In Praise of Match-Struck White Wines

Drink Features White Wine
In Praise of Match-Struck White Wines

I love butter. Salted, herbed, spread over crusty bready or melted in generous knobs over al dente pasta with a handful of freshly grated cheese and cracks of black pepper—it is the height of simple but deep gustatory pleasure. 

But butter in my wine? Hard pass. I’m not alone. 

“Wine is like any industry in that there are strong trends that affect the wines people drink and ask for,” says Lindsey Becker-Schwartz, wine director at RPM Seafood in Chicago. “For a long time, the trend among American wine lovers was full-bodied, buttery wines. As is the case with any trend, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction toward leaner, more mineral-driven wines, which is best exemplified by the current Sancerre craze. Among the 23 options we offer by the glass, Sancerre has been in the number one spot in terms of sales for the past few years.”

Indeed, white wines that are perched just on this side of reduction—that struck-match flavor, flintiness with mouth-watering acidity—feel particularly of the moment. They also offer incredible flavor, interest and food-friendliness. Read on for insight into more about this refreshing, lively type of white and what contributes to its flavor and aroma, from soil to climate to cellar choices. 

What Does ‘Match-Struck’ Mean?

White wines that impart struck-match, flinty and smokey notes are the polar opposite of the opulent, lush, buttery and toasty whites that were popular a few decades ago, both in terms of flavor and structure. But those terms—commonly found in tasting notes—aren’t necessarily the terms that will spring to mind for the casual wine drinker. 

Instead, “guests frequently request crisp, bright white wines with minerality.” Becker-Schwartz notes. “Often, they even specifically say they hate Chardonnay, which is fun for me.”

Grapes, Soils & Climates Encourage These Flavors

Indeed, Chardonnay often gets unfairly pigeonholed as being buttery across the board; however, the way it tastes is highly dependent on factors like soil and climate. 

“When people say they hate Chardonnay, I love introducing them to a Chablis, which is an unoaked style of Chardonnay, or even something like a Premier Cru White Burgundy,” says Becker-Schwartz, of bringing Chablis to guests who don’t realize it’s actually made from the Chardonnay grape. 

Indeed, as Didier Séguier, cellar master at Domaine William Fèvre in Chablis explains, the flavor in the glass is highly dependent on the soil in which the vines grow. 

“We own 15 acres of Grand Cru and 16 acres of Premier Cru in Chablis, and what makes our wines stand out is our soil,” Séguier says. “It is very rich in limestone and oyster shells, which were deposited there during the Jurassic period. It gives a unique expression to our Chardonnay. Most of the world makes a heavy and fat Chardonnay, but ours is flinty, fresh and elegant.”

In Italy’s Alto Adige, Judith Unterholzner on the winemaking team at Markus Prackwieser Gump Hof, attributes the struck-match flavor of their wines to the “lime-rich moraine [former glacier] terrain resting on solid Bozen quartz porphyry,” but she says the vineyard’s position and the region’s unique microclimate contribute to the wine’s distinctive flavors as well. 

The winery’s whites include Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Schiava and Gewürtzraminer on western and southwestern vineyard slopes with up to 70% incline. Winds from Lake Garda during the day and winds from the Dolomites at night cool the vineyards, delivering complexity and freshness. 

Matt Stamp, veteran sommelier behind Napa’s Compline Wine Shop says that industry pros eager to showcase flinty whites typically reach for “Chablis and Côte d’Or Chardonnay, Muscadet or other European white wines. Sauvignon Blanc can be quite flinty, but so can Fiano from Italy or Palomino from Spain.”

And while he says that Europe certainly doesn’t harbor the only flinty whites in the world, there is a concentration there. Tim Gaiser, master sommelier and author of Message in the Bottle: A Guide for Tasting Wine, agrees, noting that history, in addition to terroir, plays an important role in this phenomenon. 

Generally, in cool-climate regions of Europe, new oak hasn’t been traditionally used,” says Gaiser. “The economics of buying new barrels every year is also a factor.” Barrels can be expensive, so producing flinty, unoaked wines are a smart financial decision for many wineries.

Struck-match flavors can also be found in the New World—including Australia (especially Clare Valley Chardonnays)—and Uruguay. Unlike the country’s better-known South American peers Chile and Argentina, the Atlantic Ocean, not the desert or Andes mountains, dominates the cool climate terroir.  In Uruguay, there are 99 classified soil types, and in the vineyards of Maldonado, in southeastern Uruguay, vineyards have been planted above the Río de La Plata craton, some of the oldest rock on earth.

“This rock is 2. 5 billion years old, and it is our secret weapon,” Christian Wylie, managing director of Bodegas Garzon, explains. “The rock is a remnant of the time when South American and Africa broke apart, and it has incredible properties. It is so ancient it acts like a sponge, soaking up the incredible amount of rain we get here [about 48.4 inches annually] and creating a recipe for grapes like Albariño and Sauvignon Blanc to develop mouth-watering acidity, minerality, incredible texture and flintiness.”

Cellar Practices 

New oak, as Gaiser noted, is the enemy of these lean, acid-driven wines. 

Didier says that while “the most important factor determining the flavor is the terroir and the way the grapes were grown, in our case, organically for more than 20 years,” cellar practices also have an effect. 

“We are not high-tech,” he says. “We don’t use new oak because it increases flavor and fatness. We use barrels, but they are not new. We like the texture that the oxygen exchange adds. We also keep the wine on the lees but don’t do batonnage [lees stirring], which can also eliminate the mineral, reductive note we like.”

Gaiser notes that vintners can’t create flinty flavors if they don’t have the right terroir.

“The fruit has to have a high natural acidity, followed by a cooler and longer primary fermentation, lees contact and minimal fining and filtration,” he explains. 

In other words, flinty wine is pure wine that is allowed to speak terroir fluently. 

Classic and Unexpected Bottles To Try 

William Fèvre Chablie GC Bourgros Cote Bouguerots 2020: This wine is grown on ancient chalky, marl and marly limestone soils from the Jurassic period 160 million years ago and gets 14 to 15 months of aging before release, including five to six on fine lees in French oak for 50% to 60% of the harvest. It ends in small stainless-steel tanks. Complex, powerful and dense; hazelnuts, rounded pears, smokiness and stones. 

Markus Prackwieser Gump Hof Praesulis Alto Adige Sauvignon Blanc DOC: The grapes here are grown on steep slopes and fermented in steel tanks with one-third in old tonneau. The wine opens in the glass with crushed rocks, savory herbs and citrus-y fruit. On the palate, it’s silky smooth with a tension-building mix of grapefruit rind, floral notes and firestone flavors giving way to cantaloupe and zesty acidity. 

Bodegas Garzon Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2020: Grown on the ancient rock on a small hill in the vineyard, about eight miles from the Atlantic Ocean, these grapes are fermented and aged in cement tanks. Fresh, salinic, sharp and zesty, with rippling minerality, and a mouth-watering finish.

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