Refreshing whites

There can be few things more satisfying to do after a stress-packed day than reaching into the fridge and pouring yourself a glass of pristine white wine to savour.

Be it gently aromatic or incisively fruit-forward, a mere sniff can re-awaken senses that have been dulled by a relentless schedule. In the mouth, such wines have the capacity to stimulate the taste buds and ready the palate for the food ahead. Six such wines have been shortlisted in The Business Times Wine Challenge 2014 - CEOs' Choice, in partnership with UBS. And three of them share the same, often misunderstood, grape variety. This fact is in itself refreshing.

Covering more than a third of Austria's vineyards, the semi-aromatic grape variety Gruner Veltliner has been responsible for the simplest "jug wine" as well as some top-tier offerings from quality producers.

Such is the current prestige of some Austrian producers that they have almost permanently extinguished any memory of the wine scandal that engulfed the country a quarter of a century ago.

The majority of vineyards lie in the eastern part of Austria where the region of Kamptal is home to some outstanding wines. Weingut Fred Loimer is one of the stalwarts of the region, with 60 hectares of vines, near Langenlois in the centre of the district. The Kamptal is marginally warmer than nearby Wachau with a slightly lower altitude although it can still experience very cold night-time temperatures that are so important for maintaining freshness with clean, elegant characters.

Loimer 2012 Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) is one such example to have retained those features despite the natural challenges of a difficult year. With a mild grassiness and a hint of flint on the nose, the palate was beautifully balanced with rounded, ripe fruit plus white pepper and a real raciness to the acidity lifting the finish.

Just like Austria, Spain has been able to celebrate the leaps and bounds it has made in the quality of its winemaking in recent decades. Few regions in Spain illustrate this more than the historic heartland of Castilian Spain - Castilla y Leon, in particular, the region of Rueda. It is not surprising that the advent of modern winemaking methods with refrigeration and protective practices, such as inert gas blanketing of newly harvested grapes, has revolutionised the style of winemaking in this region's hot, continental climate.

The white grape Verdejo, which makes Rueda (a 100 per cent varietal wine), has particularly benefited from modern methods. Verdejo is a grape that oxidises very quickly, but with protective measures in place it can produce extremely crisp, lively wines that bear no resemblance to those made in the region when it was first classified as a Denominacion de Origen (DO) in 1920.

Omnipresent Spanish winemaker, Telmo Rodriguez, has tried to exercise this approach with his offering of the 2011 El Transistor, Rueda DO. Tropical stone fruit and a little waxiness on the nose led to a medium-plus bodied palate that had sufficient freshness to counter a slight oiliness.

The most modern Rueda is a style that has given some of the New World's whites genuine competition. One such example is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

The meteoric rise of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has been greeted with considerable envy by other wine-making countries. Even the most uninterested wine consumers usually know that New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc are virtually inseparable, and more particularly that Marlborough is the region most closely associated with the variety.

So great has international thirst for it become that in 2013 Sauvignon Blanc accounted for 84.1 per cent of New Zealand's total volume of wine exports. Fifty eight per cent of New Zealand's vineyards are now planted to produce Sauvignon Blanc and almost 90 per cent of those are concentrated in Marlborough.

The majority of Marlborough's wine is sourced from the sub-region of the Wairau Valley - home to prominent producers such as Cloudy Bay and Dog Point. South-east of this lies the smaller sub-region of Awatere (meaning "fast-flowing river") Valley.

Locals consider Awatere Valley drier, cooler, windier and less fertile than the Wairau. Nonetheless, the wines still take on the intense varietal aroma and punchiness associated with most Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, as in the Awatere River Sauvignon Blanc 2013.

The anticipated herbaceous nose is coupled with a palate of intense grapefruit and green mango freshness. It offers more weight and interest in the mouth than many similar examples.

Shortlisted here and also from New Zealand is the first of three Rieslings - Craggy Range, Te Muna Road Vineyard, Martinborough 2012. Martinborough lies just across the narrow Cook Strait from Marlborough.

Located on the higher, old stony soils of the Martinborough Terrace and just 7km from the township, the Te Muna Road Vineyard is one example of Craggy Range's philosophy to showcase single vineyard wines from multiple regions in New Zealand.

With the massive investment and business acumen of Terry Peabody, plus the viticultural expertise of Steve Smith MW (Master of Wine), Craggy Range's wine portfolio continues to excite wine lovers. Concentrated lime aromas give way to a beautiful filigree, lacy texture and delicious lemon meringue concentration without any sweetness. This is a stunning wine.

Riesling has been a much misunderstood and, far too often, underrated variety. Nonetheless, wine experts often cite it as their favourite white variety because it produces such a wide spectrum of styles - from "butterflies in a glass" weightlessness and elegance to unctuous, liquid honey and nectar; from bone dry to syrupy sweet; from the palest green-tinged hue to the deepest amber colour.

The best will all display a crystalline purity of fruit and a tight, linear focus of acidity so that, no matter what the level of residual sugar in the final wine, the structure of acidity results in a harmonious wine with an intrinsic freshness.

These pristine qualities are displayed marvellously in the Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Riesling 2013, from the Great Southern region of Western Australia.

Acacia honey and white floral aromas dominate the nose, whilst the razor-sharp, mouth-watering concentration of citrus characters drives the long length. This is just one of three single vineyard Rieslings produced by the estate, which was founded in 1988 on a large sheep property. Such is the owner's passion and commitment to the variety that they are the sponsors of the International Riesling Tasting - a two-day celebration with masterclasses and tastings led by such wine luminaries as Jancis Robinson MW. The next event is scheduled for Feb 8 to 10, 2015, in Melbourne.

Our final white aromatic takes us to Riesling's spiritual home of Germany and more precisely to the Mosel Valley. Successful grape growing this far north is reliant on choosing the sunniest, most sheltered sites hence even the angle of vineyard slope increases the benefit of every single ray of sunshine. Originally established in 1904, Weingut Schloss Lieser was taken over by Thomas Haag in 1992 and has become one of the finest Riesling producers in the Mosel.

From south-facing vineyards that comprise well-weathered Devonian blue slate soils and up to 80 per cent gradients, a classic expression of Riesling is found in Weingut Schloss Lieser's Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett 2012. This is textbook Mosel Riesling from the lifted minerality on the nose to the luscious off-dry, yet tangy citrus mouthfeel indicative of the 60g/L of residual sugar.

This article was first published on Sep 6, 2014.
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