In just over a week, wine lovers will have a chance to experience one of the two major categories of great wines — a category often overlooked by most wine consumers.
One of the many ways wines can be categorized is by their basic aroma profiles. And one of the most important distinctions among wines is the difference between grapes made from traditional varieties and those made from aromatic grapes.
All wines have an aroma, of course, but with the most traditional table wines, like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zinfandel, most of the aromas are predicated on herbs and soils (tarragon, thyme, tea, pepper, slate, wood) and tree fruits (apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, plums, and cherries).
By contrast, aromatic grape varietals are marked by aromas relating more to flowers (blossoms, rose petals, jasmine, ginger) and tropical/summer fruits, such as mango, peach, pineapple, and lychee.
The latter group of grapes is smaller, partly because of where they grow best: cool-to-cold climates. They are trickier to grow and make into world-class wine, but can be utterly sublime.
Rarely are they explosive; mostly they are subtle, but can have some sugar, so are widely appealing.
Most aromatic varietals are white grapes. The four most often seen are Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. (There are very few aromatic red wine grapes. They include Black Muscat and Aleatico, and several Native American grapes such as Concord.)
Despite the relative paucity of them in the market, white aromatic varietals have a dedicated following, particularly Riesling, which some people consider to be the finest of all white wines.
Anderson Valley, a small pocket of Mendocino County off Highway 128 leading to the coast, is cool enough to be one of the most blessed places in North America in which to grow many of the aromatic grapes.
It is here that the local industry has long hosted an annual festival dedicated to aromatic grape varieties. This year the event is Feb. 24 in Boonville.
Without doubt, Riesling is what draws more people to attend the Anderson Valley Aromatic White Wine Festival than any other.
And for those who think Riesling is always a sweet wine, this event proves that notion to be false.
One of the wine world’s most interesting recent trends has been the rise in interest of dry Rieslings. Even though most “dry” Rieslings still have a trace of sugar, what makes them so enticing to consumers is how the sugar usually works with acidity to make for a perfectly balanced wine that can offer not only the flowery aromas of an aromatic wine, but also the faintly earthy (slate, steel, mineral-y) complexity that allows these wines to work with food.
Adherents seem happily divided over how the driest of Rieslings work with food. But almost all agree that any food enhances them.
Some say dry Riesling is best with ceviche. Others suggest scallops in lime butter. Then there are the sushi/sashimi fanatics, the Chinese food freaks, Indian curry supporters, and the most recent excitement of all, Thai cuisine fanciers.
Until this year when the name of the festival was changed, it was called the Alsace Varietals Festival, noting the wide planting of aromatic varieties in that French region. To honor that image, similar foods from past events will be served at this year’s event.
Among the items: a special pork belly finger food; hand-made pizzas; an assortment of mini sandwiches; Thai prawns; onion tarts, and cheeses from the locally famed Pennyroyal Farms.
A combination ticket to three morning seminars, plus the grand tasting, is $95. (Otherwise the two events are separately priced.)
The morning sessions include a tasting of Central Coast vineyard-designated Rieslings; a food and wine pairing with chef Lars Keronmark from the Culinary Institute of America and Christie Dufault from the CIA wine and spirits program, and a discussion/tasting of dry German Rieslings at which I will be speaking.
The afternoon grand tasting includes 32 wineries plus Gowan’s cider, a local favorite. About 100 wines will be available to sample, including an exciting New Zealand portfolio.
Wine of the Week: 2016 Yamhill Valley Riesling, McMinnville ($18): This is simply a sensational dry Riesling from vineyards planted 35 years ago in a cool location in Oregon. It has the classic Riesling “petrol” aroma with slate, dried flowers, and lime zest. The wine has 6 grams per liter of sugar, but it’s hard to know because its high acid leaves it very dry on the palate. An amazing concept wine. Hard to find, but worth ordering from the winery: https://yamhill.com