Some readers wrote me nice emails about my “Whites of Alternate Stripes” column, so I thought I’d try playing a winning hand again. (Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead but, as the old drinking joke goes, I’m no quitter.)
My theme last time was alternatives to Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, which are fine grapes and can make fine wines, but they’re not the only bunches on the vine. With hundreds (yes, hundreds) of white grapes in the world we need to branch out, be adventurous.
This time I’m recommending three lesser-known Italian whites — Oveito, Vermentino and Arneis; plus an American-born hybrid — Traminette.
Orvieto wine is a white-grape blend named for the town of Orvieto in Umbria, central Italy. I tried Ruffino’s Orvieto Classico (2012), which is a fusion of (probably obscure-sounding) grapes grown in the region: Grechetto, Procanico, Verdello and Canaiolo Bianco.
Ruffino’s Orvieto is extremely light, both in color and body. It has faint aromas of white fruits (pear and grape), with white peach and pear on the palate. It’s not at all tart and, in fact, almost seems sweet, although it’s definitely a dry wine. Because its flavors are so light, this wine could easily be overpowered by really flavorful foods. I’d enjoy it as an aperitif, by itself or with some very mild cheeses, or maybe even in a spritzer. Decanting releases more flavors — decant, chill and serve. (12 percent ABV; $9 at Cain’s Piggly Wiggly stores.)
In contrast to Orvieto, Vermentino isn’t a blended wine, but a white grape grown largely in northern Italy (Piedmont and Tuscany) and in Sardinia, although it’s sometimes grown in southern France (and called “Rolle” there). Vermentino is often used to make fresh, light wines, but Tuscan Vermentino tends to have more complexity, and can be compared to Viognier or Chardonnay for its fruity, floral characteristics and noticeable backbone.
I tried the Terre di Talamo “Vento” Maremma Toscana Vermentino (2010), and was impressed by its depth and sturdiness. It had citrus and pineapple aromas followed by ripe cantaloupe, guava and apricot flavors. The acidity was good and there was a slight tannic edge — maybe from seeds getting caught in crushing. If I hadn’t known differently, I might’ve thought I was drinking a good American Chardonnay — one not overly aged in oak.
Actually, I’m not sure I’d tried Vermentino before (except maybe in wine class; Italy has more than 2,000 native grape varieties and Tuscany alone has 130, so a girl can lose track). In any case, I’m definitely adding it to my “buy more” list. Serve Vermentino with veal or chicken Parmesan, or with manicotti; it will stand up to heavier foods than you expect. (ABV 14 percent; $10; available online.)
Ready for another delicious, obscure Italian grape? Try Arneis, a white grape grown for centuries in the Piedmont region. Arneis is grown in the U.S., too — around Sonoma, Calif., and in Washington’s Willamette Valley — as well as more recently in cooler regions of Australia and New Zealand. Arneis generally produces highly aromatic dry wines with aromas of almonds, apricots, peaches, pears and hops. (Yes, dear beer hounds, hop flavors in wine!) Its flavors stress pear and apricot. Arneis also goes by the names Bianchetta and Bianchetto (particularly when grown near Alba) and Nebbiolo bianco.
I bought Vietti’s “Roero Arneis” at Red or White (Old Shell Road) after trying it from their by-the-glass wine list. The 2012 vintage has a pale yellow color with fresh green apple, citrus and melon aromas.
Taste-wise, this is not a “fruit forward” wine. A dusty whiff of hazelnut was my first impression, followed by sharp citrus notes and a long dry finish. Roero Arneis is an unoaked wine with crisp acidity, made from 25-year-old vines in Piedmont’s Santo Stefano Roero region. It’s fermented in stainless steel vats, cooled to retain some natural carbon dioxide in the wine — which you’ll sense as tiny tinglings on your tongue. It works best with light foods, although it can cut some fat. Salads, cold soups, scallops, lightly grilled (not marinated) chicken will work well; it’s magic with Jarlsberg Swiss (13.5 percent ABV; $22).
Returning to U.S. soil, have you tried Traminette? It’s a little-known American grape variety and the wine produced from it is called, conveniently, Traminette. It’s aromatic like Viognier, spicy like Gewurztraminer and sweet like Muscat, but with a well-rounded cohesion dialing each trait down a notch. It has good acidity without being tart, medium body without being oily and just enough sweetness to complement salty foods or to drink on its own.
Traminette actually hasn’t been around very long, unlike grape varieties that have their roots in Roman times. This grape was created in 1965 at the University of Illinois, by a scientist who crossed a hybrid native-American/French table-grape with the German Gewurztraminer wine-grape. His aim was to develop a table-grape with Gewurztraminer’s spicy zip (because most native-American grapes are unsuitable for wine).
Traminette vines were propagated in the 1970s after experts unexpectedly discovered the grapes had wine potential — combined with high productivity, partial disease resistance and cold hardiness superior to even Gerwurztraminer, which has to survive some pretty rough winters back in Deutschland. Those strengths make Traminette ideal for vineyards in more northerly states — such as Indiana, where it’s the state wine. Traminette is also made in New York, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Virginia.
My adventure was with the 2010 Traminette vintage from Willowcroft Winery in Leesburg, Va., and it was outstanding. It had everything I expected: white-flower aromas like Viognier, a dose of Gewurztraminer allspice and a sweetness that stopped short of syrupy. Its fruit flavors centered on apricot and ripe peach; the finish was long and the acidity good.
It was indulgent and fun with salty snacks (you’d be amazed by what I drink with potato chips) and appetizers based on prosciutto or olive bread. Depending on your tolerance for sweetness, you could also serve it at dessert — paired with pumpkin pie (especially with a graham cracker crust), strawberry shortcake or trifle. (13.2 percent ABV; $18 for 500-ml bottles from the winery, which is working on shipping to Alabama — fingers crossed!)