Domaine Albert Boxler, Alsace

The following is an article written for on-trade drinks magazine Imbibe.

In a world of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, floral whites are a tough sell. Matt Walls asks top somms which varieties might be ready for a summer of love…

The tastes of sommeliers are sometimes at odds with the wine-drinking public. I’m talking about what they wear, of course – formal monochrome went out with Kraftwerk – but also what they drink. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec are loved by consumers but often loathed by professionals. Conversely there is one category of wines that, for all their enthusiasm, somms can have trouble shifting. Floral whites such as Viognier, Gewurztraminer, dry Muscat and Torrontés are distinctive, food-friendly, great value and have a strong sense of place. But for your average wine drinker they’re as trendy as baggy jeans worn with platform shoes. We talked to some of the UK’s hippest sommeliers to see how best to work with this style of wine, and if any of them might make a comeback.

Viognier

Viognier is the most widespread of our four grapes but there was a time when it nearly died out completely. The variety was once only found in Condrieu in the Northern Rhône, where in the 1950s plantings dwindled to just six hectares as growers abandoned the steep terraced vineyards in favour of an easier life. It has since made a comeback and can now be found planted from California to New Zealand.

Full-bodied and opulent with aromas of peach, jasmine and almond, it’s nothing if not distinctive. But it’s not the easiest grape to handle; less successful examples can be flabby, oily or overly pungent. As with all powerfully flavoured wines, it divides opinion. “Some people love it, some hate it,” says Jacopo Mazzeo, Head Sommelier at The Pig in Brockenhurst, Hampshire. “I don’t see many people actively looking for classic expressions of Viognier,” he says, but “Viognier from the New World appears to be a bit more popular” as it usually offers good value for money.

Neil Tabraham, owner of Wine Geeks Wine School, says there’s value to be had at the top end too with Viognier. “A good Viognier can compare to a good white Burgundy with broader pairing appeal,” he says, “but for a much smaller price tag. They can also age well which is a consideration at the top end that may not sell so quickly.”

How does it work with food?

Fish and shellfish are a common match for Viognier. Nacho Campo at London steak specialist Hawksmoor Borough suggests scallops, lobster and lemon sole, but would even match it with beef, such as “a lean steak, like a fillet, with béarnaise and cauliflower cheese”. Paul Amsellem of leading Condrieu estate Domaine Georges Vernay suggests asparagus, lobster, scallops and goats cheese with his wines but says it’s important to remember to avoid acidic sauces, which can show up the lack of acidity that is a calling card of the grape.

So, is it likely to make a comeback?

Support for Viognier seems to be strong. Jacopo Mazzeo believes “we’re going to see a lot more Viognier from the New World (e.g. South America and New Zealand) in the coming years”. But some sommeliers want to keep the good stuff to those in the know. “I do not wish Viognier and especially Condrieu to be fashionable!” says Stamatis Iseris of The Strathearn at The Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire: “I would like it to remain a diva.”

Fashion equivalent:  floral maxi dress
Little black dress matchability score: 8
Next big thing comeback rating: 7

Gewurztraminer

Often thought to be a German speciality, Gewurztraminer is much more common in France, specifically Alsace, and is growing in plantings worldwide. It’s another full-bodied, exuberantly aromatic grape, but this time the floral allusions are roses rather than jasmine, backed up by lychee, citrus and Indian spices.

Most sommeliers I spoke to love Gewurztraminer – with reservations. Valentin Radosav, Head Sommelier at Indian fine dining restaurant Gymkhana in Mayfair, London, describes it as “a tricky grape” that can lack balance. “Sometimes too floral, other times too heavy in texture, it lacks that ripe citrus element (orange, grapefruit) to balance the heavy or floral texture. But when you get all the elements right, you have an amazing experience ahead. It’s a grape that’s worth more attention.”

A major sticking point with Gewurztraminer is knowing how sweet it’s going to be – thankfully within a couple of years in Alsace it will be obligatory to state this on the label. Iseris admits it’s an unpopular grape, but blames this mostly on its name. “With or without an umlaut, it’s a tongue-twister,” he says. But he praises its versatility and diversity. Tabraham agrees. “I’m sure I could create a fantastic and varied tasting menu just using Gewurztaminer to pair with,” he says, “in fact, I may just try that one day. It’s also hugely appreciated by guests when served as a pairing wine.”

How does it work with food?

Its affinity with Indian and Asian dishes is well-known, and confirmed by Radosav. “It’s very good for Indian food, because it’s expressive in flavours and has the texture and the consistency on the palate. At Gymkhana we have various Gewurztraminer from France, Italy, Germany and Chile. My favourite is the 2008 Steingrubler Grand Cru from Barmes Buecher, Alsace, France. It’s very complex, well balanced, a great value wine that I recommend for rich and hot spicy dishes. An excellent choice for our Gilafi Quail seekh kebab, served with green chilli chutney.” Jean Boxler from Alsace legend Domaine Albert Boxler advises pairing it with cheese – but never dessert.

So, is it likely to make a comeback?

