In about two to three weeks we’ll see some of the first white wines from the 2017 harvest hit store shelves and restaurant wine lists.
What we soon will see from 2017 was, just four months ago, in the form of grapes picked during a harvest that seemed promising in terms of quality.
The hard work of harvest crews, winemakers, cellar people and bottling-line mechanics will finally show up in an array of white wines that will mostly display dramatic fruit aromas, fresh and lively tastes and some fermentation aromas that are transitory and will be available only for a few weeks after the wines are released.
Such aromatics and tastes can be vibrant, but most winemakers will tell you that only a small percentage of those early-release wines will be at their best then. Most of the wines we will shortly see need a bit more time in the bottle to develop the real wine flavors that we anticipate.
This is especially true of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc (notably those aged in oak for even a brief period of time), fine-quality blended white wines such as Rhône blends and even such appealing “drink-now” quaffing wines like chenin blanc and pinot gris.
It is one reason that in the early months of each year, when the first whites of the prior harvest are released, I evaluate most of them only after decanting them. The tactic serves an important purpose: allowing some oxygen to expand the aromas and dealing with the occasional problem of a trace of sulfur left over from the fermentation process. Decanting allows it to dissipate.
It would seem that one could avoid decanting pinot gris since it is often simplistic and could lose some of its delicate aromatics if aerated. And when the pinot gris is grown in a warmer climate and has only moderate acidity, decanting is optional.
But pinot gris made from cooler-climate vineyards such as the Russian River Valley or Anderson Valley in Mendocino County usually develop their interesting varietal aromas only after time in the bottle, and they also benefit from decanting.
Some years ago Ted Bennett, founder and owner of the superb Navarro Vineyard in Anderson Valley, said his pinot gris is kept back at the winery for months until the fascinating secondary aroma characteristics of the grape develop, as is often done in Alsace.
And as much as I love the excitement of Dry Creek Vineyards’ excellent chenin blanc every year on the day it is released, it always turns out to be far more interesting after many more months — when the melon and honey characteristics develop, replacing some of the simpler yet exciting fruit of its earliest days.
When very young, the Dry Creek chenin is delightful to sip on a patio, but months if not a year later, the wine becomes more “serious” and works also as an accompaniment to lighter foods.
White Rhône blends, which are becoming popular — especially at wine bars and with millennial buyers — usually are made with the exotically floral Viognier grape, which often dominates the aroma of the wines when they are very young.
But if grenache blanc, marsanne, and rousanne are used in the cuvée, all three grapes need time to knit their fascinating flavors.