Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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No Wine is an Island
Sunny Sicilian white wines take over...

By Jonathon Alsop
August 6, 2004

White wine gets no respect these days. America's thirst for red wines -- especially red wines from Australia -- is literally off the charts. Lost in the rush to slurp down vast quantities of Aussie Shiraz is a world generation of great white wines that, as always, we will never see again.

America's international white wine market suffers from a few maladies, not the least of which is suffering the same increased intense global competition everyone else does. More persistent than market forces, perceptions around white wine govern a lot of our consumer realities.

Great white wines like regal Burgundies (French Chardonnay) may cost dozens of dollars and age for many years, but even the best (most expensive, of course) cannot persist for decades like a red their equal can.

At its heart, the perception this leaves is correct: white wine -- as a very general rule -- is not for aging. Like most wine, it's for drinking today, and as such, we perceive it as less serious.

Red wines are literally harder to make, since the winemaker has to add the black grape skins during fermentation and remove them after, something you don't do with white wine. It's more work and more person-hours to make a red wine, and at the end of the day, the red juice contains more stuff, and more stuff means -- good or bad -- more flavor.

For special occasions, people will splurge in a restaurant on the odd $68 Shiraz, $75 Zinfandel, or $100 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Last weekend out to dinner with friends, we paid $53 for a $30 bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir, but since we were thirsty and wine laws being what they are, we didn't have much choice.

I guarantee stunned silence from friends and family should anyone ever suggest a $35 white wine (about $7 a glass) in a restaurant. Before a minute has passed, someone will say the words, "For a red wine, maybe," and then go on to spend more money than that.

Truth is, not every wine would be a red wine if it could, and there's no shame in that. Italian whites had a reputation years ago of being both fresh and sanitary, a very tasty alternative to tap water for Americans eating and drinking their way across Italy.

Sicily's grapes are drenched in southern Mediterranean sun and kept dry by omnipresent sea breezes, a weather and terrain combination grapes love. Southern Italy was the first part of the peninsula planted with wine grapes by the ancient Greeks about 5000 years ago. Some of the grape names -- Greco and Aglianico for instance -- don't make you guess about their origins. There are even theories that Syrah is named for Syracuse.

Grapes that grow surrounded by the sea for a few thousand years start to match up perfectly, almost biochemically, with fresh seafood. There's nothing more perfect than the perfect glass of wine and perfect oyster, and because of that, white wine must go on, no matter which wine the world falls in love with next.

Ironically enough, the white wine/red wine respect ratio is turned on its head in the supermarket: seafood is precious and pricey while great slabs of red meat can be had for $4 a pound. Go figure.

Deep and flavorful, explosive and zesty, Majus is too big for one island.2003 Ajello "Majus" Grillo/Catarratto (about $11, available at Brookline Liquor Mart and many others)

Don't ask me how real Sicilians pronounce this. Until corrected, which shouldn't be long now, I'm calling it "Aiello" (as in Danny Aiello) "MAH-juice" and that's just going to have to be good enough.

Grillo and Catarratto are two widely planted but essentially unknown Sicilian white grapes. In theory, the Grillo contributes all the citrusy tropical fruit zip and zing; the Catarratto grounds it in mellow ripe fruit flavors of melon and pear. The combination of the two grapes in the Majus performs a little alchemy, starting out explosive, acidic and tangerine but quickly mellowing into deep ripe woodsy flavors that reminded me of red wine.

I've written about the Ajello winery before, heaping praise on another delicious white wine of theirs called Furat. They make a nice line of reds and whites between $10 and $15, most of them blended, as this one is. You can feel confident experimenting with any wines you find from Ajello.

Serve the Majus not too cold with a citrus-ginger shrimp or crab appetizer.

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