We need to talk about white wine

As the weather warms up, many of our palates think of white wines, which partner better with the typical foods we enjoy in an Australian summer. Traditionally, the range has been limited to chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, or bubbles of some kind. Over the last decade or so, we have seen pinot grigio and it’s French version, Pinot Gris, enter the dining landscape; however, despite the regional and stylistic variations, three wine varieties is still a pretty limited range, however you look at it. A recent trip to Portugal highlighted for me the range of white wine flavours that we don’t get to experience here. From the fresh, spritzy zestiness of Vinho Verde, made from Alvarinho and Loureiro grapes grown in the cool valleys of the North, through the minerality of the Douro wines, made from Gouveio, Malvasia, Viosinho and Rubigato, (to name a few); to the perfumed ripeness of the Encruzado grapes grown in the mountainous soils of the Dao, high above the Atlantic, and then to the fantastically dry, flinty, gravelly white wines of the Alentejo, in the baking hot south of Portugal, where cool climate grapes, Arinto and Verdelho struggle yet still marry with heat-loving Roupeiro and Antao Vaz, in wines of great character and style.

But enough of rapturous memories: the point I am trying to make is that the variety of white grapes available to winemakers in Australia and worldwide is enormous. I have only mentioned a few. The varieties suit their own environments, the regional winemaking techniques, and the foods that the area specialises in. Regionality is what we are talking about, folks, on a grand scale. The fresh seafoods and fish of Northern Portugal are perfect with the fresh, zesty Vinho Verde. Those same dishes would be nearly killed if you had them with a robust Southern white; but pair an Alentejo wine with a big garlicky bready acorda of prawns grilled in paprika and garlic and salt, and you have a taste experience made in heaven.

And yet, in Australia, since we do not have that sense of regionality and locality of food and, to a lesser degree, of wine, we miss the experience of THAT wine that is perfect with THAT food, because they evolved together over the centuries. Our wines and foods are, like us, recent immigrants, an unsettled melange of flavours and cultures, without a true sense of place.

This, coupled with a vestigial sense of Britishness in food and beverages, has left us with a mistrust of unusual or unaccustomed flavours and sensations of taste and texture. So that we are content with the familiar buttery, oakey textures of chardonnay; the pissy, cut-grass of Sauvignon Blanc, the supple fruit of Semillon. Nothing too difficult there; we prefer our Sav Blanc ripe, lest the acidity offend us. We like our chardonnay to flop around in our mouth, in the least challenging way possible. We prefer Pinot Grigio, its acidity reminding us of sauvignon blanc, to its twin Pinot Gris, made in a fruitier, fleshier and more unctuous style.

What we don’t do very well in Australia is appreciate white wines outside these familiar parameters. More acid wines, more mineral wines, wines with broader textures, hints of petrol, and almonds, unctuous and glycerous wines; these are palate sensations and textures and flavours that we are not comfortable with, because we have not understood the wine and food pairings yet, where these wines star.

And yet there are more white grape varietals appearing at Cellar doors all over Australia. Vermentino, Fiano, Aglianico, Soave, Alvarinho, and our favourites here at Mount Burrumboot, where we blend them, Marsanne and Viognier, to name a few. Initially, winemakers have tended to make them like chardonnay, or sauvignon blanc, until they have realised that these wines stand out in their own way, and don’t need to be anything else. Also, we have realised that, although we are all recent immigrants, our foods and wines can develop their own sense of place, of regionality, of terroir. As winemakers, we have a responsibility to teach Australian palates about the new white wine varieties that we produce. About why a wine is good with a particular food. And we need to be a lot bolder in the types of foods we suggest. Robust, earthy cured meats from boutique producers, instead of industrial scale, homogenous salamis, and funky, interesting handmade cheeses from small dairy producers, should fill our restaurant menus and home refrigerators. Lots more garlic. Lots more paprika (thinking back to my holiday again!). Whole foods, homegrown vegetables, dry cured hams; these are the foods that evolved with these different white wines.

So, come on, people; be brave. There are interesting, challenging and ultimately amazing new wines to be tried. Unleash your inner food and wine demon, and come over to the dark side.