It’s summer, and in the Cayman Islands that means it’s time for lighter clothes, lighter foods and lighter wines, which are generally white wines.
If you’re the type that enjoys the fruitiness of New World white wines, it’s easy to think you have only two choices – Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – since those two grape varietals make up the large majority of New World white wines.
But there are several other white wine grapes besides those two that originated in the Old World and are now being successfully grown for wine production in the New World.
Although Viognier’s origins are thought to trace back to Croatia, it found a home in the Rhone area of France more than 1,700 years ago and became, for all intents, a French grape.
Viognier is known as being one of the most aromatic white wines, and depending on the climate in which it is grown, can have floral aromas of honeysuckle, orange or lemon blossoms and fruit aromas of ripe peaches, pears, tangerine and pineapple.
It is a full-bodied wine – the alcohol content by volume is often over 14 percent, especially in warmer climates – and it has only medium acidity. Single-varietal Viogniers often have an almost oily mouthfeel on the tongue.
In France, Viognier is used to produce a single-varietal wine in the northern Rhone Valley called Condrieu, as well as in Languedoc. More often, it is used to blend with other Rhone white grapes or with red blends containing Syrah to make the wine more fragrant.
The grape was close to extinction in the 1980s, but since then, winemakers in many places of the world have started producing single-varietal Viogniers.
In North America, Viognier is grown in California, Virginia and British Columbia. It is also grown in several other New World wine producing countries, including Australia, South Africa, Chile and Argentina.
It’s hard not to think of France when considering the grape Semillon, and that starts with its name. In addition to being an important grape in dry white Bordeaux blends, Semillon is the essential grape in the most well-known sweet wines of France – Sauternes and Barsac – because of its susceptibility to botrytis cinerea. Often referred to as “noble rot,” botrytis cinerea is a gray fungus that attaches itself to the skin of grapes and sucks out the moisture, thus concentrating the sugars and acid in the viscous juice left inside. Sauternes is not only very sweet, but also unctuous and syrupy in the mouth as a result.
Depending on the climate it is grown in, Semillon can take on tart citrus or green apple flavors or sweeter flavors like papaya, apricots and mango. Semillon is sometimes aged in oak, in which case it picks up flavors of vanilla to go with a creamier mouthfeel.
When vinified as a dry wine, Semillon, with its medium acidity, is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc as a way of toning down the latter’s sharp acidity. Although Semillon is most often used in the New World in this way, it is also made into a single varietal wine in several countries, with Australia – and particularly the Hunter Valley north of Sydney – leading the way. However, Semillon is also used to make single varietal wines in South Africa and in the American states of Washington and California.
Outside of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris is probably the most recognizable wine in North America, mainly because of its ubiquitous production in Italy, where it is called Pinot Grigio. In Europe, it is also widely planted in Germany and in France – from where it originates – particularly in the Alsace region, as well as several other countries.
In the New World, there are significant plantings of Pinot Gris in Australia and New Zealand, but it is in the United States, particularly in Oregon, where Pinot Gris has gained a firm foothold as a white wine varietal option to Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
Oregon Pinot Gris is darker and has more body than Pinot Grigio from Italy, and is also less acidic. It also tends to have more spice notes and fruit flavors like citrus, peach, mango and pineapple, compared to the relatively muted style of most Italian Pinot Grigios.
Like Pinot Grigio, Oregon Pinot Gris will pair nicely with fresh seafood, but because of its fruitier profile, it will also pair with spicy Asian or curry dishes.
When many people think of Riesling, they think of sweet wines. Although many Rieslings, even in Germany where the grape originates, are indeed very sweet, Riesling can be made very dry, and with varying levels of sweetness in between.
Unlike Viognier, Semillon and Pinot Gris, which all generally have medium acidity, Riesling is a highly acidic grape, especially when grown in cooler climates.
Because of its high acidity and the residual sugar in many semi-sweet and sweet Rieslings, these wines can age much longer than most other white wines. As they age, some Rieslings can take on distinctive aromas of petroleum due to a natural chemical process in the wine that does not affect the taste.
In the New World, Riesling is planted in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well in North America, where it is most prevalent in Ontario, British Columbia, New York and Washington.
Some Washington State Rieslings are very dry and others are semi-sweet, but either style remains acidic, making them excellent for food pairing. Rieslings from Washington have floral aromas to go with fruits like peaches and apples. Sweeter New World Rieslings can pair nicely with the kinds of spicy foods often encountered in the Cayman Islands.