If Tang China (AD 618–906) represents the high point in Chinese poetry, then the Song – both the Northern (AD 960–1126) and Southern (AD 1127–1279) dynasties – produced the greatest ceramics of that ancient civilisation. Mostly in monochrome, their fluidity, simplicity and subtlety have not been matched. Their glazes have been likened to jade, silver, snow and ice.
The most prized Song ceramics are ding, ge, guan, jun and ru. The last is the most sought-after because they were imperial wares exclusive to the court. Not to mention that there are only about 70 pieces left in the world. My personal favourite are jun ceramics, their dream-like shimmer and floating hues reminding me of a soft blue sky after a downpour.
Like these exquisite and unique ceramics, the five greatest expressions of white wine are, for me, blanc de blancs Champagne, Chablis, Hunter Valley Semillon, Mosel Riesling and Vouvray. Although there are exceptions in their expressions, the golden thread that weaves through all of them, whether Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling or Chenin Blanc, is a pristine purity of fruit untouched by the (often heavy) hand of oak.
There is something to be said for the view that the less we need to produce something great, the greater, therefore, is the final product. In that minimalistic sense, my five white wine choices – each able to attain nobility simply from their respective grape’s own driven personality, without any outside help – fulfil the criterion admirably.
This purity is simplicity itself. Yet to mistake simplicity for being simple would be the ultimate folly of a simplistic mind. The fact is, an unoaked wine in the glass stands before us as if it were a person without any clothes or make-up. Every line of fruit, curve of freshness and natural composure – or the lack of it – will be exposed entirely. There’s just no chance of a cover up.
Blanc de blancs Champagne, Chablis, Hunter Valley Semillon, Mosel Riesling and Vouvray all possess fierce acidities on the edge of extremity. They rain down on us like a raging storm of pelting freshness. All are hyper challenging to taste and, for the uninitiated, perhaps even hard to comprehend.
You have to blaze through that steel wall of primary acidity to get to the fruit, which is not lying underneath the torrent of freshness, but wrapped and embellished into its core. It’s as if, in a blinding blizzard, we are expected to see what is ahead of us. Perfect eyesight will be of no use whatsoever. Only time can calm the gravity-defying acidity for the fruit to reveal itself.
Let’s be perfectly honest. When my choice of ‘fab five’ whites are judged young, it’s not always humanly possible to tell the difference between greatness locked in an atom of unforgiving vivacity, and a lean, mean, green wine. A seasoned taster (not me) is required. Or, if less experienced, someone who has a crystal ball with an uninterrupted view into the future.
There are many great examples of blancs de blanc Champagne, Chablis, Hunter Valley Semillon, Mosel Riesling and Vouvray. Personal favourites include (respectively) Champagne Salon, Domaine de Long-Depaquit, Tyrrell’s, JJ Prüm and Domaine Huet.
The ultra cool-climate Chardonnays remind me of tiny white flowers, young citrus, green pineapples, nutmeg and a flint-like minerality. Hunter Valley Semillon is probably the most punishing of wines to taste when young. Solidly pin-point citrus, its blanket acidity can be so raw that, by contrast, the Loire’s supremely tart Gros Plant (aka Folle Blanche) will seem soft in comparison. Only die-hard wine lovers need apply – but you won’t be sorry.
As for the Mosel, just the name alone is entrancing. The Riesling here bewitches with flowers, citrus, pineapple, Fuji apples, minerality and a dash of honey. And when it comes to the irreplaceable Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, just outside Tours, there’s almost always waxy, woolly, wild honey flavours and controlled minerality. And supercharged acidity, too, of course.
Difference in grapes notwithstanding, the sensation when tasting my ‘famous five’ is not dissimilar. (I’ve elevated their status from ‘fabulous’ to ‘famous’ in just a few short paragraphs – I hope the wines are now well known to you if they weren’t before.)
The experience is like standing in front of an El Greco painting. The suspended figures are slim and long, yet possessing great strength, vitality and backbone. Like jumping into a swimming pool that, only the morning before, was iced over.
It’s a great privilege, when raising a glass, not only to drink a lively wine but, in the drinking, to feel completely alive. A feeling as precious and timeless as all those great Song ceramics.
Written by Ch’ng Poh Tiong