Tim Atkin | Master of Wine

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21st Aug 2017

Floral testimony

by Matt Walls

 

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In the car park on my street there is a rose bush. Every so often when walking past I pause to cup one of the red flowers in my hand, bring it to my nose and inhale. The scent of a rose in bloom is as universal a pleasure as birdsong. So why are floral whites so unfashionable? Having spoken to various professionals and wine-loving friends, it would appear it’s not just the aromatics that people take issue with, but floral styles of wine face a whole charge sheet of allegations. In our thirst for all things dry, lean and mineral, is it possible we’ve become unfairly prejudiced? I’ve been reacquainting myself with floral styles recently to see if these accusations hold water, or if the time is right for a reappraisal.

Countless white grape varieties invite floral allusions from time to time, but some, such as Argentinean Torrontés, Greek Moschofilero or Romanian Fetească Regală, are more innately and assertively perfumed than others. There are two that are both potentially great and widely available – Alsace Gewurztraminer and Rhône Viognier (namely Condrieu) – so I’ll focus on these.

Allegation No.1: They don’t work with food

If you want to play it safe when matching food and wine, a relatively neutral style of white is more prudent. It’s also more boring. Floral whites are trickier to get right, but no more so than aromatic varieties like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. And when it does work you can expect fireworks – floral wines bring an array of flavours and aromas to the table that you’re unlikely to find on your plate. Paul Amsellem of leading Condrieu estate Domaine Georges Vernay recommends asparagus, lobster, scallops, goats cheese and certain fish for his wines, but the important thing is to avoid highly acidic sauces as they draw attention to the naturally low acidity in the wine.

Colin Wills of London wine merchant Uncorked says “one of the main strengths of Gewurz is its exoticism… It can also have depths of flavour that make it so useful with aromatic foods, particularly from Asia.” Slightly sweeter styles of Gewurz go well with a broad range of cheeses – try it next time instead of your regular option. Whereas Viognier is almost always dry, Alsace Gewurztraminer can be anything from dry to medium dry or even sweeter. When there’s no advice on the label you can get caught out with a style you didn’t expect, which can throw a pairing out of whack. Thankfully within the next couple of years it will be obligatory to state the sweetness level on the bottle.

Verdict: when they work, they work brilliantly.

Allegation No.2: They don’t express terroir

Because floral grapes are strongly aromatic they are sometimes charged with expressing their variety rather than the site on which they’re grown. There is some truth in this. They are not quite as fluent as, say, Riesling, in expressing terroir. And when young, their natural exuberance can mask subtle differences in site. Floral styles love a sonorous terroir, and certainly can express it, as a tasting of various Alsace Grand Cru Gewurztraminers will show.

Viognier also needs a specific terroir to really shine. It reaches unrivalled peaks of quality when grown on the terraces of Condrieu in the Northern Rhône. In this sense, it’s not oxymoronic to dislike Viognier but to love Condrieu. The wines here have a freshness, precision and drinkability that other Viogniers can lack. Amsellem says it’s due to the granite soils, particularly those rich in black mica, that give the wines a saline, mineral edge.

Verdict: they do express terroir, especially when grown on powerfully assertive sites.

Allegation No.3: They lack drinkability

David Clawson is owner of The Remedy wine bar in London, where they list very few, if any, floral styles of wine. “The reason is both our preference but also that of our customers,” he says. “You can drink a glass, but it is very difficult to drink a bottle. First and foremost, we want to sell wines with great (and delicious) drinkability.” Gewurz and Viognier share certain characteristics: they typically have opulent textures and low acidity. It’s true these aren’t characteristics you’d typically associate with the most drinkable vin de soif.

The best are still balanced of course, with freshness, energy and salinity. But if you’re looking primarily for something to quench your thirst, you might be better off starting with a Chablis… or perhaps a light-bodied, low alcohol, lightly floral, dry Muscat?

Verdict: it’s a fair cop – there are more immediately drinkable styles out there.

Allegation No.4: They don’t age well

Inexpensive floral styles that have little more to offer than aromatics alone tend to be best drunk young. But floral styles from great terroirs can develop real complexity in bottle. In the words of Eric Kientzler from Domaine Kientzler in Ribeauvillé, Alsace, “it’s more the land that makes wines that can age, not the grape.” Jean Boxler of Domaine Albert Boxler proved the point by pulling the cork from a 1994 Alsace Grand Cru Brand Gewurztraminer. “If you like the Gewurztraminer aroma, try it young, he said; “if you like it complex, you have to wait a bit.” The bottle corroborated his claim with a cascade of honey, camomile, cumin, curry leaf and turmeric; a reminder that gewürz is German for spice.

Alsace Grand Cru Muscat can age just as well, building layers of spearmint, green tea and its signature aromas of grass and orange flower water fall away. Condrieu is the Dorian Gray of white wines. A 1996 Georges Vernay Condrieu 'Coteau de Vernon' tasted in 2014 was still full of fruit and verve. Many Condrieus can last without degrading, but whether they markedly improve with bottle age however is debatable.

Verdict: they can age well, Gewurztraminer in particular.

Allegation No.5: They are too intensely aromatic

When I hear this charge levelled at floral varieties, I’m reminded of the advert for Wychwood Brewery’s Hobgoblin dark ale: ‘What’s the matter Lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?’ Intensity of aroma is no drawback if that aroma is enjoyable. I suspect some wine drinkers shy away from floral styles through misplaced machismo.

