At this point, I know that you’re all familiar with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and
maybe even those Rhone varietals, Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne. However, have you tried a
Gruner Veltliner from Austria or an Albarino from the Rias Baixas region of Spain or how about
an Arneis from the Piedmont region in Italy?
These character actors in the grape world not only pair very nicely with food from their
respective regions but also have the ability to complement ethnic foods right here in the good
old US of A. Sweet and sour stir fried seafood, covered. Pad thai with beef, chicken or shrimp,
covered. Fried spring rolls, covered. Even those two notoriously hard to pair veggies, asparagus
and artichokes, covered. I think you’ll find that there’s a lot more to white wine than just
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Groovy Wine
I’m not just using that adjective because of That 70s Show (I stopped using groovy well before
my hair started going South). Gruner Veltliner has been dubbed the Gru-Vee wine – partly
because it’s not an easy name to remember, partly because some wine distributor probably is
homesick for his fading youth. In any case, Gruner Veltliner is one of the “trendy” wines right
now – partly because alcoholic beverages always need some trend (remember the single malt
scotches, the gourmet tequilas, Grey Goose vodka, etc) but mainly because Gruner Veltliner is
considered one of the food friendliest wines available. It supposedly even pairs well with
asparagus and artichokes, two foods that have bewildered generations of sommeliers.
It is the most widely planted grape varietal in Austria though quality and price does vary quite a
lot. The cheaper versions (less than $25) are meant for early consumption with a wide array of
cuisines while vintners who keep yields low ($30-50) produce wines meant for the long haul.
Since Gruner Veltliner has a good concentration of acid, they can age with the best of wines,
combine this with ripe concentrated fruit and low yields and you now have a wine that you may
want to age and save for special dishes (you can still have that younger, cheaper Gruner with
your tuna salad sandwich).
If you haven’t tried a Gruner yet, its distinguishing flavor/aroma sensation supposedly is freshly
ground white pepper. I say supposedly because we only have three pepper mills – one for black
pepper, a second for salt and a third for fennel seeds. Therefore I’ve never experienced the aroma
of freshly ground white pepper though I do know what over-the-hill pre-ground white pepper
smells like. Aside from the usual citrus and stone fruit aromas, supposedly one can also detect
hints of asparagus and lentils hence it’s ability to pair with these foods.
Do I Hear the Tapas Calling?
Albarino mainly comes from the Rias Baixas region in Spain though it is blended into Portugal’s
Vinho Verde (simple white table wine). It is a thick skinned grape so it doesn’t produce as much
juice as other grape varietals but produces a lot of fragrant aromas due to this thick skin. Along
with an array of citrus and citrus blossoms, a distinguishing characteristic of Albarino is the
scent of almonds. That’s probably the reason it pairs so nicely with Spanish Marcona almonds
(wine and nuts aren’t usually a good pairing). It also has a bracing acidity that screams for any
type of cooked seafood. However, the acid in Albarino still doesn’t allow it to age gracefully so
consume any Albarino you purchase early. These wines are not meant for aging.
Several wineries in California are experimenting with Albarino plantings in the States though
even the availability of Spanish versions are limited. As in the case of the Gruner Veltliner, you
probably have to venture to a wine shop to find Albarino as most supermarkets don’t usually
have it on their shelves.
Arneis Doesn’t Sound Italian to Me.
Arneis or “little rascal” in the local dialect is a white grape planted in the Piedmont region of
Italy that was on the verge of extinction. Supposedly it initially was planted to “protect” the
valuable Nebbiolo (for Barolo and Barbaresco) and Barbera grapes. Since it ripened earlier than
the red grape varietals, Arneis purpose was to “sacrifice” itself to the birds and bugs so that the
later ripening Nebbiolo and Barbera could grow unimpeded.
Along with aromas of apples and pear, they say you can also detect a hint of almonds and
licorice. Arneis main dilemma – now that it’s escaped extinction – is the ability to age
gracefully. Unlike Gruner Veltliner and Albarino, Arneis has low natural acidity and while good
acidity doesn’t guarantee aging potential, lack thereof almost ensures a fading wine with time.
Several Italian producers are working on this problem to produce an Arneis that doesn’t need to
be drunk on release.
Try This at Home
It’s easy to get any wine to pair nicely with food if you purchase the perfect ingredients and
spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Sure, Gruner probably is great with that roasted pork
tenderloin with peppercorn au jus or Albarino makes your mouth sing with grilled halibut and
eggplant ragu. I like to cook but I rarely have those dishes just sitting around on any given day.
Therefore, I tried pairing the three wines with foods that I did have just lying around at the
moment. I know that this may not sound appetizing as a complete (actually incomplete) meal
but this is what I had: Shoyu ahi poke (raw cubes of tuna with a salty-sweet dressing), cheese
straws, Marcona almonds, fig eggplant chutney on baguette, steamed edamame tossed with
furikake and crab-flavored shumai.
I expected the Gruner or Albarino to be the most versatile wine with those tidbits but it turned
out that the Arneis probably paired with most of those foods – maybe not the best pairing but
definitely not the worst. As expected, the Albarino worked with the Marcona almonds and was
okay with the edamame and shumai. The Gruner also did okay with the edamame and shumai
but totally clashed with the shoyu poke and once again, while the Arneis wasn’t the perfect
partner for all of the foods; it didn’t clash with any of them.
What’s the take home message now that I’ve totally confused you (or grossed you out with my
food pairings)? When dining on any Asian based cuisine, consider Gruner, Albarino or Arneis as
the accompanying beverage (instead of simply taking the safe route with Riesling or
Gewurztraminer). And if you’re having shoyu ahi poke, drink beer instead.
Those Other White Wines