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For many years, walking up to a bar and ordering a white wine meant you were handed a glass of chardonnay. Too often it was some tired and flabby California chardonnay tasting more like a toasted oak barrel than anything made from grapes should. But luckily those dark days are behind us. Both consumers and wine purveyors are willing to try out new and different varietals from all around the globe. But most casual drinkers are still oblivious to these fresh faces, and a wine can’t become the next big thing unless people know about it. So I reassembled the “normals” to try some of these aspiring whites. I picked three varietals (wines made from a single variety of grape) that are grown in several wine-growing regions: pinot grigio, riesling, and viognier. To get a true sense of each we tasted three versions from three places. While all the wines cost between $15 and $25, they varied greatly in style. Some were bone-dry, others slightly sweet. Some saw considerable time in oak, while others saw none. They all shared one thing in common, though: They were not chardonnay. Somewhat to my surprise, the big winner was a wine that’s been on the scene for a while: pinot grigio (called pinot gris outside of Italy). Although pinot gris/grigio is most famously produced in Italy, it is grown all over the world. The group’s favorite wine, by a fair margin, was a 2000 pinot gris from Alsace (that little part of eastern France that most people think is Germany). Produced by René Muré, the wine possessed a touch of sweetness, lending it a wonderful richness. One normal found it reminiscent of maple syrup, while another found it “dangerously easy to drink.” Most thought that the wine was very well balanced and agreeable. Given that few of the normals had ever had a wine from Alsace, it was heartening to see how well liked it was and that people vowed to try more. The wine that came in second overall, a 2004 pinot gris from King Estate in Oregon, was radically different from the Alsatian version. While not especially complex, the King Estate gushed with precise flavors of tart green apples and displayed good acidity. The least liked of the group but still coming in fourth overall was the 2003 Italian pinot grigio from Schiopetto. The normals liked its floral and strawberry elements, but one noted that there was “not enough there.” The varietal coming in second was viognier. Viognier is best known as the grape used in the white wines of Condrieu in France’s Rhone Valley. The group’s favorite was a 2003 Cold Heaven from the Le Bon Climat vineyard in Santa Barbara County. This wine had the most obvious oak influence but was balanced by exotic fruitiness. Some of the tasters enjoyed the “lush,” “vanilla,” and “funky” flavors, while others thought it tasted like “buttery mouthwash.” The second-favorite viognier, and sixth-favorite wine overall, was a French viognier from Michel Ogier. The vineyard producing the wine is across the street from the famous appellation of Condrieu, resulting in a “creamy” and “well-balanced” wine costing much less than its famous neighbor. One normal was not a fan, criticizing the wine with alcohol-induced honesty as “boring and tepid, like my ex-boyfriend.” Finally, just a shade behind viognier was riesling. Most people think of riesling as a sweet German wine. And we had an example of that style, a 2003 Dragonstone from Leitz that the normals found pleasant but a bit too sweet. But riesling is now grown in far-flung corners of the globe. The normals’ favorite came from the Frankland River region of Western Australia. The 2003 Alkoomi had “exotic” aromas of “pineapple” and “passion fruit.” Slightly less pleasing, and the most polarizing wine of the tasting, was a 2002 dry riesling from Peconic Bay on Long Island. While three people rated it their favorite wine, three rated it their least favorite. Some normals liked the “grassy mineral” and “petrol” qualities, but others found (and strangely enough disliked) a “Band-Aid flavor.” Although pinot gris/grigio was the winner of the tasting, the normals found something to like with every varietal. The tasting showed that one of the great things that sets these wines apart from the oceans of chardonnay sold today is that these whites take on a different character depending on where the grapes are grown and how they are handled by the wine makers. Unless you let these wines strut their stuff, you’ll never know how great and different they can be.
Phillip Dubé is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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