White Nights

Is white the new red, if not for fashion this spring then for wine?

"In New York it's all about Chardonnay," says Cafe Annie's master sommelier Paul Roberts. "Our climate doesn't make sense for reds, yet people still want Cabernets. But I do see that as more people discover wine, it will be white, and Houston will catch up."

The trend in whites isn't about the cheap Chablis wannabes, fern bars and wine spritzers from the '70s and '80s or even the Pinot Grigio pop star of the '90s. No, there are some new whites in town, from a broad range of varietals and regions, and some of them are pretty pricey.

"For a long time people wouldn't pay $100 for a bottle of white," says Tony's wine steward Armando Dawdy. Today the top white at the tony eatery is a 1997 Le Montrachet for $525. Cafe Annie tops that with another 1997 white Burgundy for $650. It's a wine, Roberts says, that will stand up to steak and lobster. "And when it's 100 degrees outside, you really don't want a red." Not even with meat.

Scott Spencer, owner of the Houston Wine Merchant, agrees that white wines have a special Houston appeal. "The white Burgundies are great for here," he says, "because they're lighter, drier and not as alcoholic. They go well with our climate." Spencer says sales at his longtime Houston shop run about even: half red, half white, with no increase in sales of white in recent years. But he has noticed some interesting trends with whites, trends more affordable to most Houstonians.

"In particular, I think the German wines, which have been out of favor for 20 years, are coming back," he says. "The 2001 vintage was the best since '71." Spencer recommends the Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Kabinett ($22.99), of which his store bought 4 percent of the entire vintage. There are also some good buys in Italian whites. "They were a joke a few years ago, but since 1990 they've really improved the technology." And, he says, don't overlook the Spanish whites in the $20 range. "They're like the Italian whites of ten years ago; they're really starting to come along."

White wines, which range in color from almost clear to deep amber, are fresher and generally lower in alcoholic content than reds. Named alternately for the grapes from which they are made or the region from which they come -- or sometimes both -- they are generally meant to be drunk young, from one to five years after harvest, although a few notable French dessert whites from particularly awesome vintages can be savored up to 20 years later. But few Houstonians are looking for a 50-year-old Sauternes; what they're looking for, increasingly, are some innovative California whites.

California wineries discovered the old-world Viognier grape only a few years ago, but it has been creeping into the marketplace and has assumed an almost cultlike status. In fact, the Viogniers, which are a little mellower than Chardonnay and usually have fruity overtones, have been showing up around town a lot lately. Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, with 100 wines by the glass, serves one. And over at Chef g's Seafood & Steakhouse, owner Gower Idrees is stocking two: the 2001 Consilience and the 2000 Arthur Earl, both from Santa Barbara. Idrees says four to five years ago you couldn't find a single Viognier on the market, but today you can find several at Spec's, and Houston Wine Merchant sells an excellent 2001 Napa Valley Viognier Darioush for $34.99. Cafe Annie's Roberts is also a fan. "We've always been big supporters of Viognier," he says. "It's beautiful with almost any food, particularly something with a hint of spice or in the summer with shrimp or lobster."

Another find in Houston is the Portuguese Vinho Verde. This fresh, or "green," wine is made of a blend of several varietals. It's light and dry, with a bit of sparkle although no real bubbles. Best of all, it sells for under $10 a bottle. Chef g's serves the 2000 Casal Garcia Vinho Verde, and both Houston Wine Merchant and Spec's carry versions of this great little sipping wine.

Will white wines overtake reds in Houstonians' hearts? Will die-hard Chardonnay drinkers embrace Viognier? With wine, as in life, little is certain. But it does appear that Houstonians are becoming more educated about their white wines, and restaurateurs are eager to nudge them along. Chef Idrees sums it up this way: "Nothing excites me about serving a Jordan Cab, except that I can move it out the door."

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Marene Gustin