That nice couple in the local liquor store had no idea that the goofy-looking guy in the straw hat and shorts lurking beside them was an undercover wine critic.
They had no idea that he was eavesdropping on the conversation in which they asked for a $10-$15 wine they could bring to their hosts' house for a dinner party.
They showed no sign that they had heard his teeth grind as they asked for a chardonnay that was "not too dry." When the competent young saleswoman broached the notion of buying a wine other than chardonnay, they didn't see the wine critic grimace as they reacted as if she had suggested they trade in a Mercedes for a Yugo.
Inwardly, the wine critic applauded the saleswoman's effort. It wasn't her fault they departed with a chardonnay that was likely far too dry for their palates.
Chardonnay is a wonderful grape, certainly one of the two or three greatest white-wine varietals in the world. But chardonnay is basically a dry wine. Yes, there are a few producers -- Kendall-Jackson comes to mind -- who try to flatter Coca Cola-trained palates with a few extra grams of sugar. But they are a minority.
So if your palate prefers a wine with a noticeable trace of sweetness, chardonnay is not your wine. And that's OK. It's not a sin to enjoy a wine with dinner that has 2 percent residual sugar. There are many times when even this wine critic prefers a white with a touch of sweetness.
If that couple had asked the wine critic for his recommendation, what would he have suggested for their enjoyment?
Riesling is the superstar of the off-dry white world. No other variety keeps such impeccable balance as it edges up the charts in sweetness. No other wine marries as beautifully with food at such high levels of residual sugar.
Germany remains the best source for rieslings. For the consumer with a palate that prefers a touch of sweetness, but not too much, the word to remember is spatlese. It means "late-picked," and it's a perfect way station between dry wine and dessert wine.
Two examples were tried and they were both magnificent. The 1994 Willi Haag Brauenberger Juffer Riesling Spatlese ($16) from the Mosel region was a crystalline delight, with flavors of apple crisps and cinnamon, and tremendous length and complexity. The 1994 Merkelbach Erdner Treppchen Riesling Spatlese ($14) was a symphony of apple and mineral flavors, with penetrating acidity and fabulous length.
Gewurztraminer is usually quite dry in Alsace, where it reaches its peak of complexity. But New World versions often are made with a touch of residual sugar, and some can be excellent. The key is to keep enough acidity to keep the wines from becoming cloying -- a common failing of gewurztraminer.
Notable examples include the attractively priced and well-made 1995 Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer ($8) from Washington state's Columbia Valley and the 1995 Fetzer California Gewurztraminer ($7.49). Both display the characteristic spicy, nutty flavors of gewurztraminer, and both have the virtue of widespread availability.
Australians love to blend, and then tell you just what they blended. One particularly vibrant, racy blend is the 1995 Rosemount Estate Traminer-Riesling ($10), a lightly sweet wine with hints of honey, lemon and peach.
Chenin blanc is another fine variety that is often made in an off-dry fashion. One has to choose carefully, though, because the fashion in California right now is to produce bone-dry chenins.
One product that departs from the political correctness of dry wine is the 1995 Pine Ridge Napa Valley Chenin Blanc ($10), a crisp, peachy, appley wine with a hint of honey. Its 1 percent residual sugar is just enough to take the edge off its dryness, but real sweet tooths might not be satisfied. They might want to try the 1993 Hogue Columbia Valley Chenin Blanc ($7), an exceptional value.
Vidal is a grape that gets little respect among connoisseurs because it is usually produced in a semisweet style and it's not a purebred European varietal.
But some semisweet vidals are very attractive wines, with good acidity and loads of honey and fresh fruit flavors. One fine example is the 1995 vidal from Maryland's Boordy Vineyards, a ** bargain at about $7.
Some of the finest off-dry whites don't even carry the name of a varietal. Valley of the Moon's nonvintage California Harvest White Table Wine ($8) is a charmer, as is the 1995 Chaddsford Spring Wine ($9), a blend of seyval blanc, riesling, vidal and vignoles from Pennsylvania.
Some of the wines the critic chose might have been a bit too dry for the couple we met earlier. The 1994 Schoffit Pinot Blanc Auxerrois ($16) from Alsace was excellent and seemed faintly more sweet than the typical California chardonnay, but only barely. The 1994 Chateau Lamoroux Graves ($10.49) seemed atypically dry for this property ($10.49). These are borderline cases.
All in all, the lurking critic was impressed with the quality of wine available to people with a bit of a sweet tooth. But now, with your permission, he's taking a break and opening something dry.
Pub Date: 8/04/96