With rich whites, there is some leeway. Interestingly, the groups of rich whites sort of break down by sweetness (sugar certainly adds weight) and an inherent richness. In a way, a paucity of acid could be the third pillar of rich white wines and I’m thinking that that would make for a fine article on its own; but today let’s just take a look at those oily whites you love, or hate.
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Among the rich whites, Marsanne might just be my favorite. It’s a grape that gives rich, powerful, dry wines redolent of nut, earth and heathery honied tones that come with age. In general, Marsanne is rarely bottled on its own, needing some extra acid to keep things well-balanced, though varietal examples do exist.
Marsanne’s home is the northern Rhone Valley in France, where it is typically blended with a bit of Rousanne to add complexity and acidity. Marsanne is a unique character in more ways than one. Not only are these rich wines powerfully built with flavors of quince and apricot, but they go through what is known as a dumb phase. While this, in and of itself, is unusual for white wines, Marsanne is even more complicated, showing oxidized and meek aromas and flavors during its dumb phase before emerging after 10 or 12 years to reveal a leaner, more transparent and reinvigorated fruity wine. A remarkable transformation that moves aged Marsanne out of the rich white category.
So since we’re talking about rich whites, we might as well move on to…
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Semillon, and you thought I was going to say Roussane, didn’t you! Actually, Semillon is here based on a transformation that is quite the opposite of Marsanne’s. When young, Semillon tends to be rather neutral, with waxy aromas and featuring simple citrus and apple aromas and flavors. With age, however, the wines take on weight and gain rich honey tones with deep flavors of quince paste, fig and even some butterscotch.
Semillon is most common in Bordeaux, where it is blended with Sauvignon Blanc in particular, for the production of both the sweet wines of Sauternes and dry Bordeaux Blanc. Dry Semillon is produced around the world in modest quantities, though Australia is the center of attention when it comes to producing these varietal wines that can make the transition form young and zippy, if a bit innocuous, to rich and worldly, almost wizened with age! Can’t wait for your wine to gain this kind of richness? Well then head to the store for a bottle of…
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Yes, Riesling. I know what you’re saying. “Riesling should be with the aromatic whites.” Well, yes it should. “Riesling should be with the light, crisp white wines.” Well, yes it could. So why then is Riesling here with the rich white wines? Simply because many, if not most, Rieslings are endowed from birth with a bit or more of residual sugar. There is no denying that sugar adds weight and richness to wines, so for most people, I think this would be a sensible place to include Riesling.
Incidentally, since we are talking about the evolutionary tendencies of these rich wines, it is worth pointing out that the sugar in wines tends to disappear over time. Lightly sweet wines turn almost dry, and sweet wines turn lightly sweet, which also means that richness based on residual sugar will fade with time, so if you’re looking for a rich Riesling, look for either a young wine or a particularly sweet version.
Riesling is grown around the world and the grape has an uncanny ability to reveal the terroir on which it is grown, while at the same time, having the annoying habit of not really telling you how sweet it is on the label. As such, Riesling should have its own treatise here and that will come with time, but for now let this suffice: Riesling is delicious and straddles so many genres of wine that everyone should be out trying a few. If you find that you like Riesling but you’re looking for something new, why don’t you try a little…
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I know we’re getting to obscure grapes now, but Kerner is just a natural fit here. A cross between Riesling and the pale red variety Schiava, Kerner is like a richer Riesling.
Grown in Germany, but reaching its peak of expression in Italy’s Alto-Adige, Kerner is similar to Riesling yet with softer acidity and more innate richness, two issues that residual sugar had tended to mitigate. With relatively pronounced flavors of orchard fruits, tropical fruits, melon and spices, there’s a lot to like in Kerner. Unfortunately, there is usually also a lot of alcohol, an argument for leaving a bit of sugar in the wines, since leaving unfermented sugar in a wine lowers the wine’s potential alcohol.
I love a good Kerner; it’s offbeat, yet familiar, but it may not be for everyone, so if you’re looking for something that may be a little sweeter and a bit more mainstream check out…
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Chenin Blanc mainstream, you say? Yes indeed and if it’s not really, well it should be. Chenin Blanc is arguably the greatest grape that doesn’t get its due. Not only is it a prolific producer, it is also a flexible base, producing everything from dry sparkling wines to rich, powerful, ageless dessert wines and all styles in-between.
When produced in a dry style, Chenin Blanc really isn’t that rich a wine but the dry styles are not what have made Chenin Blanc famous. It’s the off-dry to sweet wines from places such as Vouvray and Anjou in the Loire Valley of France. Here, Chenin’s vibrant acidity is married to a dose of residual sugar to produce rich, yet not cloying, wines that are redolent of green plums, quince, honey and lemon curd. With age (and Chenin Blanc can age as well as any white wine, if not better), the fruit character tends to fade along with the sugar, allowing complex mineral, nut and acacia tones to emerge. If all this sounds too much and you just want a fine rich white to grab off the shelf, not worrying if it’s sweet or not, then try a…
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That looks almost like Vouvray, but Verdejo is completely different. This white wine grape from Spain is a bit unusual. It’s not particularly perfumed and in fact can be deceptively neutral on the nose, but on the palate it often surprises on the upside.
Verdejo is a naturally opulent wine, soft in acidity and bursting with tropical fruit and melon flavors that may be a touch simple but make up for it with their purity and intensity. Spain is pretty much all there is for Verdejo, particularly in Rueda, though there are limited planting in regions far and wide.
With some age, Verdejo gains a little nutty nuance that adds a nice counterpoint to the wine’s core of fruit. Best of all though, is the fact that Verdejo is widely planted, yet remains underappreciated so it’s a great value, particularly if you’re looking for that rich white wine you can enjoy every night.