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A Beginner’s Guide to White Wines

Updated: Mar 30



There are over 600 white wine grape varieties across the globe. Most of these grapes are only known to the local communities who grow and consume them. Even the most produced white grape, Airén, is relatively unknown as it is primarily used in the production of brandy. In today’s blog, we’ll just focus on the mosst popular white wines consumed in the US.

 

Chardonnay


Chardonnay is the most popular white wine grape produced in the world. You can find this variety in just about every wine producing region across the globe. It is not only used to produce still white wines, but it is the primary grape in Champagne and most quality sparkling wines the world over.


With nearly 500,000 acres committed to Chardonnay, it is the 5th most produced wine variety in the world, and the 2nd most produced white grape after the aforementioned Airén. Chardonnay is light-to-medium bodied wine that really serves any occasion. Think about making it a star of your next Thanksgiving feast!   


Origin: Bourgogne (Burgundy), France.


DNA: Chardonnay is a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc


Notable Regions: Burgundy, France, including Chablis; Champagne, France, California Coast, USA; Southern Australia, Northern Italy; Western Cape, South Africa; Uco Valley, Argentina


Aromas and Flavors: Lemons and/or lemon curd, apples, pineapple and/or other tropical fruits, butter, yeast, vanilla


Food Pairing: Shellfish or poultry with creamier sauces, creamy cheeses, and hearty root vegetables and mushrooms.


Cost: $5 to $24,000 per bottle


Additional Notes: When you hear the term White Burgundy it is referring to Chardonnay. Many of the most famous and most expensive wines in the world are in fact White Burgundies. These are highly sought after; the Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru (label above) will fetch over $24,000 per bottle for instance.


The northernmost region of Burgundy, Chablis, produces some outstanding wines at more reasonable price points. The California equivalents are much more economical at the $50-$200 range.


Occasional Wine's Favorite Chardonnays:


 

Sauvignon Blanc


Sauvignon Blanc is the 8th most produced wine grape in the world at over 270,000 acres, and the 3rd most produced white grape after Airén and Chardonnay. You can take your pick here as there are variations on a theme here between Sauvignon Blanc produced in the Loire Valley versus that produced in Marlborough versus that produced in Napa Valley.


In the end what you always get is a bright, light-bodied wine that is packed with energy and powerful aromas and flavors that pairs equally well with lighter fare or just a sunny afternoon.  


Origin: Bordeaux, France


DNA: Sauvignon Blanc is descended from the ancient Savagnin grape, which makes it a sibling of sorts to several other grapes, including Chenin Blanc and Grüner Veltliner, among others.


Notable Regions: The Bordeaux and Loire Valley (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé) regions of France; Napa Valley, California, USA; Marlborough, New Zealand; Margaret River, Australia


Aromas and Flavors: Gooseberries, melons, grapefruit, stone fruit, green peas, asparagus, fresh cut grass, mineral


Food Pairing: Fish, bright salads, vegetable dishes, and goat cheeses


Cost: $3 to $3,500 per bottle


Additional Note: In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with Sémillon and referred to as a Bordeaux Blanc. The Sémillon gives the wine more body and tends to tame the acidity.


Occasional Wine's Favorite Sauvignon Blancs:



Riesling


Riesling is in the top 20 of grapes produced globally at roughly 125,000 acres and the 3rd most popular white wine variety. This is a very popular wine in Europe and Australia, but gaining in popularity in the US with expected global sales to exceed $1bn within the next couple of years.

This is a very aromatic grape with wide ranges of dryness to sweetness. Riesling is considered a pure wine, in that it requires very little manipulation in the winemaking process to deliver a fantastic result - no wood, no lees, no nonsense. It does require a timely harvest, but it is otherwise a winemakers’ dream grape.


Origin: Rhine Region of Germany


DNA: Riesling is an offspring of the ancient grape Gouais Blanc. The other parent is believed to be a cross between Traminer and a wild grape.


