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White Zinfandel and the Best White Wine You’re Not Drinking

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Back in the 1970s, Sutter Home Winery found themselves with a surplus of Zinfandel grapes and a demand for increased white wine production. The answer? White Zinfandel! You know, the stuff that dominates store aisle end-caps and bad office parties. These wines scarcely sold when they were labeled as “Blush Wines.” Later on, however, the wines were marketed as “White Zinfandel” and somehow became a huge commercial success. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the best part of the Zinfandel grape is the skin. Both Zinfandel and White Zinfandel wines are made from the same grape. When [Red] Zinfandel is made, the skin is allowed to remain in contact with the crushed juice long enough to impart deep color, tannins, and structure. When White Zinfandel is made, however, the grape skin is discarded early, leaving behind a light pink juice. What you are left with is a dubious and insipid beverage. It’s akin to eating a banana peel and throwing away the banana. 

Some people like it anyway and I suspect it’s because of its inherent sweetness. So let’s talk about the sweet wine you might consider drinking in its place, German Riesling. Imagine another sweet white wine with enough acid and complexity to bolster its sweetness. They are great now, but in the early years…not so much!  In the 1950s, it was common to add table sugar to these wines because of their awful bitterness. Worse still, the reintroduction of these wines into the U.S. market during the 1970s conjures up images of the then-popular Blue Nun and Black Tower Liebfraumilch, which translated means “Milk of the Blessed Mother.” Strict labeling and improved quality have made modern German Riesling the go-to wine in today’s market. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they are now among the most delicious, versatile, and user-friendly wines in the world. 

What makes Riesling wines versatile? Generally speaking, they have low alcohol levels, plenty of sweetness, and a palate-cleansing acidity that can either match the richness of certain dishes or “cut through” them as necessary.  The French sometimes refer to Riesling as a “Repair Wine” because of its innate ability to refresh and rejuvenate a fatigued palate. 

I wouldn’t presume to bore you with verbose descriptions of German wine terms and regions. Rather, the goal here is to give you a simple take-away that you can put to use immediately–that take-away is Riesling SpätleseSpätlese (pronounced: Shpate-lazuh), is a designation of quality and ripeness that can be found on certain bottles of German Riesling. German Riesling has a sort of ripeness/sweetness continuum beginning with the least ripened, Tafelwein (Table Wine) and ending with the most ripened, Eiswein (Ice Wine). Spätlese falls somewhere in the didactic middle–a sort of John McCain of Riesling. Strictly speaking, It represents one of the best quality-to-price ratios. It’s hard to imagine a better white wine at its price point.  

So what’s the most unusual thing about Riesling, other than the fact that it always seems to be made by “Doctors” with the initials “J.J.?” It’s the fact that no one is drinking it. OK, people drink it, but when you go to the local wine shop, it is usually relegated to a small section on a corner shelf. Finding the German wine section in any store is an onerous task, but those seeking out these well-made wines will be vastly rewarded! 

Author’s Picks:

’13 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spätlese $47.99
’12 J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese $39.99

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