The days of big, bold, oaky chardonnays dominating the white wine scene could very well be coming to an end. Once the darlings of sommeliers and food and beverage directors alike, high-acid white wines like sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and riesling are gaining ground on restaurants and bars’ lists.
“Wine sales are definitely looking up in the area of aromatic, high acid whites,” says Amy Goldberger, sommelier and wine director at Fifth Floor Restaurant in San Francisco. “They are excellent pairing wines and people seem to really enjoy them all.”
The change of heart among consumers goes along with the natural evolution of wine discovery. “When you start learning about wine you start drinking and learning, you tend to like the bigger bolder stuff: that really impresses you,” says Olivier Dufeu, wine director at Indian restaurant Junoon in New York.
The more educated customers become the more likely they are to experiment with new wine flavors, operators find. “The trend has a lot to do with the fact that Americans are more educated: much of it from television shows,” says Brett Davis, master sommelier and co-owner of Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar in Louisville. “People are noticing that they can pair these [wines] with food.”
As consumers grow more comfortable with the wines, they explore other options and find that higher-acid wines tend to work better with food. And wine executives are enthused. In fact, many managers have seen an increase in high-acid wine sales during the last five years. To keep consumers interested they are showcasing how well these wines work with food and teaching their staff on the finer points of food and wine pairing.
Sommeliers and wine directors have known for a while that high acid white wines can work well with food. And these rules often need to be carefully highlighted to customers in order to insure that many of them have a good experience when exploring these new flavors. “Our rule is to always recommend wine that has higher acid than the food. Wine should also be sweeter than the food,” explains Davis. “Texture and balance are important in pairing wines. You taste a high acid wine and your mouth waters. It gets the saliva going which draws you to food and drink. The bigger, flabbier [lower-acid] wines don’t have the same effect.”
Of the 45 white wines on his list, he would categorize some 40 percent to be in the high-acid category. “We try to bring in the high acid wines in a non-intimidating way,” notes Davis, adding that pinot gris is catching up with chardonnay as a top seller at Doc Crow’s.
Goldberger agrees. “The balance of the wines sometimes disguises the acidity, which is why they are appealing to most guests, not just sommeliers.”
Six out of the 10 wines on Goldberger’s white wines-by-the-glass list fall into the high-acid category. She also has a page on her wine list dedicated to showcasing the high acid varietals. “We have a lot of savvy diners in the Bay Area that know what to expect from these wines. They may come in and ask for a specific grape varietal and region.”
For Jacob Fairchild, CSW, director of wine sales and operating partner at Houston-based Lasco Enterprises, which runs five restaurants across Texas, “Wines like these tend to make their way to a list based on style and diversity. [Gomba] Gavi for example, which is made from the cortese grape in Northwestern Italy, is such a unique wine it almost demands a spot on every wine list simply because nothing else compares. Same with food; as a food menu grows in diversity or changes with the season, the wines one can pair with these foods must change as well.”
Most of his restaurants offer at least one or two of these high-acid whites by the glass, but Fairchild notes that the majority of these varietals are purchased by the bottle.
While media may have played a role in educating the wine drinking public, on-premise nudges from an educated staff can really increase sales and experimentation.
“It takes the sommeliers to bring [these wines] to the attention of consumers,” says Goldberger. “People are interested in learning about new styles and more terroir-driven wines and how they interact with food.”
Fairchild concurs. “Higher acid wines will sell well if there is a wait staff behind them that understand the wines. The key to having a wider appeal to these types of wines is understanding them and getting consumers to sample a couple.” Popular sellers among his restaurants include Tormentoso Chennin Blanc ($8.75 by the glass), Feital Auratus Alvarinho ($10.75), Gomba Barolo Gavi ($12.75) and Patient Cottat “Le Grand Caillou” Sauvignon Blanc ($9.75).
At the one-location Alana’s Food and Wine in Columbus, Ohio, Kevin Bertschi, co-owner, holds periodic wine dinners and features high-acid wines with the local, seasonal fare to showcase how well they work with food. “I talk to people and find out what their palette is used to and what they usually like,” Bertschi explains. “Then I present them with a bottle of a new varietal and pour them a taste. I can open their minds a bit.” On his 300-wine list (priced at $20 to $120 a bottle), he offers about 120 white wines, with the majority of them being higher acid, food-friendly varietals.
Not everyone, surprisingly, features wine pairings within the actual food menu, but all did say that staff training can make all the different in tableside wine sales. “When I do staff trainings, one of my favorite questions to ask is, “What is a good wine? For me, I believe the answer to this lies in three words: balance, complexity and length,” says Dufeau. “When you grasp those things, as they relate to wine, I think your understanding of wine, and how it pairs and contrasts, becomes a lot clearer.”
And that translate for the customer. High acid wines are 70 percent of the white wine list at Junoon and top sellers include Château Lamothe de Haux (a sauvignon blanc/sémillon blend at $15), Brandborg Umpqua Valley Pinot Gris ($12) and Markus Huber Grüner Veltliner ($12).
The classic food pairing with high-acid white wines is often oysters or other seafood, but food and beverage directors are opening the game up to show the versatility of these wines.
The smoked meats at Doc Crow’s tend to have a touch of sweetness in the sauces that lend themselves very well to the higher-acid varietals, says Davis.
For example, at Junoon people ask for a lot of advice around what wines to drink with Indian food. Here, Dufeau pairs Vadouvan Scallops—the sauce is made with an Indian spice blend—with the 2010 Gunderloch Riesling Trocken. “The contrast between the rich and smooth texture of the scallops and the clean refreshing acidity of the wine is superb,” he explains. “The Vadouvan sauce copes well with the mineral and ripe fruits characteristic of this riesling.”
At Alana’s, Bertschi pairs high acid wines with a plethora of foods, including any kind of pork chops, vegetables like white asparagus and, of course, oysters. Sample pairings include the 2009 Nigl Grüner Veltliner Alte Reben with Roasted Ruby Beets with Blood Oranges, Niçoise Olives and Shaved Fennel and the 2009 Weingut Bründlmayer Riesling Heiligenstein with Oysters Poached in Tabasco Cream on Fried Eggplant.
Goldberger also doesn’t pair wines on the food menu, but does offer a tasting menu each night of seven courses paired with specific wines. “By the glass, I recently added a chenin blanc from the Loire Valley that has quite bright acidity, but balanced with a weighty viscosity,” she says. The 2008 Domaine de Bellivière L’Effraie Coteaux du Loir “goes beautifully with chef’s dishes especially with Uni Flan and Dungeness Crab Fondue.”
Other pairings include the 2008 Domaine Vocoret Chablis 1er Cru Montmains with oysters five ways and the 2009 Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat GG with Kanpachi Tiridito with Pickled Rhubarb and Jalapeño.
With a few carefully selected high-acid white wines and an educated staff, you can successfully appeal to a growingly experimental wine crowd.