This hasn’t been the typical Washington DC summer so far. We can walk to work without being drenched in sweat! And sometimes even sleep without the air conditioning on. Normally, we’re the kind of people who think that if it’s wine it must be red, even in the blazing heat (amazingly, considering what fussbudgets we are, we don’t worry about spilling red wine on our furniture – which shows you where our priorities are). But we’ve definitely begun drinking more white wines these days because they’re cool, mostly light, and really refreshing. And while we’ll definitely drink Pinot Grigios or un-oaked Chardonnays, what we really reach for are Southern Rhône whites.
When we first started offering our whites, many of you told us you’d rarely had whites from that part of the world. It’s no wonder – only seven percent of the volume of wine produced in the Southern Rhône is white wine. Seventy-five percent of it stays in France, and only 10% of the remaining 25% percent exported ends up in the U.S. That means that less than 0.2% of Southern Rhône whites make it to the U.S., and most of those are from very large producers who blend grapes from vineyards all over the region to make their wines.
Southern Rhône whites are almost always blends of different grapes, just like the reds. A good white wine has a balance of acidity, fruitiness, crispness, and maybe a little floral character. Given the soil and growing conditions in the region, it’s tough to find one grape that exhibits all these characteristics, so the winemakers blend from among six different grapes to get what they’re looking for. The blend might change a bit from year to year, but the aim is to create that good balance. The six grapes are Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc, and increasingly these days, Viognier. We’re going to take a look at three of them this time and three in our next wine chat post.
Viognier is a grape that has recently increased in popularity. For us here in DC, we’ve seen a lot more Virginia wineries offering Viognier. It’s really difficult to grow, subject to mold and rot, and has to be picked at just the right time for peak flavor (which generally comes from older vines – so this means a lot of years of hit or miss until the vines are old enough. It also means it’s expensive). But when it’s done right, Viognier wines have a great floral character with notes of apricots, peaches, and even tropical fruits. With proper growing and fermentation conditions, Viogniers can also have enough acidity for good balance. Because of this, we’re seeing more and more Viognier planted in the Southern Rhône Valley, and some 100% Viognier wines are emerging from there as well.
Roussanne and Marsanne are sometimes thought of as the same grape, but they’re a little different. Roussanne is more herbal, and produces a fuller-bodied wine that has a honey-like flavor, particularly as it ages. Marsanne produces a lighter wine, with a nutty, spicy character, although it can taste more like Roussanne as it ages. It’s also a little more citrusy than Roussanne. It’s rare to see either one in a wine on its own. You’ll sometimes find 100% or near-100% Roussanne wines from California, and the better quality ones are produced in cooler years because the grapes have more acidity.
This week we’re recommending two Southern Rhône whites that are blends of equal parts Marsanne and Viognier made only 10 km apart from one another. They’re also from single vineyards, which makes them unusual for Rhône whites in the U.S. Domaine Fond Croze Cuvée Confidence Blanc ($15) is the lighter of the two, with a little bit of herbal quality coming through. Domaine Chaume-Arnaud La Cadène Blanc ($20) is fuller-bodied, with more of the floral quality and apricot-like flavor you can find in Viognier. The Marsanne adds just the right amount of spice to both, and although they’re different, each one is beautifully balanced.
These wines pair well with spicy Asian food, so go ahead and get your favorite takeout. Or, if you’re in the mood to make something, try Larb Gai, a spicy Thai chicken salad. It’s served at room temperature and is a perfect summer entrée (because we all know it’ll be hot and sticky soon enough). Most Larb Gai recipes, including ours, call for toasting rice in a skillet, grinding it, and adding it to the mixture. It adds a nice flavor, but it acts primarily as a thickener that keeps all the liquid in the dish rather than leaching out. Feel free to omit it if you like, but if you leave it out, be sure to mix everything well right before you serve it, and don’t leave the plated portions sitting around too long. When it’s ready, pick your favorite cool spot, pour some wine and enjoy. These wines are so good that we almost don’t even miss red wines when we drink them. And neither one will leave red-wine stains on your furniture!
Dare and Tom
Larb Gai (Spicy Thai Chicken Salad – also called Laab Gai)
1 pound ground chicken breast (or buy the boneless breasts, cut them into pieces, and pulse in the food processor until finely chopped but not a paste)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons long-grain white rice
3 shallots, minced
1 teaspoon chili-garlic paste (or more to taste)
About a cup to a cup and a half of chopped fresh herbs, a combination of mint, basil, and cilantro
4 scallions, sliced (white and green parts)
Juice of two limes
4-5 tablespoons fish sauce
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or put through a garlic press
1 tablespoon brown sugar (or more)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Boston lettuce leaves for serving
Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the rice, and toast it until the rice begins to brown, shaking the pan to prevent burning. This will take 8-10 minutes. Pour the rice onto a plate and let it cool a bit. Then grind it in a spice grinder or coffee grinder and set it aside.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet. Add the ground chicken and cook, using a wooden spoon to break the meat into very small pieces. Add the shallots and sauté a few minutes until soft, then add the chili paste and cook for a minute. Turn off the heat and add the ground rice, herbs and the scallions. Set aside while you prepare the dressing.
Mix the lime juice, 4 tb fish sauce, the garlic, brown sugar, and red pepper flakes, and pour over the chicken mixture. Taste it and add more of what you think it needs: fish sauce for salt, lime juice for tanginess, sugar for sweetness, or pepper flakes for heat. Let it cool to room temperature, and then serve in the lettuce leaves either as a plated salad or to eat as lettuce wraps.