Serious Grape: ABC (Anything But Chardonnay)


Please welcome our new wine contributor Kara Newman. She's written about wine and spirits for such publications as Wine Enthusiast and Sommelier Journal magazines, and is the author of Spice & Ice which explores 60 tongue-tingling cocktails. Let's raise our glasses to her first dispatch here. Cheers, and take it away, Kara! —The Mgmt.


I write about wine-related topics but almost never write directly about wine—until now. Usually, my chosen medium is cocktails. I've always enjoyed wine, but found the wine world rather baffling.

It seems like if you don't know everything, you don't know anything. I'm not an expert like a Jancis Robinson or an Alice Feiring. But I know how to learn: by tasting and asking stupid questions (thankfully, a behavior others seem to tolerate!). So I hope you'll enjoy following along as I taste and learn. And I hope you'll be tasting and learning too. Enough preamble: let's talk wine.

When it comes to whites, we always try the same tired varietals: Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Grigio. Riesling.

Each can be wonderful, but there's a whole world of really interesting and unusual whites out there to try. While Chardonnay may rate its own section on a wine menu, often these may be lumped as orphans under "Other White Wines." Many thanks to Ramon Navarez, wine director at Adour at the St. Regis in Washington, D.C., for suggesting these five unusual white wines to try.

1. Arneis (Piedmont, Italy): Floral-scented and full-bodied, with flavors of peaches, pear, and apricot. Although it's now consumed as its own varietal, sometimes it's still referred to as "Nebbiolo Bianco" or "White Barolo," a nod to the fact that at one time it was used to blend with Nebbiolo grapes in the Barolo region, to soften the harsh tannins.

2. Albarino (Northern Spain): Jancis Robinson calls Albarino "the perfumed, elegant aristocrat of the Rias Baixas in Galicia." It's noted for its light body and crisp, relatively high acidity, which makes it a natural to pair with bold and spicy foods, like a seafood paella. Albarino grapes are small and very sweet with unusually thick skins, which help the fruit tolerate the damp climate and also contribute to the acidity and flavor that characterize Albarino wine.

3. Harslevelu (Hungary): Even picky New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov recently had nice things to say about Hungarian whites, many of which are blended with dense, spicy, full-bodied Harslevelu. The word "harslevelu" means "lime leaf," which often can scent the wine. This wine also is furmint's traditional blending partner in Tokaji, which may be a good thing since on its own, it can have "super-high, almost bracing acidity," Navarez warned me. "It's not for everybody."

4. Torrontes (Argentina): Look for this full-bodied, aromatic beauty at your favorite tapas bar. It's the classic white wine of Argentina, and despite its seductively sweet white peach, lychee and honeysuckle aromas, it surprises as relatively dry. Excellent as an aperitif.

5. Assyrtiko (Greece): This grape is native to the volcanic ash-rich island of Santorini, but now is increasingly planted elsewhere in Greece. Prized for its ability to express terroir, Assyrtiko is a refreshing wine, usually displaying citrus and mineral flavors, and a pleasing acidity. Some liken the flavor profile to Riesling. It's often found blended with less-acidic grapes, like Sauvignon blanc or Sémillon.

Want more advice? I recommend Jancis Robinson's lengthy but informative primer on white wine varietals.