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Drink in the scents of summer

Over-oaked whites are out. Bring on the jasmine and peach blossoms and thyme.

July 25, 2007|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

Summer is the season of smells. Sure, spring has its share, but they amount to one shimmering note in the key of green -- and the aromas of autumn and winter are subtle, restrained by cool weather or dormancy. But by the time summer rolls around, the air fills with an altogether different array of perfumes: pungent flowers, expressive herbs, ripening fruits.

There is a category of wines well-matched for this fecundity. Like summer blooms, aromatic white wines can seduce on fragrance alone.

There has never been a better time to discover them. As producers back away from the barrel and wine lovers discover the unmediated pleasures of oak-free whites, aromatic white wines have edged their way onto the stage, as if released from behind the heavy curtain of oak.

All wines are aromatic, whites especially. Certain whites, though, are almost eccentrically fragrant. They can be exuberant, transporting; from the edge of the glass these wines take you somewhere -- a field of flowers, a Persian garden with a trellis of night-blooming jasmine, an orange grove in the spring.

Some, such as Old World Muscats and Gewürztraminers, have been lurking in the margins of restaurant wine lists and specialty shops for years. A few, such as the marvelous, unique Torrontès wines from Argentina, have shown up only recently. Still others, such as American Viognier, have been around for a few decades, but better viticulture and winemaking have allowed us to see them, and smell them, anew. Whatever the case, summer is the ideal time to get your nose around their intoxicating aromas.


Evocative of orange

In the panoply of aromatic whites, Muscat is perhaps the most arresting flower in the bunch. Indeed, the very name evokes a smell -- its root is derived from the French word musqué, or musky, which the French use to denote a particularly aromatic variant or grape clone.

Muscat isn't exactly one grape variety, it's several, with strains genetically linked like an extended family. It's a family of styles as well: Muscats and Moscatos can be bracingly dry like Muscat d'Alsace, or sweet and frizzante in Asti; they can even be dark and sherried like the tawny concoctions from Australia.

The most common dry varieties, and the most aromatic, are Muscat Ottonel, Muscat Canelli and Moscato Giallo. Each has its subtleties, but there's no mistaking the family resemblance in the glass. Muscat's aroma is bright, forward and invigorating, floral and fruity at once, often never quite settled on one or the other. Those florals are marvelously exotic -- now frangipani, now camellia, now peach or citrus blossoms. So too are the fruits -- sometimes white peach, but even more often citrus: orange and lemon, as well as lemon verbena. In fact, no white grape is as consistently evocative of orange as Muscat, and until you smell that fresh note of orange oil or essence, you'll never fully appreciate how much one fruit can mimic another so convincingly.

Some of the world's best dry Muscats come from Alsace, in eastern France. There on sun-kissed grand cru slopes the grape seems to develop more body than in other places (palate complexity is not usually Muscat's strong suit). There are several to choose from, and they are among the most reasonably priced grand cus in France. One of my favorites is from Dirler-Cadé, whose Muscat from the grand cru Spiegel Vineyard is high-toned, pretty and light yet possesses impressive length and concentration.

A dry Muscat's clean florals and high-toned fruit aromas make it a lively summer aperitif, but it can be a challenge to pair with food at times. Because of its angularity on the palate, it glances off of most chicken and fish, but it can sing with a salad with fruit -- mâche with peach slices and almonds, for example, or a citrus salad with shaved fennel. Most dry Muscats have the acid to hold up to a mild vinaigrette, as long as it employs a little sweetness.

The Muscat family has a few aromatic relatives -- wines that fall within a comparable aromatic spectrum. There is, for example, the honeyed fragrance of Malvasia Bianca, an ancient variety still found in Greece, Italy and Spain, though in diminishing quantities. (The Italian district of Friuli still makes some of the world's finest -- or stick closer to home with a bottle of Bonny Doon Vineyard's Ca 'del Solo Malvasia.)


New American arrivals

A recent newcomer to the American market is a spicy relative of Malvasia called Torrontès, a grape transplanted to Argentina from Spain, possibly arriving with the conquistadores. But in the last few years, it's taken off. More Torrontès is planted in Argentina than anywhere else in the world; it has emerged as Argentina's emblematic white much the way Malbec has become the country's signature red.

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