The grape leveller: Exploring the world beyond sav, chard and pinot gris

Expand your horizons by giving these less popular white varietals some love.

A nice glass of white wine is one of life’s great pleasures, but if you’re restricting yourself to the iconic trio of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris, perhaps occasionally branching out into a cheeky riesling, you’re really missing out. It’s understandable: if you see something on a wine list that you have no idea how to pronounce, let alone what it might taste like, you’re likely to opt instead for the familiar. But variety is the spice of life, so use this handy guide to help you embark on a journey to broader vinous horizons. You can buy all these wines, plus plenty more familiar varietals too, at Fine Wine Delivery Co.

Forrest Grüner Veltliner and Esk Valley Verdelho

If you like pinot gris, try the Esk Valley Verdelho

Open the fridge at any party and there’ll be at least four bottles of pinot gris staring back out at you. I’m not sure why – the variety’s greatest failing is its inconsistency, and you can never be sure if you are going to get something yum, or something that tastes like you stirred perfume into your Mountain Dew.

I am always looking for alternatives, and verdelho, a Portuguese variety, is a great one. It’s not a complete Johnny-come-lately to this side of the world – it has been grown and enjoyed in Australia for many years, before hopping the ditch to New Zealand.

Esk Valley’s own verdelho was planted in Hawke’s Bay in 1998, and had its first vintage in 2002. It has since offered a point of difference for people looking to expand their palates beyond pinot. Verdelho has that same lush, spicy stonefruit shot through with honey, but what this bad boy’s got that pinot doesn’t is a good whack of acidity. It’s punchy and zingy, and is more suited to prawns cooked in butter and garlic than it is to saag aloo.

Esk Valley vines in Hawke’s Bay (Photo: Getty Images)

If you like chardonnay, try the Forrest Grüner Veltliner

Forrest’s grüner veltliner is a dry, minerally wine. It’s not comparable to chardonnay in taste necessarily, but it is comparable in terms of its stature. This is a noble, majestic wine, one for special occasions and carefully considered food matches.

Grüner veltliner is Austria’s most important grape variety, alongside riesling. Here, it sits on steep, chilly hillsides overlooking the Danube river, making rich, complex and super stony wines. In New Zealand, you’re more likely to see it on Marlborough’s wide river terraces, but the wines it makes are still very, very nice, albeit with their own character.

The Forrest Grüner Veltliner is dry. Not light and crisp dry, but the kind of dry that announces itself by way of making your whole mouth start salivating rapidly. Once you get past that, you start to taste honey, and fresh lime, and a hint of melon and pineapple. It is rich and fleshy and complex enough to be the wine you pair with your fanciest dinner, like a whole roasted fish, or a lovingly stirred risotto with truffle.

Coopers Creek Albariño and Villa Maria Arneis

If you like sauvignon blanc, try the Coopers Creek Albariño

I must confess a bias on this substitution. I don’t care enormously for sauvignon blanc, but my love for albariño knows few bounds. I’ve never been to Marlborough, but I have been to Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain, where local examples of albariño are ubiquitous on tables alongside the most delicious octopus you’ll ever eat.

Albariño, with its mix of citrussy acidity and deep, waxy complexity, has begun to make itself known around Aotearoa, particularly in the sunny river terraces of the Hawke’s Bay. Nautilus and Villa Maria have been making some very good examples that are exciting wine nerds and making casual drinkers learn what a tilde does to the letter n.

Coopers Creek, long a bastion of weird and wonderful grape varieties, is making a wine in Hawke’s Bay that would make any Marlborough sauvignon blush. It has the citrus on the palate, but there’s also a crumble’s worth of apple and a decent amount of nectarine. It’s got a kind of grippy acidity that makes me remember that I’m comparing it to sauvignon blanc, but that is so much more complex and interesting than a lot of the more commercial examples of our most ubiquitous grape variety.

It is a testament to this wine that even though I drank it alongside a dinner that was so spicy it destroyed my palate, it still hit the spot.

Albariño grapes in Galicia (Photo: Getty Images)

If you like dry riesling, try Villa Maria Arneis

Arneis, in its homeland of northwest Italy, is kind of a big deal. It’s a white wine in a sea of red, and has to provide a lot of flavour and complexity to prove itself alongside its very prestigious countrymen, barolo and barbaresco. It’s a fickle wee grape, tough to get a good wine out of, which is why its name comes from the local Italian word for rascal.

Cooper’s Creek have been making it for a while, but as grüner veltliner and albariño have started to gain popularity, producers have been looking for new varieties that might work well with what we’ve got in sunny, cold New Zealand.

Villa Maria, a company with a hearty appetite for experimentation, has embraced the weird and the wonderful, and is producing a dry, intensely flavoured arneis to help us expand our vinous horizons. It’s got a richness behind its immediate zinginess, with touches of feijoa, pineapple, vanilla and even fresh raspberries.

Amisfield Chenin Blanc and Millton Riverpoint Vineyard Viognier

If you like off-dry riesling, try Amisfield Chenin Blanc

Honestly, if you like wine full stop, then try this one. Amisfield’s chenin blanc is rich and dense, and lusher than Marlon Williams in full croon. It’s got honey, pineapple, kiwifruit and sherbet all going on, with enough acidity to keep you fully immersed in the here and now. It’s this chenin blanc’s world, honey, and we’re just living in it.

If you can’t tell from the above paragraph, I really love chenin blanc. Millton Estate, based in Gisborne, is New Zealand’s pioneer of this grape variety, and the wine it makes is absolutely one of my favourites. Happily, more producers around the country are beginning to get on board and make some lovely wines from chenin. This one, from Central Otago, has a little more sweetness than you might expect from this variety, but I don’t hate it at all – it has a lot in common with riesling.

Chenin blanc’s origins lie in France’s Loire Valley, which is also the spiritual home of our national treasure, sauvignon blanc. Like sauvignon blanc, chenin is widely travelled. In fact, it has made itself quite at home in South Africa’s Western Cape, where rich, waxy chenin blanc is everywhere.

It hasn’t been an easy road though – chenin blanc grapes can make a lot of wine very easily, but the variety needs a firm hand to make sure this volume is kept in check, or the wines will be bland and insipid. South African Chenin Blanc has a bit of a reputation that it is just now managing to shake off, after decades of prizing volume over quality.

The chenin blanc harvest in the Loire Valley (Photo: Getty Images)

If you like viognier, try the Millton Riverpoint Vineyard Viognier

OK, I know what I did. But bear with me: viognier’s been around for a minute. Lots of New Zealand producers are making it in heaps of different parts of the country. It’s kind of a cult wine, I guess: not as famous as pinot gris, but certainly more so than like, gouais blanc.

Viognier hails from the dry, sunny slopes above the Rhône river in southeast France. Drive about 40 minutes out of Lyon and you’ll find yourself in a cute village underneath one of the greatest white wine vineyards in the world, Condrieu. If you’re me, you’ll take a nerdy selfie under it and post it on Instagram, and your non-wine friends will make fun of you.

Starting in Australia, viognier began to spread its apricotty tendrils around the world in the 1970s, eventually ending up in the warmer parts of New Zealand. Millton’s viognier is made in Gisborne, where grapes are grown and wines are made according to what the surf is doing that day.

This is quite a dry viognier, and the pear and stone you’ll find on the palate is tempered by a good amount of buttery depth. It’s got heaps of perfume, which puts me in mind of a pinot gris, but it is rich and nutty, more like a chardonnay. In short, it’s a viognier – don’t try it because you like this thing, or that. Try it because it’s interesting.

This content was created in paid partnership with Fine Wine Delivery Company. Learn more about our partnerships here


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