Learning the Basics of White Wine

White wines can be just as complex as red, and it’s important to come to them with an appreciation of that variety. When you’re trying to find just the right wine for an occasion, don’t assume that just because you know the name of a style that it’s the right wine for you.

Take some time to learn a little about your options and find out which is the best wine for you.

Grape Varieties

Calling white wine white can be somewhat misleading. White wines can range in color from water-like clear to golden yellow. Many white wines come from green grapes, but not all. Many white wines are made from purple grapes. The juice is always white, and if it’s kept away from the skins, it won’t turn red.

There are seven major varieties of white wine grapes.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is probably the most recognized and common white wine varietal in the US. California has more acres of chardonnay grapes than any country outside the US. Charonnays tend to have a voluptuous flavor that can include citrus flavors. But many chardonnays get additional flavors from being aged in oak.

Sauvignon Blanc

This grape originates from Bordeaux, where it is used in a popular blend with semillon. Sauvignon blanc often has an herbal quality, though it can have refreshing fruit flavors, too, like crisp apple or pear.

Semillon

Semillon also originates from Bordeaux, and its strong berry flavors make it ideal for blending with sauvignon blanc, but it can be aged into a nice varietal with rich, nutty flavors.

Muscat

Muscat grapes come in a wide variety, but all are linked by a strong, musky aroma. People often identify these wines as citrusy, or, sometimes just “grapey.”

Pinot Grigio

One of the most famously dark-skinned white wine grapes, pinot grigio is an Italian variety. This is an offshoot from the pinot noir grape. It’s sometimes known by its French name: pinot gris. Athough it’s the same grape, the wines can be very different depending on where they come from. French versions tend to be lighter and crisper, while French versions are more robust.

Gewürstraminer

Gewürstraminer is a German grape that has a very strong, fruity aroma. Some of the scents suggested may be rose, peaches, or allspice. Gewürstraminer wines have low acidity and are sometimes used to make dessert wines.

Riesling

Riesling is another German grape that can sometimes be used to make dessert wines. The flavors are generally bright and airy, reminiscent of fresh fruits like apple, but they can sometimes be very complex, spicy, or smoky.

Popular Blends

White Bordeaux

This is the popular blend of sauvignon blanc and Semillon (with a touch of muscadelle) that we’ve been talking about. These are often aged in oak to make a full-bodied blend.

Sauternes

This is a blend where Semillon takes the dominant role. It’s a complex wine that gets some of its flavor from a parasitic mold that can grow on the grapes. The richness of flavor and the high sweetness make this a much -sought dessert wine.

White Bourgogne

This blend is mostly chardonnay, but with aligoté for extra complexity. Aligoté is considered an inferior grape, but in this blend it helps round out the chardonnay flavor with some strong, dry tartness.

Champagne

Champagne is named after the region where it originated, but it is not a varietal wine. It’s a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot Meunier, among others. Because it’s a blend, the variety of flavors in champagne is truly remarkable.

Flavor Profile

All the different flavor nuances, or notes, help define a wine’s flavor profile. They can be in-your-face bold or more subtle. Here are a few of the more common flavor profiles describing white wine:

  • Citrus
  • Earthy
  • Grassy/Herbaceous
  • Green Apple
  • Mineral
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Pineapple
  • Tropical Fruites

Wine Styles

When deciding on a white wine it’s helpful to know something about its style. Four common white wine styles to consider are:

Full-Bodied  The most common and one of the most popular full-body white wines today is Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape is grown all over the world. There are two types of Chardonnay, oaked and unoaked. An “oaky” Chardonnay has been aged in oak barrels, usually new French oak, which can give it spicy, toasty characteristics with hints of vanilla and/or butterscotch. Unoaked Chardonnay is lighter and crisper with little or no oaky characteristics.

Other full-bodied whites include: Gewurtztraminer, Viognier.

Medium-Bodied  Medium-bodied whites tend to be crisper and cleaner, have higher acidity levels, will have mineral aromas and flavors and show fewer oak characteristics. They include

Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Albarino.

Light-Bodied  These wines almost never show any oak characteristics, are very aromatic, have high acidity levels and are refreshing, light, and crisp. Riesling is the most notable light-bodied white. Others include Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Grigio.

Sweet White  These wines are made mostly from the muscat and semillon grapes. These wines include most of the desert wines available today which including Sauternes, Moscatos and some sparkling wines.

The Right White

So, how do you know what’s the right white for you? If you’re not looking for anything for a special occasion, give yourself the freedom to explore. Take time and try different varietals, blends, and styles until you understand the range of flavors.

If you don’t have the time, and you need a wine now, it’s best to ask someone who can guide you to the perfect wine for your occasion.

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