Notable Regions: Mosel, Pfalz, and Rheinghau, Germany; Alsace, France; Austria; Switzerland; Clare and Eden Valleys, Australia; Columbia Valley, WA, and Finger Lakes, NY, USA


Aromas and Flavors: Petrol, honey, ginger, limes, lemons, apricots, pineapples, pears


Food Pairing: Spicy or exotic Asian or Latin American food, cured meats, foie gras, sweet starch vegetables, Comté, Havarti, and Edam cheeses


Cost: $4 to $16,000 per bottle


Additional Note: Rieslings are often thought of as sweet wines, but the truth is that there is a wide range of sweetness levels. Most of the Rieslings produced in Alsace, France, Washington and New York states in the US, and Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia are in fact dry, and those wines labeled as Trocken in Germany are also dry. Of course, dry and Riesling are also a bit confusing as a Trocken wine from Germany can have up to 9g/liter of residual sugar, so even “dry” can have a little sweetness.


Occasional Wine's Favorite Rieslings:


 

Pinot Gris / Grigio


Pinot Gris, aka Pinot Grigio (Italy), aka Grauburgunder (Germany), aka Ruländer (Austria), is a top 20 wine in terms of global production at roughly 110,000 acres under vine. The grape is best known as Pinot Grigio as nearly half of that production is in northern Italy. This is a pink-skinned grape that is produced in several styles, from light to medium bodied and from dry to sweet.


In its lighter form, it’s bright and refreshing and pairs well with fish and chips, bright salads, goat cheese, and light pastas. In its bigger bodied, off-dry form, add heavier cream sauces to your fish and pasta dishes, bring on the fried pork or chicken, foie gras, spicy Asian fare, or dessert.


Origin: Burgundy, France


DNA: Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir and goes back as far as the Roman Empire


Notable Regions: Trentino-Alto-Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy; Alsace, France; Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA; Pfalz, Baden, and Rheinhessen, Germany; Yarra Valley and Tasmania, Australia


Aromas and Flavors: Ripe stone fruits, tropical fruits, pears, apples, lemons, melons, almonds, ginger, wet stones (mineral)


Food Pairing: For dry Pinot Grigios - green vegetables, vegetable antipasti, poached or fried fish, sushi, shellfish with light sauces, pasta with light sauces, grilled chicken with light sauces, light beans, crème fraîche, feta, fontina, or ricotta cheeses. For sweeter Pinot Gris, see Riesling above


Cost: $3 to $500 per bottle


Additional Note: Most Pinot Gris is dry, but in the Alsace region of France, Pinot Gris is one of 4 noble grapes, highly regarded for producing outstanding sweet wines. either using the Vendanges Tardive (late harvest) method or Sélection de Grains Nobles Noble Rot (a safe fungus called Botrytis Cinerea that helps to concentrate the sugars in the grapes)


Occasional Wine's Favorite Pinot Grigios:


 

Chenin Blanc


Chenin Blanc, aka Pineau de la Loire, aka Steen is a top 10 white wine in terms of global production at nearly 90,000 acres under vine, 55% of which is in South Africa. It is one of the most versatile white grapes producing the full gambit of light and refreshing to full bodied dessert wines, sparkling wines, and everything in between.

 

Origin: Loire Valley, France

 

DNA: Chenin Blanc is a direct descendant the ancient Savagnin grape, making it a sibling to Sauvignon Blanc, among others

 

Notable Regions: Western Cape, South Africa; Quarts de Chaume, Savennières, and Vouvray, Loire Valley, France; Mendoza, Argentina; Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa Valleys, CA, and Yakima and Columbia Valley, WA, USA; South Australia

 

Aromas and Flavors: These vary based on the ripeness / sweetness of the wine from tart pears and/or apples, ginger, quince, and passionfruit to ripe pears and apples, peaches, mangos, and oranges


Food Pairing: Any seafood, particularly shellfish in butter or lightly spiced sauces, shrimp cocktail, caviar, salads, quiche, pork chops, grilled chicken, ham, pretzels, Chèvre or other goat cheeses


Cost: $3 to $400 per bottle

 

Additional Notes: While Chenin Blanc was born in France, it has become a serious quality export of South Africa, where they refer to it as Steen. France is still no slouch here. Indeed, the Loire Valley has a single Grand Cru appellation, Quarts de Chaume, that produces some of the best dessert wine in the world.


In the adjacent appellations of Vouvray and Savennières, Chenin Blanc is also king and the wines (dry, sweet, and sparkling) continue to command the prestige and respect they have for over a millenia.

