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Beppi Crosariol's Decanter

The hottest grape of the summer Add to ...

If you want in on the latest white-wine fashion, you'll have to venture beyond the world of easy-to-pronounce grapes, like chardonnay and pinot grigio.

In fact, you'll have to venture beyond grape names altogether, because the hip new wine on summer patios from Kitsilano to Cape Breton is a blend that often contains one of the above varieties but also gewurztraminer, viognier, riesling, semillon and/or muscat.

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Connoisseurs call the wines aromatic blends. I call them Conundrum copycats. Let me explain.

Conundrum, a California white wine., 2010.

The darlings of experimental winemakers everywhere, white blends have become popular with adventurous consumers seeking rich fruit flavour, smooth texture, a hint of sweetness and a fitting accompaniment to tough-to-match Thai dishes, Indian curries and other Asian foods.

Many of the offerings, which go by such proprietary brand names as Ménage à Trois White, Seriously Twisted and Sidewinder, owe their inspiration, consciously or not, to the success of a super-premium wine called Conundrum. Launched by esteemed Napa Valley, Calif., producer Caymus Vineyards in 1989, Conundrum is a blend of five grapes: sauvignon blanc, muscat, chardonnay, viognier and semillon. Two decades ago, it was an anomaly from a region that popularized single-grape "varietal" wines.

Conundrum has grown from an initial 3,000-case output to more than 90,000 cases annually, remarkable for a white that for years hovered slightly above the $30 mark. (It now sells for $23.95 in Ontario.) Some consider it the first Napa Valley cult white, a pale-coloured analogue to such iconic reds as Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon.

Among my other favourite "copycats": Big House White from California; Blasted Church Hatfield's Fuse and Honest John's White from Road 13 winery in British Columbia; Stratus White and Strewn Two Vines from Niagara; Evolution Lucky Edition from Sokol Blosser in Oregon; and Columbia Crest Two Vines Vineyard 10 White Wine from Washington State.

"It's a compliment," Chuck Wagner, Caymus's proprietor, said of the imitation blends.

Mr. Wagner, whose grandfather emigrated from Alsace, France, didn't create the category. He modelled Conundrum loosely on a classic Alsatian style known as edelzwicker, which typically incorporates all of that region's signature white grapes, gewurztraminer, riesling, muscat, pinot gris and pinot blanc. He gave his Napa novelty a proprietary name instead of listing the grapes on the front label - a name that captured, in his mind, the puzzled look of consumers trying to guess what was inside the bottle.

I recall the raised eyebrows of gleeful tasting-room visitors during a pilgrimage to Caymus in the early 1990s. And I never forgot the taste of the wine, a welcome balm for the tedious sea of over-oaked chardonnays I had been sampling during the week.

Called aromatic blends because of their underlying floral-spicy quality, Conundrum-style wines for me evoke a still life of white table grapes, peaches and flowers sitting in the middle of an Indian kitchen pantry.

Mr. Wagner recommends enjoying Conundrum with any food containing brown spices or ginger as well as dishes containing fiery peppers. "Asian-Pacific foods probably would be my favourite" he said.

But if you're going to try the wine, or any of its ilk, alone, be prepared for a bit of sweetness. Technically, most are off-dry, though the best are imbued with sufficient acidity for balance, like the lime in a well-made margarita.

In a sense, Conundrum resonates not only with the noble whites of Alsace, but also, ironically, with the early days of the California jug-wine boom. E&J Gallo, the jug behemoth, built its post-Prohibition success largely on the strength of California chablis, a cheap white blend that bore no connection to the crisp chardonnays of Chablis in France. "Conundrum is nothing more than a California chablis, but made in a high style, with quality in mind," Mr. Wagner told me over the phone from Rutherford, Calif.

In an era when dry wine dominates the landscape, Conundrum might also be seen as a throwback to the 1970s, when sweet, fruity whites such as Black Tower and Blue Nun had begun to wean North American palates off soda pop at the dinner table.

"Everything old is new again," said Brett Marshall, Canadian sales director for Trinchero Family Estates, the large, family-owned California company that makes Ménage à Trois. "When you talk to industry people, there's certainly a resurgence on fresh white wines coming back into fashion."

Launched in 2002, Ménage à Trois White, blended from chardonnay, muscat and chenin blanc, was selling 5,000 cases annually in 2004 when Trinchero bought the parent winery, Folie à Deux. Sales have since ballooned to 200,000 cases annually.

Menage a Trois, a California white wine., 2010.

"Initially, you think it's a little sweeter than it is, and then the acidity kicks in on the back end," Mr. Marshall said. "It does really clean the palate."

Much of that sweetness and aromatic quality comes from the muscat grape, which has several varieties that include muscat canelli (known as moscato in Italy), muscat of Alexandria and muscat ottonel.

Mr. Marshall said Ménage à Trois's success has been fuelled largely by its popularity on wine lists in "Asian-inspired restaurants."

Yes, while some people still favour cold lager with their kaeng phet, paradoxically sugar does a better job of extinguishing chili heat than a cold, but dry, beer.

Call it a conundrum.























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