that I believe that French white wines are first in the world for not only the widest variety of styles in whites (especially the wines of the Loire Valley, Alsace, and Burgundy), but also - and I think this may surprise many readers - the widest range of prices. We all know that it's easy to pay a lot of money for French white wines, but I have found that some of the best bargains reside in this category, as well. And it's not just that the wines are really affordable, it's that the quality is high. When it comes to the value-for-money proposition, French whites are incomparable.
Some of the best French whites for Summer enjoyment include:
Muscadet. There are actually four Muscadet appellations in the Loire Valley of France, all of them close to the port city of Nantes, defined by the Bay of Biscay inlet of the Atlantic Ocean. Muscadet, Muscadet des Coteaux de la Loire, Muscadet Côtes de Grandieu, and the best known of the four, Muscadet Sevre et Maine are all produced using one grape, Melon de Bourgogne. A wine labeled simply "Muscadet" will be the lightest and simplest style. Muscadet Sevre et Maine, while by no means complex, will, at its best, express the difference in soils (granite, gneiss, or gabbro) found in the region. Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie (“on the lees” -expired yeast cells) will benefit from the antioxidant properties of the decaying yeasts after fermentation and before bottling, keeping the wine fresh, often with just a bit of spritz - a tiny bit of bubble - to make it even more refreshing. Muscadet, no matter the exact appellation, is an incredible value, with prices starting well below $10 per bottle for a good, dependable white and rarely exceeding $20, and that's for the very best the region has to offer. Try Muscadet with a Salade Niçoise, poached or seared scallops, ceviche, or the truly classic pairing: oysters on the half shell with just a drop or two of lemon juice, Tabasco, or shallot/vinegar mignonette.
The vineyards of the central Loire Valley are defined by the Chenin Blanc grape, and nowhere on earth does Chenin Blanc produce a more terroir-expressive wine that delivers such tremendous pleasure in the glass. Look for Saumur (priced in the low to mid-teens), traditionally the "house white" of Parisian bistros and brasseries, an ideal accompaniment to fresh cheeses, fish and seafood, as well as lighter dishes with a bit of spicy heat. The most elegant expression of Chenin Blanc is Savennières, where the vineyard soils are an amalgam of schist, slate, and volcanic rock; the wine is extraordinary. Serve Savennières with roasted or grilled chicken and seasonal, local vegetables. This wine is a bit pricier, starting in the mid-to-high $20s, and moving up from there. Perhaps the most amazing of all the Savennières wines is the grand cru Coulée de Serrant, grown in the biodynamic vineyards of Nicolas Joly, which can age for decades, and at more than $75 per bottle is not a casual purchase, but keep it in mind for a very special occasion and a very special dinner.
Also from the Loire Valley comes the definitive Old World Sauvignon Blanc, grown in the eastern Loire vineyards of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Quincy, and Ménétou-Salon. Pouilly-Fumé is the most complex, and often the most expensive of the four appellations, and might need richer food. The other three districts produce leaner wines, mineral-driven on the nose and palate, which I consider to be more food-friendly and wallet-friendly choices for the Summer. Sancerre is easy to find, and will probably cost in the mid-$20 range, but look for Quincy and Ménétou-Salon, equally as expressive as Sancerre, but at prices that should not exceed the mid-teens. The classic match with any of these wines is fresh goat cheese (and the Hudson Valley has some of the best in the world), but the wines will also marry well with grilled fatty fish, such as salmon, served with a fresh and local peach and corn salsa.
While the Loire Valley is a treasure trove of affordable Summer whites, I want to put in a plug for a real bargain from Burgundy. White Bourgogne is a "sleeper wine," often overlooked (the wine may be 100% Chardonnay or a blend of Chardonnay and Aligoté; if the label reads "Chardonnay" it's 100%). Technically, the grapes can be sourced anywhere in Burgundy (Bourgogne), but the best producers (négociants) often make their Bourgogne wines from the surplus grapes from their best vineyards. Probably the best $10 wine I've had in my life is the 2011 Bourgogne Chardonnay "Laforet" from Joseph Drouhin. A medium-bodied white with just the right balance of fruit, acidity, a tiny, teasing, sexy kiss of oak, and a long finish. I buy this delicious screwcap-finished gem by the case and love to pair it with grilled fish, white meats, mushroom risotto, roasted seasonal veggies, or a burger, a roast beef or turkey sandwich and potato salad for a picnic or cookout.
