White Wine Basics
BY PAUL GREGUTT
With hundreds of varieties of wine white grapes, there is as much white wine information to learn about as there are white wine grapes planted in all corners of the globe. That being said, you'll likely encounter only a handful of these grapes most often. In our white wine basics section, we cover the flavor profiles and regions of the most common white wine grapes. You can certainly choose to discover more beyond this short list, but for a quick and easy white wine 101, the following will fit the bill:
Flavors: Green apple, citrus, pineapple, papaya
Versatile and popular, chardonnay grows all over the world. It reaches its mineral-laced pinnacle in Burgundy, ripens to tropical richness in California and Australia, and takes very well to new oak. It picks up buttery aromas from malolactic fermentation (see Glossary) and toasty or vanilla scents from aging in new barrels. By itself, young chardonnay is most likely to recall fresh green apples in both smell and flavor. Depending upon the winemaker, it can be made to be crisp and stony, buttery and toasty, or brilliantly fresh with green apple and citrus flavors.
Flavors: Ripe apple, lemon drop, pear, honeydew
Flavors: Lychee, grapefruit, flowers, talc
This grape reaches its apex in Alsace, where it produces intensely floral, aromatic, spicy wines that range from bone dry to decadently sweet. In cooler climate regions such as Oregon and northern Italy (where it is called simply Traminer), gewurztraminer makes a crisp, grapefruity white wine that rarely sees oak and often pairs well with Asian dishes and spicy foods.
Flavors: Marzipan, white peaches, pears
The most important white wine grape of the northern Rhone, marsanne has only recently begun to be varietally labeled in the U.S. Both here and in France it is often blended with roussanne, viognier and (sometimes) grenache blanc. Marsanne ripens reliably and makes full-bodied, low acid wines with flavors of almonds, white peaches, and lightly spiced pears. Australia boasts some of the oldest plantings in the world.
Flavors: Oranges, tangerines
There are many varieties of muscat throughout the world, but all are marked by a penetrating aroma of oranges. When fermented dry, muscat’s fruit-driven scents and flavors generally impart a hint of sweetness. It can be made into excellent light sparkling wines, especially the Moscato d’Asti of northern Italy, or rich dessert wines such as Beaumes-de-Venise. The fortified muscats of Australia take the grape to its most luscious and dense extremes.
Flavors: Green apple, citrus
Similar to chardonnay, but lighter and more elegant, pinot blanc has never acquired the cachet or reputation of its big brother pinot grigio. But in Alsace, northeast Italy, Oregon and parts of California some very nice versions are made, ranging from lightly herbal to spicy to citrusy. Pinot Blanc is best when left in stainless steel.
Flavors: Citrus, fresh pear, melon
Pinot grigio creates light, zippy, food-friendly white wines that do not clobber the palate with oak and alcohol. Most popular versions come from the Tre Venezie, but Alsace and the Pfalz region of Germany also do well with the grape. Its alter ego, pinot gris (same grape, different name), has become the pre-eminent white wine of Oregon, where it produces lively, pear-flavored wines that may carry a hint of fruity sweetness. The California version of Pinot Grigio is a bit heavier, but vintners in Washington make intense, tart wines that match well with seafood.
Flavors: Green apple, citrus, apricot, peach, honeysuckle
In flavor, riesling ranges from dry and stony to floral and sweet, much like chenin blanc; and the sweetest versions can age for decades. The greatest rieslings are the German wines of the Mosel-Saar-Ruher, Rheinhessen and Rheingau; close behind are those of Alsace. Washington, New York and Australia can lay claim to making the best examples of Riesling outside of Europe, from bone dry rieslings that marry beautifully with shellfish and Pacific Rim dishes, to sharply-etched, achingly-sweet late harvest rieslings and ice wines.
Flavors: Lime, citrus, stone fruits
Roussanne is widely planted throughout southern France and has become quite popular among the Rhone Rangers of California and Washington state. Full-bodied and tasting of lime and citrus, its nervy acids make it a fine blending partner for marsanne.
Flavors: Grass, herb, citrus, pineapple, peach
Sauvignon blanc does well in widely diverse parts of the world, and is something of a chameleon grape that can deliver interesting flavors across a wide spectrum of ripeness. The Fumé Blanc moniker, coined in the 1970s by Robert Mondavi as a sales gimmick, is still commonly used and often indicates that the wine has been barrel-fermented. In Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire valley, it sports an aggressively herbaceous, grassy pungency, which combines with the bracing acids and stony minerality of the soils. It has become the benchmark white wine of New Zealand, where the intensity of the green citrus and berry fruit flavors is predominant. In California, it is made in a wide range of styles, but often ripened and barrel-fermented to taste like a peachy, tropical chardonnay. Late harvest sauvignon blanc, often blended with semillon, makes some of the greatest sweet wines in the world, most notably Sauternes.
Flavors: Fig, melon, light herb
Like sauvignon blanc, its frequent blending mate, sémillon can make a fine, bone-dry white wine, notable for its texture and softly-grassy aromas, or it can be late-harvested, shriveled with botrytis, and turned into some of the world’s greatest dessert wines. As a solo varietal it has had sparse success, though Washington state does very well with the grape, as does Australia. Though low in acid, sémillons are wines that can age nicely and take on added layers of subtle spice and herb. Young sémillons taste of figs and melons, adding leafy notes as they age.
Flavors: Flowers, citrus rind, apricot, peach
Viognier is intensely aromatic, and when perfectly ripened, smells of apricots, peaches, and citrus rind. It is a difficult wine to make, as it can be quite bitter and austere when not-quite ripe, and turn flabby and hot when over-ripe. Excellent wines using this grape that are made in Washington, California, and Australia tend toward the ripe, hot, peachy styles. Viognier is also blended and/or co-fermented with syrah, adding wonderful high notes of citrus and flower to the finished red wine.
Flavors: Apple, peach, citrus and mineral notes
Accounting for over a third of all plantings in Austria, Grüner Veltliner is by far its most popular variety. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and even the U.S. house a small amount of Grüner Veltliner plantings, but it’s most expressive when grown and vinified in its native land of Austria. The broad range of flavors and styles that a well-made Grüner Veltliner can display only adds to its mystique and charisma. Young and unoaked versions of this wine show green grape and apple flavors along with peach, citrus and mineral notes. Top tier options come from lower yielding vineyards and are allowed to age in oak casks. This will typically elicit a white pepper and spicy characteristic that melds with the mellow fruit and rich mineral backbone that these low production wines possess.