Soon after you begin a voyage of discovery beyond the familiar sea of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, you may find yourself marooned on the Aisle of Miscellany.
Besides a skimpy section that the old-school stores reserve for both Gewürztraminer and Riesling, it’s tough to find a sample from the world’s many great white wine varietals that are shoehorned into the “alternative whites” niche. That’s what late-summer Sunday winetasting joyrides are for.
Priest Ranch 2015 Napa Valley Grenache Blanc ($22) This sounds like it might come from one of those nearly forgotten heritage vineyards that winemakers find on old vine safaris, but Priest Ranch winemaker Craig Becker planted the vines in 2008. Inspired by the white wines of the Rhône, which is lousy with the grape, Becker crushed a good portion of the mere 28.9 tons of Grenache Blanc that Napans crushed in 2015. In plain English, Grenache Blanc means “white Grenache,” but it’s nothing like white Zinfandel, although this fleshy wine does remind me of white wine made from Pinot Noir. A true white grape that’s related to red Grenache, it shares that grape’s tendency for a high alcohol expression, coming in at 14.8 percent. But it’s sweet-bodied, not hot, with a candied fruit aroma and flavor, as though the juice from a can of “fruit cocktail” had been made into a refined, pricey little pastille.
Imagery Estate 2015 Russian River Valley Viognier ($29) Pronounce “Sauvignon Blanc” and you’re a past master of French wine names already, so what’s the fuss about Viognier? Just say “vee-un-yay” and hold your glass out for a taste. Originating from the same northern Rhône neighborhood as the blackest, smokiest styles of Syrah, Viognier is light, floral and stone-fruit fruity. When overdone, the aromatics can be almost too much for me, but this wine has such a light, pretty apricot aroma it’s like a perfume of Viognier, and bright acidity adds sparkle to the finish.
Clif Family 2015 Anderson Valley Gewürztraminer ($30) Another varietal deserving of a second swirl, if past samples have put you off, Gewürztraminer is also fun to say. Germanic but not exclusively German, Gewürz is actually a bigger deal in France, where it’s made in the sweet and spicy style as well as bone-dry and spicy, like this fine example. While unmistakable, the “spicy” character is hard to describe: is it piney, floral or like white pepper? No doubts about the crisp lychee flavor, this dry Gewürz is refreshing on its own, but might be paired with more than the oft-advocated spicy Asian cuisines. Clif Family says try the porchetta bruschetta from the food truck at their bicycle-friendly St. Helena tasting room.