The rites of a Chicago spring usually include garage cleanups, finding newly hatched spiders crawling in the grill and chattering one’s teeth through baseball’s opening month(s). A less hazardous seasonal activity might be to taste different value-priced white wines on the occasional warm days – finding the easy-drinking picnic/patio quaffer.
Although Malbec remains a value champion among red wines, there is no odds-on favorite in the realm of straw-colored juice. When it comes to value-priced white wines, consumers tend to become more fickle and fractured.
For example, wine buyers and beverage managers might note certain foodie trends. Are shellfish and raw bars “in”? Muscadet or Txakoli must be ascendant, then. Spicy Asian seeing a spike in popularity – from food trucks to swanky sit-down joints? Well, time to trumpet another summer of Riesling.
And, of course, something that isn’t so new: The supermarket-Chardonnay drinkers, tippling over-oaked plonk, while “ABC” (Anything-But-Chard) devotees ply themselves with grapefruit juicy Sauvignon Blanc — and sport the lips of Renee Zellweger. It’s a wine war among the feeble; those who observe are the types who rubberneck at accidents on Chicago highways.
Amid this indecision, insecurity and petty bickering, one might consider two white varietals with a middle-of-the-road profile that’s suitable with shellfish or spicy, perfect for picnics – and ideal for imbibing in the absence of food: Viognier and Torrontés. Both are floral whites, with some added dimension, plus a touch of sweetness that’s versatile enough for spicy foods and intensely seasoned cuisine.
“Both Torrontés and Viognier have something different to offer than the ubiquitous Chardonnay that we usually see,” says Don Clemens, a Chicago-based Certified Wine Educator. “They have more aromatic presence, can offer different textures and are generally not oaked. This makes for interesting food pairings that Chardonnay sometimes can’t make – such as with the complex spices of Asian food. No oak means less problems with chilies.”
Although Viognier hails from the heralded French Rhône, there are many value-priced options from there – plus New World-plantings in California, and Washington state. Torrontés is Argentina’s predominant white wine, and it might ride the coattails of its red counterpart and compatriot, Malbec. Of the two, the Torrontés is typically the less-expensive option, but some are fabulous. And, there are Viognier offerings in the low- to mid-teens that won’t disappoint. Here are a few to consider:
Casarena Torrontés: Even the big box stores don’t carry all that many brands of Torrontés. The great thing is, most picnic-friendly beauties like Casarena are less than $10 – which is usually a higher-risk price point. Clemens estimates that the Casarena is due in the Chicago market in May, and it should be highly anticipated. Average retail cost: $11 per bottle.
Koehler Santa Ynez Valley Viognier: One hundred percent Viognier from the New World, the Koehler shows the classic aromas and flavor profiles of the grape. Really floral on the nose, and with a juicy, honey-laden palate, this should drink nicely on all the 70+° days all spring and summer. Average retail cost: $10 per bottle.
Gouguenheim Torrontés: A nice bouquet of flowers and mango, the palate features pineapple and a nice bit of lemon. Terrific pairing for sweet, Whidbey Bay oysters on the half shell, or halibut sandwiches. Another “penny wine” steal, with an average retail cost of 9 per bottle.
Locomotora “Exotic White” Viognier/Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling: This blend is 65 percent Viognier, which offers the aromatics that really dominate on the nose, and add notes of pear and almond on the palate. The Sauvignon Blanc adds acidity; the tiny bit of Riesling just a wisp of citrus. Enough body to pair with poultry, and acidity that works with cool shrimp salads, and perfect with spicy Thai food. Find it at Treasure Island for $14.