Your Wine IQ

White Wine


International Varieties: Chardonnay   Gewürztraminer   Muscat   Pinot Gris   Riesling   Sauvignon Blanc

Major Varieties: Airén    Chenin Blanc    Grüner Veltliner    Müller-Thurgau    Pinot Blanc    Sémillon    Silvaner    Trebbiano    Viognier

Regional Varieties:   Albariño    Aligoté    Amigne    Arneis    Chasselas    Colombard    Cortese    Fiano    Grechetto    Grenache Blanc    Malvasia Istriana    Marsanne    Muscadelle    Muscat of Alexandria    Ortega    Palomino    Parellada    Petite Arvine    Prosecco    Rieslaner    Roussanne    Savagnin    Scheurebe    Seyval Blanc    Tocai Friulano    Torrontés    Vermentino    Welschriesling


White wine

White wine in a glass.
Photo by André Karwath
Licensed under Creative
Commons SA 2.5
.

Lighter than red wine and full of different flavors, white wine is considered less collectible than the great red wines. Often high in acidity, white wine differs from red wine due to the lack of tannins, the bitter part of the grape skin that gives red wine its color and characteristic taste. In general, white wine is talked about in terms of richness. Also, white wine does not age well, with a few notable exceptions.

While the grapes that produce red wine are purple and/or black, white wine is produced from either light yellow-green grapes like Chardonnay, or light red grapes like Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. Although Champagne is considered the topmost luxury wine, almost all the world's most expensive wines are red.

In order to keep the acidity and light fruit flavors crisp and refreshing, white wine should be refrigerated before drinking. Whites can be stored at 55-60 degrees, while sweet white wines should be kept at 50-53 degrees. This is cooler than the storage temperatures used for red wines. It is best to serve whites in a thinner glass than those used for red wine.

Although white wine is generally much lighter-bodied than red wine, some choices are full-bodied. Many French wines, such as aged white Burgundies, as well as certain California and Oregon Chardonnays, are famously full-bodied. White wine has acidity, which can be low, high, or anywhere in between. Riesling boasts the highest acidity of all white grapes, while in wines from Pinot Gris, acidity can often be fairly low. Wines that are too high in acidity are bitter and unapproachable, whereas low-acidity wines can be bland and uninteresting. Generally, producers try to reach a compromise with acidity levels.

The flavors of white wine are incredibly varied and span many different regions and tastes. The flavors of fruits, such as banana, apple, pear, peach, and citrus, may appear in Chardonnays, while the more oaked products are described as buttery. Rich, fruity wines reach their peak of expression--and cost--in luxurious Sauternes. Lusciously flavored with apricot, banana, and peach, as well as a decadent honey overtone, the nickname "liquid gold" describes Sauternes perfectly.

Chardonnay vines

Chardonnay on the vine in Burgundy.
Photo by Justin Cormack
License: Creative Commons SA 2.0 Generic.

Another flavor set in white wines is mineral: flint, gunpowder, steel, and slate, and occasionally lime, may flavor white wines. Such earthy flavors can impart character that is unique and memorable. Chablis, made from the same Chardonnay as white Burgundy but in a different style, is legendary for its mineral flavors. German and Austrian Rieslings are similarly tasteful and austere.

The third common flavor set is floral. Rather than fruits or minerals, floral wines smell like flowers. Less common in general, floral flavors are most often found in Alsatian Gewürztraminer. The king of floral grapes is Viognier; the white wines from this grape, such as Condrieu, are highly coveted for their floral taste. Viognier may be blended with red wine to impart its heady aroma.

The versatility of white wine is part of its charm. Many Americans think of white wine as California Chardonnay. In reality, this is but one of many choices. There are other white grapes that offer an entirely different wine experience.

Some of the finest regions producing white wine include Alsace, Sauternes, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Loire in France; Alto Adige in Italy; Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley, and the Central Coast in California; and the Mosel and Nahe in Germany.

The following is a list of prominent grapes used in the production of white wine.

International Varieties

These wine grapes are unanimously recognized for winemaking, and are regularly planted all over the world.

Russian River Valley Chardonnay

California Chardonnay.
Photo by Ethan Prater on Flickr.
License infohere.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the king of white grapes, the Cabernet of whites. By far the most recognized white grape, it is planted everywhere that white wine is made. While many Americans are only familiar with the occasional Napa Chardonnay, replete with fruity flavors and oaky richness, there are many other styles of Chardonnay being made around the world. The wines of Burgundy, especially the Montrachet areas, are considered by critics to be the best of the best. Chablis, which is made from Chardonnay grapes, is famous for its unique mineral flavors. Read more about Chardonnay's characteristic versatility.

Gewurztraminer grapes

Gewürztraminer grapes on the vine.
Photo by Jean Trimbach.
License info here.

Gewürztraminer

Finicky and difficult, lightish red grape Gewürztraminer is almost always best in Alsace, where its aromatic bouquet and fruity flavors manifest deliciously in the wine. Gewürztraminer can be dry or sweet, and both styles are widely respected. All over the world, winemakers are trying to replicate the unique appeal of these flavors. Read more about these attempts at spreading the production of this fantastic grape.

Muscat

Muscat grapes.
Photo by KetaiBlogger on Flickr.
License: Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

Muscat

Rich and tasty, Muscat is one of only a few grapes that regularly produces wines that actually taste of grapes! This is strange but true. It is also odd that wine critics look down on Muscat for its flavors that are seen as lacking in refinement. However, Muscat can be approachable, and there's always a place in the wine world for light and lively wines. Muscat is produced in a variety of styles. Read more about the many countries other than France where Muscat is also planted.

