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Great White Adventures

Yes, America is now officially a Red Wine Nation: Sales of red outpaced white in 2005 for the first year since 1976. But don't let that fact fool anyone into dismissing wines that are purple-challenged. Modern blancs are rarely bland, and recent years have seen an expanding palette of white wines vying for our palates' attention.

So, with all those bottles out there, how do you choose the right white? Sure, it's easy to reach for Chardonnay; after all, the Queen of Whites has been America's number-one selling white wine for years. That means a lot of wine drinkers like it, right? Well, maybe they're simply stuck in a rut, not knowing what to drink amidst the shelves and shelves of other whites appearing alongside their tried-and-true Chard.

If you're in that boat, here's your guide to choosing crisp, well-made alternatives that will provide delicious diversions from your usual. The wines are grouped by style; if you like one in a genre, keep sampling similar grapes in that style.

Light, Crisp, and Clean

With its light body, mild taste (gently reminiscent of peach or citrus), and a crisp fruit-acid balance that makes it go great with food, Pinot Grigio is about as all-purpose as wine gets. A great stand-alone sipper, it also pairs nicely with most hors d'oeuvres, light dishes, parties, and picnics.

Sauvignon Blanc prospers in its native France, where it is typically named after the specific areas where it is grown and made into wines that can be bone-dry with grassy, herbaceous, and mineral nuances; look for Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre for these qualities. But the for a head-turning style of Sauvignon Blanc, look to the Marlborough region of New Zealand, where the pungent grape emerges lush with hints of grapefruit, passion fruit, and more. Sauvignon Blancs work well with tangy cheeses (goat cheese, feta), and lemony fish or herbed chicken dishes.

If you like the generous fruit of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc is an excellent option. This suggestion would be no surprise to California winemakers, some of whom already use it as a silent blending partner for Chard. American examples will be dry (and are often labeled as such), with a clean, delicate hint of apple and rarely woody. Another prime source for Chenin is France's Loire Valley.

A hint of sweetness is also a signature of the Riesling grape. This delicate grape, whose attributes run from floral to peachy, has its spiritual home in Germany, but excellent examples come from all over the globe now. Even when a touch of sugar is left in the wine, Riesling's natural streak of acidity is there to balance things out. For off-dry examples, look for wines of 11% alcohol or less. For fuller-bodied, drier Rieslings, look to the Alsace region of France.

Rich, Aromatic, and Full

Though technically the same grape as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris is grown in dry, sunny Alsace which generates its rich-and-ripe character—all the better to belly up to more complex foods. Ditto for Pinot Gris made in Oregon and California.

Viognier—a little-known grape finding its calling outside its Rhône headquarters—offers an exotic, perfumed aroma followed by gobs of melon, apricot, and peach on the palate. Its big fruit and relatively low acidity please most fans of tropical California Chardonnay.

Gewürztraminer is a real mouthful of a wine: it's not only hard to pronounce ("ga-VERZ-tra-mee-ner"), but it also sports full body, aggressive spiciness (think clove and allspice) and a potent, honeyed finish. This is no wallflower wine. The most revered bottles hail from Alsace; California examples tend to be simpler and low-key.

And if these full-figured grapes leave you still wanting more, seek out Semillon from Australia. Often blended with Chardonnay, Semillon can stand on its own as a great dry, full-bodied white wine.

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