subtle wines that are refreshing and don't hog center stage
by josh perilo
recently, at the restaurant where i serve as wine director, i was clearing out our inventory of old wines and giving away past selections to fellow employees. the head bartender, jason, took a bottle of a higher end chardonnay from oregon called arcadian "sleepy hollow." it was a full-bodied, rich and buttery wine that was almost a meal by itself.
jason is the quiet type and generally doesn't offer his opinion unless asked. probably from years of dealing with our overly chatty bar regulars, he is given to leaning back and nodding faux-thoughtfully in almost any interaction that doesn't absolutely require an audible response.
last week, however, he was moved to speak.
"had that chardonnay with a roast chicken i made the other night."
"wow," i said. "i bet that was a great pairing!"
"nah," he quipped back. "i don't really like oaky wines. i don't really like wines with any flavor, actually."
"what kind of wine do you like, then?"
he stared at the ceiling for a moment as though it might provide him with the answer, and then replied:
"i like flavorless wines."
i laughed, thinking his contrarian comment was strictly for comedic intent. then i thought about what he was saying. while i don't believe that any good wine is truly flavorless, there are wines with subtler notes that serve a different purpose. instead of throwing around big flavors like butter, grapefruit and oak, these wines let the foods they are paired with do the heavy lifting. they are supporting characters and act as a foil for whatever dish with which they are served. and, if enjoyed by themselves, are simple, thirst-quenching and refreshing.
so, to those out there like jason, who want a quiet and refined quaffer, i offer the following suggestions:
the first stop for any subtle white-wine connoisseur should be central italy. the place is lousy with light whites, and many of them are as complex as they are austere. from the east-central coast of italy in the le marche region comes marchetti verdicchio dei castelli di jesi classico 2008 ($12.95 at sherry-lehman wine and spirits, 505 park ave. at 59th st., 212-838-9285). crisp, light and subtle, but definitely not boring, this wine has hints of green apple and dill with a surprisingly floral nose. if you've ever been stumped about what kind of wine to serve with a salad, look no further.
traveling farther north and west in italy is the area of gavi, where the bright and clean-tasting cortese grape is made into the area's namesake wine. the la scolca gavi di gavi white label 2007 ($19.99 at yorkshire wines and spirits, 1646 1st ave. at 85th st., 212-717-5100) is as restrained and spare as wine gets. with scents of grass and ultra-light flavors of lemon zest, wet stone and fine herbs, this is a wine that was made to play second-fiddle to an ice cold plate of cherry stones on the half shell.
france's alsace region is usually known for their big and bold white wines made from the riesling and gewurztraminer grapes. less celebrated, but often as good, are the alsatian pinot blancs. this grape, which is usually underwhelming, flourishes in this neck of the woods and has just the right balance of creaminess and acidity, while still remaining light and refreshing. the willm pinot blanc 2007 ($12.99 at 67 wine and spirits, 179 columbus ave. at 68th st., 212-724-6767) is a perfect example of this. pear and apple scents give way to light white peach, flint and the tiniest hint of white pepper on the palate. it is satisfying all by itself, but even tastier with a plate of grilled shrimp.
so, if you're like jason and long for a bottle of juice that won't take center stage and hog your palate's attention, try these on for size. flavorless wine never tasted so good!
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