There are a few words many American wine sellers hear more than any others: "I'm looking for a white wine—something crisp and dry."
Sound familiar? Maybe you loved a French wine you had at a local café, or you're looking for a bright Italian white that'll be refreshing at a picnic on a hot afternoon. Perhaps you want something light and easy-drinking, or maybe you just want something cheap (and not embarrassing to bring to a dinner party).
When I'm looking for this kind of advice, I like to pick the brain of my neighborhood wine shop owner, who has tasted a vast range of options before stocking her shelves, and who's seen which wines her regulars come back for again and again. She's also got her eye on underrated regions that offer the best bang for my buck—so I decided to gather some of that great advice here, as well as picks from a few of my other favorite wine shop owners around the country. Looking for a crisp, dry, and affordable white wine? Here are the bottles these pros are most excited about.
Stevie Stacionis, Bay Grape in Oakland
Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino call their Oakland gem "a wine shop and community gathering place." They host low-key classes and tastings most days of the week, and invite neighbors to come and pop any bottle of beer, wine, or soda they find in the store. "We want to help people learn more about what they're drinking and how to describe it so you can drink more of what you like," says Stacionis. What's on the shelves? "We're a mom-and-pop shop, so we like to support mom-and-pop producers and share their stories with our guests."
When a guest asks for a crisp, dry white, I start by asking: "By 'crisp,' do you mean lots of tart acidity and more of a minerally rather than fruity flavor?" Assuming yes, I'd offer three suggestions.
First: dry Riesling from Australia or Austria—both of these countries focus on dry Rieslings that will definitely surprise you with their acidity and minerality if you think all Rieslings are sweet. Make no mistake, these are dry. We have the Dandelion Vineyards Wonderland of the Eden Valley from Australia at $23 and the Bründlmayer Kamptaler Terrassen Riesling at $24.
Second option, Muscadet from the Pays Nantais of France's Loire Valley. Muscadet has nothing to do with Muscat. It's an area that's smushed up against the Atlantic Ocean in northern France and makes wines from a grape called melon de Bourgogne. The wines are famously paired with oysters and have a similarly briny, clean, lean, tart, lemony profile. I'd recommend the Pépière Les Gras Moutons at $18.
The third option would be a Pinot Blanc from the Pfalz in Germany. In Germany, they call this grape Weissburgunder, and it comes with super-intense acidity and an amazing stoniness. Koehler-Ruprecht is an incredible producer making a Kabinett Trocken Weissburgunder (that means light, tart, and dry Pinot Blanc) that sells for $18.
Craig Perman, Perman Wine Selections in Chicago
Craig Perman has been in the wine business for more than 18 years. After a stint in Oregon, he returned to his hometown of Chicago and found a lack of small specialty wine shops. "I wanted to change that," he says. "I don't own a ton of inventory, because I don't want to have to push wine out the door irrespective of what you like. Big-box stores have to do this; little guys, not so much.... We don't sell anything that we wouldn't love to drink ourselves."
Wine-speak is a complex language, and many of us use different terms to express the same thing. My first reaction is to always delve a little deeper into your preferences: I always ask for an example of a recent wine that you enjoyed in a restaurant or at home. Then I'd offer a few suggestions that all fall into the category of "a crisp, dry white," but give you the option of different weights and flavors. A few of my favorites are:
Château l'Oiselinière de la Ramée Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine, around $15 per bottle. We adore the Loire Valley, and for many years, those in the business have had a love affair with Muscadet. It's a perfect white wine for those who want something on the light side, without a lot of big fruity flavor. This is a fresh, mineral-dominated wine with some hints of citrus and herbs. Proprietor Bernard Chéreau doesn't get enough credit for his wines, which are consistently delicious and impressive for the price.
Lagar de Darei Branco, around $13 per bottle. Lagar de Darei is an emerging star in the Portuguese wine scene. This is a blend of indigenous Portuguese varieties, such as encruzado, malvasia-fina, cereal branco, bical, and more, planted on granite soil. I always get a slight aromatic hint of pineapple skin with these wines, but it's not tropical, more citrusy, with a bit of saltiness on the finish.
Celler Pardas "Rupestris," around $15 per bottle. There is a huge landscape when it comes to Spanish white wine, yet the white wines of the Penedès are rarely mentioned. Maybe it's because Cava, Spain's sparkling wine, really dominates the scene there, but I also feel that the few producers of the region who haven't sold their soul to commercialization have had difficulty finding a voice in the Spanish wine market. This winery specializes in still wines made from xarel-lo, a grape notably found in the blend of Cava. This is a medium-bodied white, with citrus notes that aren't flamboyant, supported with hints of thyme, rosemary, almond, and lots of minerals.
