Clocks have advanced to daylight time. The vernal equinox arrives on Saturday. It's nearly spring. Technically.
To a wine and food lover in Canada, though, March remains a bridge month. Spring to people like you (presumably, if you're a regular reader of this page) and me meaningfully arrives not with astronomical technicalities or TSN clips of Ricky Romero warming up in Dunedin, Fla., but with crates of domestic asparagus, flats of fresh peas and bushels of East Coast fiddleheads.
That's still a ways off, regrettably. I don't know about you, but my thirst for superzesty sauvignon blancs has yet to kick in. I tried a few grapefruit grenades from New Zealand last Saturday, as I do most weeks, and I judged them to be good, including a rare Matua Valley Estate Paretai Sauvignon Blanc 2008 from Marlborough ($24.95 in Ontario, $30 in B.C.). But as they have all winter, these zippy whites screamed for food. A glass on its own held the appeal of lemon sorbet on a cold, rainy day, which was indeed the weather in miserable Toronto that day.
Yet my palate has been craving white wine lately, a surer sign than a cloudy Groundhog Day that winter is over. White wine, that is, that can transition me away from the heavy reds of winter. White with enough body, complexity and quirkiness to engage my interest.
If you're on a similar palate calendar, you may enjoy the following suggestions, some already on shelves and some to be released this Saturday in Ontario. They all fall somewhere between oaky, full-bodied chardonnays and anemic pinot grigios. And they span a variety of flavour styles and regions. That said, betraying a personal bias, I hasten to point out that several are from Burgundy.
Bersan et Fils Domaine Saint Prix Bourgogne Aligoté 2008 ($16.95 in Ontario). The Rodney Dangerfield grape of Burgundy, aligoté tends to get little respect. While the vast majority of white Burgundy is 100-per-cent chardonnay, some decent stuff is made using aligoté, notably in wines from the Bourgogne Aligoté appellation, which you'll always see in bold letters on the label. Because the grape tolerates cold weather, it's often planted in marginal vineyard sites above and below the more precious chardonnay. But this one has lofty aspirations. Classic aligoté flavours of apple and lemon make their appearance, but what I love about this "simple" wine is how it betrays its Burgundian core, with a nutty tang reminiscent of a slightly aged Chagny or Rully or even a fino sherry. For a colourful pink Easter gathering, consider turning it into a kir cocktail, mixing four parts aligoté (the traditional kir base) with one part crème de cassis liqueur. That's more cassis than you'll get from parsimonious bartenders, but trust me, it's the right amount.
Maison Kerlann Chablis 2006 (available this Saturday in Ontario, $21.95). Medium-bodied, this fine chardonnay from a good vintage for white wine in Chablis shows a note of tangy oxidation, with a candied-fruit core and silky texture culminating in a crisp, medium-length finish. It's great for grilled fish.
Château de Chaintré Chardonnay Bourgogne 2007 ($16.95 in Ontario). Even at this relatively affordable price, chardonnay from Burgundy often tastes like it could come from nowhere else. Medium-bodied and silky, this offering from Jean-Paul Paquet delivers a luscious tropical-fruit core against a spine of that beloved (at least to me) nutty tang and trace of mineral. If you love superclean, sweet-oak chardonnays from south Australia and California, steer clear of this baby. This is a versatile wine that could pair with fish or poultry.
Domaine Serge Laloue Sancerre 2008 ($22.95 in Ontario). Did I manage to malign sauvignon blanc in my intro above? I didn't mean to. Some sauvignons can sing in March, in particular a nicely concentrated Sancerre from the Loire Valley. This one is typically light in body but quite substantial in flavour, with a classic blast of wet grass, a core of sweet citrus and juicy finish.
Sigalas Santorini 2008 ($24.55 in Quebec). This gem from Greece is an eye-opener if you equate the sunny country with cheap retsina and white wine that could double as salad dressing at a bad taverna. Weighing in at 14.2-per-cent alcohol, this light-bodied but amply flavoured white has a silky, seamless, seductive texture and notes of lemon and bitter herbs. Beautiful. Do not consume this anywhere near souvlaki, moussaka or iceberg lettuce; it deserves sablefish or arctic char. Something delicate.
Marques de Riscal Rueda White 2008 (on sale in Ontario for $11.25). A popular brand from Spain, Riscal recently had its winery redesigned by famed Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry in that trademark wavy-sheet-metal style, which looks particularly dramatic in the Spanish dusk. The wine, from the Rueda appellation near Segovia, has a fresh, modern flavour, too, owing to meticulous temperature control. A blend of local verdejo with 15-per-cent viura (the grape of white Rioja), it's light-bodied with more of a floral quality than, say, sauvignon blanc and with a more rounded texture. This one has the quality of a concentrated soave or a lean Okanagan or Oregon pinot gris. Not a mouthful and not hugely complex, but an uncommonly interesting wine for the money. In British Columbia, look for another good option in a similar style, Telmo Rodriguez Rueda 2007 ($18.99).
Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard Fumé Blanc 2007 ($30.20 in Ontario, available Saturday). Here's another sauvignon blanc that's not exactly crafted for casual pool-side quaffing. One of the more ambitious new wineries in Niagara, Hidden Bench has turned out a compelling fumé blanc (the U.S. term for sauvignon blanc that, against tradition, has been aged in wood). Medium-bodied, it shows a core of luscious tropical fruit, a creamy texture and then notes of fresh bread and gunmetal. Because of the substantial oak treatment here, it could pass for a chardonnay in a blind tasting. Complex, offbeat, deftly balanced and - most important - tasty.
Cave Spring Estate Bottled Gewurztraminer 2008 ($15.95 in Ontario, available Saturday). Gewurztraminer is one of this country's great underappreciated natural resources. We have the climate and soil for this wonderfully fruity-spicy variety. Cave Spring, a one of Niagara's riesling leaders, does a nice job here. It's medium-bodied and slightly short of dry, with plump lychee fruit and a classic rose-petal aroma, with a back note of spice. Great for spicy food or as an aperitif.