Even Bordeaux, a legendary region for expensive reds and complex whites, produces a great Summer wine at a great price: Entre Deux Mers. This wine is a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend and is just the thing for simply prepared fish dishes, fresh cheeses, roasted or sautéed veggies, and most of all, oysters. Fruity but dry, with a bit of melon and brininess on the nose and palate, Entre Deux Mers (usually $10-$15) is a real warm-weather treat.
Leaving France, there are many countries and many regions to explore for great Summer whites. Starting in the Minho region of Portugal, the quintessential patio pounder is Vinho Verde, an ultra light, often spritzy white that should be drunk as young and fresh as possible. Some Vinho Verde wines are vintage dated (about $10-$12), some are not (these should be well under $10), but all, by law, must print on their back labels the year that the wine was bottled, and that's the most important date for this wine; it’s probably in six point type. Do not buy a Vinho Verde that was bottled more than two years ago; the fresher the better. Enjoy with a salad of local greens, local cheese, and fruity vinaigrette, or with cured, poached, or fried fish, fresh sardines, and salty, spicy, smoky snacks.
There are two medium-bodied whites from Spain that I crave during the hot weather months: Verdejo from Rueda and Albariño from Rías Baixas. Verdejo is amazingly floral on the nose, redolent with the aromas of honeysuckle, tulips, orchids, as well as the alluring smells of tropical fruits. On the palate, Verdejo is fruit-driven but with a dry finish and medium-bodied. The ideal wine for tapas-style dining - anything from camarones (shrimp) to jamón (cured ham) and everything in between. Albariño cries out for fish and seafood stews, and is the perfect accompaniment to bouillabaisse, cioppino, zuppa di pesce, or paella.
Italy has a wide variety of affordable dry whites ($10 to under-$20) that marry well with the foods and climate of Summer. These light-to-medium bodied wines are at their best when served with fish and seafood because they are fresh and crisp, bringing out the salinity of the dish and the fruit in the wine. Some of my favorites: from the Piedmont region: super-fresh Gavi and the slightly more complex Arneis; from Veneto: Soave Classico; from Tuscany: Vernaccia di San Gimignano; from Lazio: Frascati Superiore; from Marche: Verdicchio; from Umbria: Orvieto Classico; from Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Friulano (formerly Tocai Friulano); from Alto Adige: Pinot Grigio; from Campania: Falanghina; from Sicily: Ansonica/Cataratto blends; from Sardinia: Vermentino di Gallura.
If you've never tried the great whites of Greece, this Summer is a good time to start. Try Moschofilero from the Mantinia wine region on the Peloponnese (about $15). A white wine made from a pale-red grape, Moschofilero features seductive aromatics: rose petal and ginger, with tropical fruits on the palate.
When it comes to Germany, just remember these two words and this one region: Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel. These are the best examples in the world of ripe Riesling in a dry to semi-dry style that will pair beautifully with pan-fried freshwater fish, poultry and pork, as well as a plate of local cheeses and locally cured meats. Riesling Kabinett also marries especially well with spicy vegetarian dishes, as do all of these Summer whites. Prices start at under $15 and peak in the mid-$20s.
In the New World of whites, I don't have many surprises. My go-to wine in the heat of the Summer remains well-chilled Sauvignon Blanc. Whether from New Zealand, Chile, Australia, or California, New World Sauvignon Blanc delivers the goods: fresh fruit flavors in the attack, high acidity to refresh and stimulate the palate, and a finish of almost under-ripe tropical fruits and a pleasant grassiness that is its signature. I am also a huge fan of crisp, refreshing, fruit-driven dry Riesling, especially from the vineyards of the Finger Lakes. Locally, I'm increasingly impressed with the quality of the Hudson Valley's white hybrid-based wines that fit the Summer profile, including unoaked Seyval Blanc, and especially Traminette, which, while maintaining its light body manages to exude the exotic spiciness of its vinifera parent, Gewurztraminer.
This gazetteer of Summer whites is just a jumping-off point for those of you who may want to find a favorite or for those who want to try as many wines as they can during the Summer months. Just remember that when you eat lighter you drink lighter, and don't hesitate to try something new and different. When you pair Summer whites with Summer foods in the company of good friends and loved ones, you just can't go wrong.