 

Occasional Wine's Favorite Chenin Blancs:

 




Albariño


Albariño, aka Alvarinho, represents roughly 50,000 acres of vines planted globally, largely in the northwest regions of Spain and Portugal, but gaining in popularity in California in the US and Uruguay in South America, among others. It is a dry refreshing white wine with great acidity, fresh citrus, stone, and melon fruit flavors and aromas, and tell-tale hints of salinity. It is our go to wine for fresh ceviche or fish tacos on a hot afternoon.

 

Origin: Iberian Peninsula


DNA: Unknown

 

Notable Regions: Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain; Vinho Verde, Portugal

 

Aromas and Flavors: Lemons, melons, grapefruits, nectarines, mineral, saline


Food Pairing: Ceviche, sushi, fish tacos, oysters, salsa verde, bright salads, burrata, manchego, gouda, or feta


Cost: $5 to $100 per bottle

 

Additional Note: We fell in love with this wine while touring around various countries along the Mediterranean. It is our favorite beach or boat wine - so refreshing and so complimentary to the local seafood. Oh and what a bargain!

 

Occasional Wine Favorite Albariño Wines:


 

Viognier


Viognier is next on the list of white wines with over 40,000 acres planted globally, most of which is in the northern Rhône Valley. It continues to grow in popularity in the US and Australia in particular. It is a medium to full bodied, almost oily, and very aromatic white wine that grows best in cooler climates.

 

Origin: Rhône Valley, France 

 

DNA: Varying studies link Viognier to the Freisa grape of Piedmont, Italy, Syrah, with perhaps a parent-offspring relationship with Mondeuse Blanc

 

Notable Regions: Condrieu, Rhône Valley, France; Maremma, Italy; Paso Robles, CA; USA; Southern Australia; Casablanca, Chile; Paarl, South Africa

 

Aromas and Flavors: Roses, apricots, peaches, mangos, tangerines, honeysuckle, vanilla, caramel


Cost: $4 to $400 per bottle

 

Additional Note: Mild curry dishes, sweet & sour chicken or pork, mild Pad Thai, satays, roast chicken or turkey, poached salmon, and creamy cheeses

 

Occasional Wine's Favorite Viognier:



 

Other Notable White Wine Varieties

 

  • Grüner Veltliner - this is the most important grape in Austria and a perfect companion to schnitzel. It’s a high acid, light-to-medium bodied white wine with flavors and aromas of citrus fruits, green beans, pepper, herbs, and minerals. While not a household wine in the US, there are over 50,000 acres under vine

  • Vermentino - a refreshing Sardinian white wine akin to a Sauvignon Blanc but with a little bit of an edge. It’s just what the doctor ordered on a hot day in the Mediterranean. A bit under 25,000 acres currently under vine.

  • Gewürztraminer - from the foothills of the Alps spanning multiple countries, with fantastic versions from Alsace, France, Pfalz, Germany, and Alto-Adige, Italy, this is a low acid dry to sweet medium-bodied white with a bit of an edge. The tell-tale aromas and flavors include lychee and roses. ∼20,000 acres under vine.

  • Moscato or Muscat - over 200 different varieties grown all over the world that produce fantastic sparkling - think Moscato d’Asti - and several variations of dessert wines. Floral aromas along with ripe oranges, pears, meyer lemons, and honeysuckle dominate.

  • Sémillon - a Bordeaux grape that blends well with Sauvignon Blanc to make a Bordeaux Blanc. The Sémillon adds body and tames the acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc, making it an easy drinking white wine with loads of flavor. Sémillon also does well with Noble Rot (the good fungus that that helps to concentrate the sugars in the grapes). As such it is the key grape in one of the most coveted dessert wines in the world, Sauternes.


Uniquely Curated Subscription Plans and Fine Wines by the Bottle


At Occasional Wine, we are passionate about wine and love sharing our knowledge with others so they too can enjoy the pleasures of an exceptional wine.

 

We offer three different tiers of biannual wine subscriptions, each with curated selections of six wines from six wine regions delivered each Spring and Fall to give you and yours samples of some of the best wines in the world.

 




 

We also offer fine wines by the bottle from our private stock, a constantly updated wide selection of top rated wines from around the world.

 

Stay tuned for more helpful content in finding that next great wine for you, and as always feel free to contact us with any questions.

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