There are few things more relaxing than a glass of a well-crafted, dry, crisp white wine. As a rule, white wines tease the taste buds, rather than smack them with a hammer, like a lot of red wines do. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I want my taste buds whacked, especially with heavy and spicy foods. The wine has to fight it’s way through all the other flavors to get any attention. Even though there are many types of white wine, they are all much more subtle than reds.
The major difference between white wine and red wine is the color. But the color comes from the skin of the grape. White and Red grapes have the same color of pulp. It has much to do with the way the different grapes are processed. White grapes are pressed immediately after picking, and the juice is removed with minimal contact with the skin. Colors of white wines can vary, depending on the variety of grape used, the location of the harvest, and the use of wood during the aging process. There are over 50 types of white grapes grown worldwide.
White wine can be classified into 11 basic types:
Chablis – a dry, slightly metallic tasting wine from the northern vineyards of Burgundy. It is one of the few white wines that are worth aging. Like the majority of fine white wines from Burgundy, Chablis is made from the chardonnay grape. The vineyards in the region are ranked, in descending order, Chablis Grand Cru, Chablis Premier Cru, Chablis, and Petite Chablis. The Chablis region has a cool climate that results in its white grapes having a wonderful acidity. Chabis sits on top of an old oyster bed, which sits on top of a limestone and clay plateau, and this gives the grapes a big shot of minerals, resulting in an alluring, almost ‘briney’ character. True Chablis is always fermented in stainless steel vats, which impart a clean, almost ‘steely’ taste. Real Chablis has the character of green citrus. Beware that the Chardonnay grape is very hardy and adaptable. It is grown all over the world, and many countries, the U.S. in particular use the name Chablis as a generic term for any white jug wine. These often have overtones of vanilla and butter, and bear little or no resemblance to true Chablis.
Chardonnay – the undisputed king of white grapes, and the main variety in champagne. Since the 1990s, Chardonnay has been the most-often purchased white wine in the entire world. It is a very hardy and adaptable grape, and is grown in virtually every wine producing country. They do particularly well in California, in the U.S. Chardonnay wines tend to be rich, assertive, bold, and very complex. The tastes are of peaches, honey, hazelnuts, figs and spices. Good chardonnays are medium-bodied with an excitingly high acidity. More than any other white grape, chardonnays love to be aged in oak barrels.
Chenin Blanc– one of the most widely planted grapes in California. In some areas, it has been replaced with the higher priced chardonnays, but Chenin Blanc has armies of dedicated followers. The reason is that it has an enchanting fresh-fruity taste and character of grapes, peaches and pears. It is a very satisfying and quenching wine. Chenin Blanc is the workhorse of the wine world, and can be made in a full range of styles, from dry and crisp, to sweet and fruity, and even a hard-core dessert wine. It can also be made into very nice sparkling wines, especially from California, and Anjou. It is frequently added to other wines to add acidity, fruit, and to tame an otherwise unruly and uncooperative batch of grapes.
Gewürtztraminer – an unforgettable wine with a deep, exquisite spicy nose, and a cornucopia of fruit and nut flavors. More than any other wine, it reflects the tastes of the fresh grapes it was made from, so winemakers seldom do anything that might interfere with this, such as aging in oak barrels. Gewürtztraminer can be made in a complete range of styles from crisp and dry, to sweet and cuddly, and even honey-sweet dessert wines. Despite the Teutonic-sounding name, it is a perfect compliment to Asian cuisine, and it is absolutely wonderful with pork, and other white-meat dishes.
Muscat – of all the types of white wine, this one is the most interesting. It was one of the first grapes positively identified in ancient times. The muscat grape has four sub-varieties, but all of them have similar perfume-like bouquets, with delicious overtones of musk, orange peels, and vine-fresh grapes. Muscat grapes make some of the finest sweet wines, and also make great crisp, dry table wines. Italian muscats are especially nice.
Pinot Blanc – once regarded as a close cousin to Chardonnay grapes, they are actually in the Pinot family, and a close relative of Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. The confusion was because Pinot Blanc wines vaguely resemble some of the chardonnay wines, albeit with less flavor, and complexity. These grapes produce a medium-bodied dry wine with high acidity, and flavors of spices and apples. Pinot Blancs do not age well. For a middle-of-the-road white wine, Pinot Blancs fill the gap nicely.
Pinot Gris – a direct descendant of Pinot Blanc, these grapes produce a deeply golden-colored beverage with subtle, but persistent flavors of almonds and peaches. They are usually crisp and dry, but can be made full-bodied as well. The aromas are fruity and enticing. These are some of the best wines to come out of the state of Oregon, in the U.S. Pinot Gris wines are fabulous with grilled salmon, other grilled fishes, and seafood.
Riesling – a refreshing crisp white wine, as well as a full-bodied table wine capable of holding it’s own with the heartiest of meals. Riesling’s high acidity contributes to its longevity. It is the oldest surviving wine ever tasted; a 1540 German Riesling tasted in 1961. 421 years, and still a show-stopper. Needless to say, it doesn’t mind aging a bit. Rieslings tend to be a bit lower in alcohol compared to other whites, making them a particularly refreshing summer wine. Riesling is a natural with pork, and rich foods. Its high acidity can cut through anything, even Texas Chili.
Sauvignon Blanc – an acidic, crisp white wine with a light to medium body, and provocative grassy and herbal tastes and aromas. When grown in warmer climates, the flavors lean more towards cantaloupe and honey-dew melons. It is used mostly as a blending grape, being less complex than Chardonnay. It is a versatile grape, just the same, and can be aged in oak barrels, but doesn’t have to be. Some of the best Sauvignon Blancs come from the Loire Valley, and Bordeaux regions of France.
Semillon– possibly one of the best-kept secrets in the wine-world. It is an integral part of white Bordeauxs, Sauternes, and makes some astonishingly good, modestly-priced table wines from Washington State, in the U. S. For a white wine, Semillon ages surprisingly well, and is inexpensive enough to make buying some extras to put back for a few years a workable proposition for most budgets. Semillon is often used to cut more acidic wines, and tame them a bit. As a varietal wine, it has a soft, almost oily texture, a somewhat floral bouquet, with mild flavors of grape and overtones of figs.
Viognier – somewhat of an enigma, this wine can be either decidedly feminine in character, or lumberjack-brawny, and everything in between. It is used to produce some very famous wines from the Rhone Valley in France, and has gotten quite popular in the U. S. Viogniers body and texture can match even the stoutest of Chardonnays. Viognier grapes can be fermented in steel tanks for a clean crisp character, or aged in wood barrels for more complexity. Viognier wines have tastes and aromas of tangerines, figs and spices. These wines do not age well, and should be enjoyed while they are still young.
Between all these types of white wines, it would be difficult, if not impossible to say which one is the ‘best’. It depends on what you are in the mood for, and many other factors. My advice is to experiment, and try them all. Getting there is indeed half the fun.