Whites for winter

Cabin in woods and snow

A version of this article, written at the request of a reader, is published by the Financial Times. Photo by [2Ni] on Unsplash.

South Africans and Australians may be baking on the beach but for those of us in the northern hemisphere this is usually the coldest time of year. It’s a time when red-wine enthusiasts feel justified in opening their most warming bottles: port, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, California Zinfandel and its Puglian cousin Primitivo.

But many wine lovers simply don’t like reds, or find that reds don’t agree with them. Investment manager Ellen B Safir of Chevy Chase wrote to me, ‘Winter whites is a marvellous theme in clothing, and I see more and more interest in it. I realise that I need your suggestions for winter whites in wines, with more density, more complexity, more heft.’ I am delighted to oblige.

The obvious places to look for such wines are wine regions with warmer climates, where grapes ripen to quite high levels of alcohol, or heft, but are sufficiently well suited to the locale that they ripen slowly enough to develop interesting flavours too. I started by looking at wines produced in the countries I’ve already mentioned – but fuller-bodied wines are increasingly difficult to find there.

There was a time when Australian whites were almost uniformly hefty but this century there has been a massive reaction to the big, bold Chardonnays of yesteryear and most Australian whites seem to have been put on the strictest diet. Even Giaconda Chardonnay, initially modelled on the weighty Chardonnays of Kistler in California, has been slimmed down.

Varietal Sémillon (often written plain Semillon) from the Barossa Valley was one wine style I remember delivering heft and character but when I went to look in detail at our most recent tasting notes on them on JancisRobinson.com, I kept finding puny alcohol levels of 12% or under. It seems that in Barossa they are replacing the rich style of the past with a copy of the low-alcohol Sémillon from Hunter Valley nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to the east that has long been one of Australia’s unique wine styles. Torbreck is a Barossa Valley winery that has never shied away from heft and concentration. Their Woodcutter's Semillon would be a decent example of a full-bodied dry white.

South Africa can offer a particularly satisfying full-bodied white, also a Sémillon from a famous block of ancient vines in Franschhoek, a totemic wine from Boekenhoutskloof. The 2017 was ‘only’ 13.9% but is so creamy-textured and deep-flavoured that it should certainly qualify as a winter white.

In France the Rhône Valley would be my first port of call. White Châteauneuf-du-Pape would perfectly fit the bill and the wines are so much more refreshing, interesting and long-lived than they once were and white-wine quality has been increasing throughout other appellations in the southern Rhône Valley too.

In the northern Rhône, Condrieu and other Viognier-based whites would also be ideal because the Viognier grape has to reach a fairly high level of potential alcohol in order to express its inherently heady, blossomy character. When I tasted the latest white releases of the most famous Condrieu producer Georges Vernay last summer, I noted alcohol levels of either 14 or 14.5%, but the wines were well balanced and extremely satisfying. Chapoutier, Gangloff, Guigal and Stéphane Montez also make great Condrieu.

Many of the Rhône Valley’s white-wine grapes – not just Viognier but also Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne – yield full-bodied white wines almost wherever they are grown, notably in the Languedoc, where Vermentino may also be included. When these Rhôney blends first became fashionable at the beginning of this century, I found many examples a bit too heavy and lacking refreshment value but again, just as in Châteauneuf, winemakers seem to have become more skilled at turning out wines, often blends of these grapes, that are appetising as well as big and bold. (Mind you, part of the explanation may also be that vines are adapting to warmer, drier summers and managing to retain refreshing acidity levels in the grapes even in torrid conditions. Recent tastings of 2019 burgundies and Barolo 2017s seem to suggest this.)

The upshot is that blends of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Vermentino, or varietal versions of these grapes (made from just one of them), are worth looking out for wherever they are grown. I loved Zaha Marsanne 2019 from Argentina’s new Bodega Teho when I tasted it earlier this year. Domenica in Beechworth, a neighbour of Giaconda in the Australian state of Victoria, is particularly good at both Marsanne and Roussanne. As for Viognier, Yalumba specialise in full-bodied but superbly made Australian examples which have an unusually long life for Viognier-based wines.

There is no shortage of hefty whites from California – perhaps partly because they have been so popular with American wine drinkers. In fact from California I would not head for the Rhône varieties, however well the likes of Alban, Tablas Creek and Qupé have handled them. Many Chardonnays and even Sauvignon Blancs can be quite big and bold enough when ripened in the California sunshine. I would go so far as to suggest that the great majority of California Chardonnays would qualify as winter whites. Producers whose Chardonnays manage to combine complexity and density with heft, and whose wines can also be found outside the US, include DuMOL, Kistler, Kongsgaard, Mount Eden, Pahlmeyer, Ramey and Ridge Vineyards. I have deliberately excluded producers whose Chardonnays are more obviously influenced by Pacific fogs such as those in cooler parts of Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara.

Spain can field many a big-boned white, often from relatively obscure local grape varieties. I’m thinking of the Albillo-based wines of the likes of Marañones, Ermita del Conde and Dominio del Aguila; Máquina & Tabla’s quirky offerings; Mustiguillo’s Valencian whites, one a varietal Merseguera, the other a blend; and the rich whites of Priorat and Empordà in the far north-east, mirrored by some Roussillon whites across the Pyrenees such as Mas Amiel’s Altaïr.

I would be remiss not to remind Ms Safir of how sherry, perhaps particularly the pale ones Fino and Manzanilla, absolutely satisfy her criteria (and how most of them are distinctly underpriced). We’re also seeing an increasing number of exciting table wines coming from Spain’s southernmost vineyards such as the very special offerings from Muchada-Léclapart, which have only about 12.5% alcohol but are certainly deep and complex and would keep many a winter wine drinker happy.

The most obvious Italian candidates as winter whites are grown in the south and islands although both the skin-contact wines of Friuli and the most ambitious blends of Alto Adige would also fit the bill. Portugal can offer a perfect example of a winter white, made from a globally under-appreciated grape variety: sophisticated, ageworthy wines based on the Dão speciality Encruzado.

Any and all of these would warm a white-wine drinker.

A handful of specific suggestions

I have given US availability where possible in view of the inspiration for this article.

The Wine People, Nero Oro Grillo Appassimento 2019 Sicily 13.5%
£9.99 Majestic
Made in the Marsala zone from dried grapes to make a dense dry wine that would be great with cheese.

Antonella Corda 2019 Vermentino di Sardegna, Sardinia 14%
£16–£19.50 various UK independents, $19–$23 Stanley’s Wet Goods in Culver City and other US retailers
Made from Sardinia’s signature grape grown in a particularly fine vineyard established by Antonella’s famous viticulturist grandfather Antonio Argiolas. Broad but far from fat with a refreshing saline finish.

Yangarra, Roux Beauté Roussanne 2017 McLaren Vale, South Australia 13%
$44.95 Shoppers Wines NJ and other US retailers
Half of these Rhône grapes were given 131 days of skin contact. Honey, herbs, mildly funky and admirably persistent

Dom Georges Vernay, Coteau de Vernon 2018 Condrieu 14.5%
From £89.99 various UK retailers (imported by Yapp Bros) and from $145 various US retailers (imported by Broadbent Selections)
The pinnacle of Condrieu and its longest-lived example but it’s certainly impressive already. Really deep flavours of apricot and blossom but it’s also savoury, with tension that may well be granite-influenced. Serve with deserving food.

International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com