Pinot Gris from Alsace

Sweet Pinot Gris.
Photo by Tomas er on Wikipedia.
License info here.

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris has become more widely known of late as Pinot Grigio. Light and unintimidating, Pinot Grigios from California and Italy are popular and appealing. While simple and approachable, these wines have an excellent fruity flavor, often of light tropical fruits. The classicist's Pinot Grigio is called Pinot Gris and is found in Alsace. Rich and full-bodied, these wines have garnered praise for as long as they have been produced. Read more here.

Riesling

Riesling grapes in Germany.
Photo by Tom Maack.
License info here.

Riesling

Riesling is the classic German grape. The German wines, especially Mosel, have a high-acidity elegance which reaches a peak of expression with an even balance between fruits and minerals. When produced elsewhere, Riesling rarely achieves the high levels of praise afforded the German wines. Unlike most white wines but similar to Sauternes, Riesling ages well. German Rieslings can last for 30 years or more, even the downmarket products. Intensely flavored, low in alcohol, and highly acidic, these wines are sold in tall, thin bottles. Read more about how to appreciate Riesling.

Jackson Estate Sauvignon

New Zealand Sauvignon.
License info here.

Sauvignon Blanc

The Sauvignon Blanc grape was once a moderately popular white grape best known for the smoky, green-fruit-flavored wines of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre in the Loire Valley. Sauvignon was also used for the making of Sauternes. Wine critics were happy with the oldstyle flavors, but it didn't hit the mass market until winemakers in New Zealand came up with new processing methods to make a uniquely flavored Sauvignon. These wines are more aromatic and approachable than the old French styles, although lively disputes remain over which is better. The popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon has caused interest to flourish elsewhere, and Sauvignon Blanc is now used in wines all over the world. Read more about Sauvignon's international status, and what started it all.






Major Varieties

The major varieties are important grapes that, despite being excellent in one particular region, are lackluster and/or do not grow well in other regions. These grapes thrive in one particular region, but are only good when grown in that region.

Two Chenin BlancsSauternesSilvaner in a German bottleViognier wine

From left to right: Two Chenin Blancs, one from South Africa and one from Savennières; Château d'Yquem, an expensive Sauternes based 50% on Sémillon; Silvaner in a traditional bottle; Viognier from the Languedoc.

Photo credits left to right: Tomas Eriksson; Monster1000 on Wikipedia; Tomas er on Wikipedia; Tomas er on Wikipedia.

All photos licensed under Creative Commons Attribution SA 3.0 Unported..

Airén

Airén is the most commonly planted white grape in the world. Plantings in Spain have overtaken those of Chardonnay. Read more.

Chenin Blanc

One of the mainstays of French white wine, Chenin Blanc is important especially in the Loire Valley. The entire Loire produces good Chenin, but ageable Vouvray is the best, dry or sweet. Chenin Blanc, a finicky grape by nature, has increased in popularity and now is planted in South Africa and California as well. Read more about the versatility of Chenin Blanc here.

Grüner Veltliner

Grüner Veltliner is an ancient Austrian grape that is still most popular in its home country. The steep slopes of northeast Austria, especially Wachau, yield grapes that make an intense, mineral-flavored wine that has long been admired by wine critics. Elsewhere, the climate does not yield such good results, which gives Austrian Grüners a certain exclusivity. Read more about Austria's major contribution to the wine world.

Müller-Thurgau

More popular (and successful) than most other grape crossings, Müller-Thurgau has a tumultuous history. During Germany's wine bubble of the 1960s and 1970s, Müller reached a peak of popularity. When the bubble burst and German wine was suddenly unpopular, Müller took a long time to recover. The rebound is not yet complete, but consumers often enjoy this grape's refreshing wines. Read more about Müller's ups and downs and where it stands today.

Pinot Blanc

A white mutation of black grape Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc makes wines full of green apple flavors when young. Simple and fruity, these wines once had a low-class image. Contemporary winemakers have been improving the reputation of Pinot Blanc. Found in many places, Pinot Blanc is best in Alsace. Oregon is also good. Read more about why and how Pinot Blanc's reputation is changing.

Sémillon

Most famous for being a component (with Sauvignon Blanc) of Sauternes, Sémillon is used because it is susceptible to the noble rot that gives this luxurious sweet wine a unique greatness. Sometimes selling for more than $1,000 per bottle, Sauternes has long been considered a luxury item. Sémillon has its own story, though. Read more about the grape here.

Silvaner

Planted in Germany to supplement the great Riesling, Silvaner plays a significant role in the supporting cast of German white grapes. The ability of this grape to produce appealing wines is underestimated. High in acidity but also sugary, Silvaner can be found in Franconia, as well as other German regions. It is also grown in Alsace. Read more about this good German white grape.

Trebbiano

Trebbiano is called Ugni Blanc in France, where the grape is used in cognac production. The bland flavor works best in the production of distilled liquor. Trebbiano wine is produced in Italy, where the grape is generally more highly regarded. Read more about Trebbiano.

Viognier

Full of flavor and aroma, the best Viogniers can be magical. Unfortunately, the grape's finicky nature has prevented plantings worldwide. The best place to find Viognier is still Condrieu in the Rhône. In recent years, growers in Australia and California have been working with this grape. Read more about Viognier and why the Rhône is the best place for wine from this unusual grape.

Regional Varieties

Regional varieties are lesser-known varietals that are mainly found in certain, usually small, geographic regions. While not tremendously popular, these grapes are part of a large supporting cast that can often turn out wine equal or superior in quality to the more common grapes.