Some wine lovers simply aren’t keen the aromas in question. Will Hargrove of London wine merchant Corney & Barrow says of Condrieu “the analogy I use is that it’s a bit like a flavour of ice cream someone doesn’t like (I love pistachio, lots of people don’t). I have liked some but they appear to have been ones that are atypically mineral (less Viognier flavour!)” He touches on an important point here – some of the best Condrieus, such as those of Domaines Georges Vernay, André Perret and René Rostaing, are relatively restrained examples. Not all floral wines are riotously aromatic.

Verdict: there is a range of aromatic intensity, from the subtle to the explosive.

Summing up

It’s easy to be put off by floral styles. Often these varieties have other quirks; they can be prone to low acidity or oily textures and these need to be managed by strong terroirs and capable winemakers. At the cheaper end, it’s easy to find bad examples of these grapes. What’s more, a bad Viognier is memorably grotesque, whereas a bad Gavi is merely forgettably dull.

It’s not easy to put Gewurztraminer’s lengthy criminal record to one side and pluck up the courage to trust in a top bottle. But if you haven’t tasted one for a while, they can be hugely rewarding. These are extreme styles of wine, and therefore bound to divide people. Some drinkers won’t like them. But those that do, are likely to love them. Whatever your taste, it is a fact that these are some of the most distinctive white wines imaginable, with vivid aromatics, power, complexity and an unmistakable sense of place. And you can buy stellar examples from top producers for less than £40 a bottle. They might not be fashionable right now, but life is short – don’t forget to smell the roses.

Eight floral wines to try

Domaine Albert Boxler Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Brand 2015 (Alsace, France; 13.5%)
Lay & Wheeler, £45.80

Incredibly fresh and lifted, enlivening like a rose in bloom. Full-bodied, very rich, medium dry, balanced with firm acidity and ample fine ripe tannin. Wonderful perfume, with citrussy acidity throughout, ending on bitter orange. Exceptionally long. There is no question that this is one of the greatest producers in Alsace, I can’t recommend Jean Boxler’s wines highly enough. 2017-2030, 95 points.

Kientzler Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Osterberg 2016 (Alsace, France; 13.5%)
H2Vin has the 2015 for £29.25

12g/l residual sugar but the wine tastes dry. Flavours of fresh Muscat grapes and almonds with a touch of Turkish delight. Restrained aromatics: "that’s how the grand cru makes it," says Eric Kientzler. Medium-bodied, mineral, straight style. Long and saline. Resonant finish. 2017-2025, 94 points.

Domaine André Perret Condrieu ‘Chéry’ 2015 (Northern Rhône, France; 13.5%)
JN Wine, £45.50

20% new oak. Pure perfumed apricot and a touch of peach. Slightly fuller and silkier that his Condrieu ‘Clos Chanson’, with more concentration of fruit. Deep, yet fresh and piercing. Beautifully balanced, combining fruit, acidity, oak and alcohol all in good measure. Very long finish. 2017-2021, 95 points.

Domaine Georges Vernay Condrieu ‘Terrasses de l’Empire’ 2015 (Northern Rhône, France; 13.5%)
Yapp Brothers, £52.00

Matured for 8 months in wooden tanks and barriques. Jasmine, peach and some integral citrus that brings some welcome sobriety to proceedings. Fairly full-bodied with green almond flavour and some tannic grip on the finish that really holds everything together and provides some genuine structure. Very long finish, with more almond and peach. A touch of saltiness keeps things refreshing. 2017-2020, 94 points.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Muscat Grand Cru Goldert 2002 (Alsace, France; 12.5%)
JN Wine has the 2008 for £28.99

Alsace Muscat is essentially always dry. It can be made from either Muscat d’Alsace (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) or Muscat Ottonel, or a blend. This is 95% Muscat d’Alsace, grown on an east-facing slope in Gueberschwihr on clay-rich Oolithic limestone. Dry – 3g/l residual sugar. Still beautifully citrussy, with orange zest, iodine, menthol and spearmint. Medium-bodied, but lovely intensity of fruit. Lovely light tannic structure with notes of pickled ginger and green tea on the finish. Perfectly balanced, still detailed and expressive. So young still. An exceptional wine. 2017-2025, 95 points.

Domaine Dirler-Cadé Muscat Grand Cru Saering 2015 (Alsace, France; 13.0%)
Vine Trail has the 2012 for £21.54

50% Muscat d'Alsace, 50% Muscat Ottonel. Grapey, grassy, with lemon verbena and mint though slightly reductive on the nose at this stage. Medium-bodied. Very fresh, good acidity. Elegant and fine. Touch of noble bitterness, elegant floral finish. 2018-2020, 91 points.

Colomé Estate Torrontés 2016 (Salta, Argentina; 13.5%)
Slurp.co.uk, £11.95

Delicate rose, pink peppercorn and citrus, a restrained nose. Dry, light-bodied, but full of flavour, refreshing and drinkable thanks to the marked acidity and slightly salty tang. Tiny touch of sweetness to the fruit flavour makes it all the more drinkable. It's not hugely complex, but it's vibrant, well balanced and refreshing with a tiny touch of pleasant bitterness on the finish. An excellent example of Argentinean Torrontés. 2017-2018, 90 points

Semeli ‘Feast’ 2016 (Peloponnese, Greece; 12.0%)
Oddbins, £9.00

100% Moscofilero. Gently floral pink peppercorn aroma. Medium-bodied, just a touch of oiliness to the texture giving it added weight and length, with ripe lychee fruit matched with taut acidity. A very well-balanced wine, made with precision, offering exceptional value for money. 2017-2018, 89 points.

Related topics: Romania, Greece, France, Argentina, Viognier, Torrontés, Muscat à Petits Grains, Moschofilero, Gewürztraminer

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