Gewurztraminer will continue to gain fans and detractors in equal measure, but it’s unlikely a grape with such eye-popping flamboyancy will ever seduce the mainstream. Iseris thinks it can, but “only if sommeliers acknowledge its astounding versatility and use its diversity of styles accordingly.” Now there’s a challenge.

Fashion equivalent:  1960s French haute couture
Little black dress matchability score: 7
Next big thing comeback rating: 4

Dry Muscat

Another Alsace speciality, but Alsatian Muscat is very different to Gewurz. It’s reliably dry, light-bodied and relatively low in alcohol, with aromas of orange, fresh grapes and a clean, grassy freshness. Dry Muscat can also be found in the Roussillon, Portugal, Hungary, Italy and Chile. ‘Muscat’ is a broad church, encompassing dozens of different grapes; in Alsace, however, Muscat can refer to either Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains or Muscat Ottonel.

Most wine lovers know Muscat as a sweet grape. “It’s so strongly associated with sweet wines,” says Mazzeo, “that consumers find it hard to change their perception of the grape” and this holds the dry style back. It’s a shame, as it can be a refreshing and versatile wine and from entry-level wines up to Grand Cru level it often represents good value. Tabraham is a fan. “It’s generally fresh, crisp and aromatic and not too challenging or alcoholic.”

But it’s not without its drawbacks. “I can’t help thinking,” Tabraham continues, “that it’s just too simple, even for less sophisticated palates.” Radosav agrees that it can lack complexity and length on the palate. But great wines need to be grown on great terroir, and all too often it’s Riesling that gets first dibs, as Muscat can be a hard sell. Marc Hugel of the Alsace producer that bears the family name says things were once very different. “In the 16th century,” he says, “it was the most popular and best variety.” Why things changed, he can’t say: fashion can be fickle.

How does it work with food?

Fuller-bodied floral whites often demand food, but Muscat works well both at the bar and at the table. Iseris finds the Vina Lauria ‘Solerte’ Zibbibo from Sicily (Zibbibo is the Sicilian name for Muscat of Alexandria) is a perfect match with a dish of heritage tomatoes, goat’s curd, basil leaves and garden shoots. “Just to break tradition and ‘take our revenge’ on Sauvignon Blanc!” he exclaims with glee. In fact, there is plenty of synergy between the two grapes and their natural partners; think asparagus, white fish and fresh herbs like basil and coriander.

So, is it likely to make a comeback?

Hugel says that in Alsace “Muscat was dying out fifty years ago, but it’s coming back.” It’s also gaining traction in Chile, where old vines and new approaches to vinification such as amphorae and skin contact are being combined to impressive effect, such as the De Martino ‘Viejas Tinajas’ Muscat from Itata. But until it’s really owned and cherished by a major wine region, it’s unlikely dry Muscat will ever really become fashionable – it’s just too niche.

Fashion equivalent:  tie dye
Little black dress matchability score: 5
Next big thing comeback rating: 2

Torrontés

Argentina’s signature white grape Torrontés encompasses three varieties: Torrontés Riojano, Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendocino. The first is the most widely planted and considered the finest, but they’re rarely specified on the label. All three are natural field crossings with Muscat of Alexandria and other local varieties, which accounts for its aromatic profile, which tends towards rose, jasmine and citrus.

Torrontés performs ever more strongly at the Sommelier Wines Awards, and although feelings toward the variety among sommeliers is generally positive, it’s held back by a lack of consumer awareness. “It’s not as popular as it could be, says Mazzeo “if we take into account how popular Argentinian wine is. Most consumers still associate Argentina with Malbec, and as a consequence there’s little room left for anything else.”

Although uniformly praised for offering good value, buying with care is advisable as quality can be variable; some are overly oily in texture or lack acidity. Bodegas Colomé makes a superb example, and their export Manager Nicolás Cornejo Costas counters that times are changing. “A new generation of winemakers in the Valley have worked on a more elegant and fine style of Torrontés,” he says. “it’s linked to its floral style but also highlights the citrus, white flowers and peach notes.”

How does it work with food?

Like most floral wines, spice is a happy partner. Costas says that Torrontés has found a place “alongside the native spicy foods from Asia, Mexico, Peru & the Andes and India.” Radosav lists a 2015 Piattelli Vineyards Torrontés from Salta, and recommends “a dish with a light to medium level of sweet spice intensity (cardamom, ginger, nutmeg). In this way you can enjoy the flavours of the food and the wines at the same time…. something like Ajwaini scallops, mooli sabzi and achar.” Fish and shellfish seem to be where Torrontés performs best.

So, is it likely to make a comeback?

Could Argentina do for Torrontés what it’s done for Malbec? “If Argentinian producers manage to promote Argentina as a valuable wine-producing country,” says Mazzeo, “rather than simply associate its name to a single variety, then I see good potential for Torrontés.” Despite its current success with Malbec, it’s unwise for Argentina to keep all its eggs in one basket. If Torrontés producers can concentrate on lowering yields, increasing quality and reigning in the variety’s more extreme textural and aromatic tendencies, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Fashion equivalent:  cowboy boots
Little black dress matchability score: 6
Next big thing comeback rating: 6

First published in Imbibe magazine, but this version is longer.

 

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