Cameron "Giovanni" Pinot Bianco, around $19 per bottle. For a long time, I've been a huge fan of the wines of John Paul, owner/winemaker at Cameron in Oregon's Willamette Valley. One of my favorite values from John Paul is this white wine. While listed as a Pinot Bianco (a.k.a. Pinot Blanc), it's actually made from 60% Pinot Blanc, and the other 40% is Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. All the fruit is from Abbey Ridge vineyard, one of the premiere sites in the Dundee Hills. Not only is this super complex, with hints at lemon and lime zest, peach, and spice, it's also amazingly thirst-quenching.
Christy Frank, Frankly Wines in NYC
Located in the southern part of Tribeca, Christy Frank's first little shop opened eight years ago. The motto: "Fine wine. No attitude." It's a neighborhood wine store that's worth traveling to even if Tribeca isn't your neighborhood. As Frank puts it, at Frankly Wines, "everyday values sit proudly next to obscure geek-bait selections." Up in the Hudson Valley, Frank opened Copake Wine Works with her husband, Yanai Frank, last summer, and since the second shop has a bit more space, they're able to offer a mix of classics plus "cool-kid bottlings" in addition to a large selection of wine and spirits from New York.
I make no assumptions when someone asks for a crisp, dry white, and will try to draw out some more information. I'll ask, are there grapes you like? Or a region you're thinking about? "Dry" is an especially loaded word, so sometimes I'll ask, "Dry like a Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre? Or dry like a creamy Chardonnay?" If the answer is "creamy Chardonnay," I'll go down a completely different path, but if it seems like we're both talking about "crisp and dry" in the same way, I'll point out a classic, like a Sancerre.
But then I'll really try to lead you to someplace more adventurous. Greece is a great place to find crisp whites that warrant a $20+ price tag. The Hatzidakis Assyrtiko is one of my favorites. Crisp, racy acidity, but balanced by enough texture to make it interesting. And it's always fun to assure people that, yes, there is great wine from Greece.
I also love the Casa de Mouraz Encruzado. It's from a husband-and-wife team that's working biodynamically in the Dão in Portugal. It's like amazingly delicious water—clean and limpid—like a crystalline river caught in a bottle.
Kerri Platt, The Wine Bottega in Boston
Kerri Platt says she "fell into wine by fortuitous accident." She studied biology at Yale, then moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in public health. (She ended up working as a baker instead.) "This led to waiting tables, and eventually restaurant management, where I fell in love with wine." She spent two wine-drenched years getting a master's in wine business at the University of Adelaide in Australia, then headed to Boston to work in wine sales for several years before purchasing The Wine Bottega in 2008. The shop focuses on what Platt calls "real wine": "We are inspired by the farmers who break their backs for the benefit of their vines and use a gentle hand to guide the ancient act of fermentation," she says.
Our absolute favorite when it comes to dry white wines is the Poderi Cellario Favorita (around $15) from the Langhe in Italy. It is crisp, clean, and charming. We purposely don't carry any Pinot Grigio in the shop—we want to try and nicely nudge people out of their comfort zones. This bottle will make any Pinot Grigio drinker happy while still introducing them to the wonderfully varied world of Italian grape varieties. It is produced by the lovely Fausto and Cinzia Cellario, who farm biodynamically. Their children design the simple labels. You really feel like you have been welcomed to the table by an Italian family.
We are also huge fans of Italian frizzante wines. The TreRè Pagadebit Frizzante from Romagna (around $14) will put a smile on anyone's face with its bristling tickle of bubbles. Many people are more familiar with Lambrusco, the sparkling reds that hail from Emilia-Romagna, so this white can be a fun surprise. The grape, pagadebit, actually gets its name from "to pay your debts," as the vines produce a lot of fruit, so winemakers would have enough to sell as well as to enjoy for themselves. At this price point, you can also afford to drink a lot.
While my mind generally goes toward Italy first, I also can't say enough good things about the wines from Kenny Likitprakong and his various projects in California. Kenny was formerly a professional skateboarder and also holds a master's degree in creative writing. We think of him as kind of a modern-day Renaissance man. Under his Folk Machine label, he just released his 2015 White Light (around $20), which is an unexpected blend of tocai friulano, verdelho, and riesling. The result is gorgeously aromatic, but citrus-driven and dry on the palate.