Guide to the White Wine Spectrum
White wines do often draw less of a prestige than the reds, but coveted Chardonnays & Rieslings have fetched rocketing prices as well.
Similar to red wines, white wines also live on a spectrum. You have light & racy acidity on one side, as well as aromatic & bodied on the other. This makes it easy to choose something too acidic, dry, sweet, green, heavy for your taste.
So this guide should arm you with the basic knowledge of the spectrum of white wines so that you can branch out of your "go-to" white without being too risky or anxious
Essentially, the difference between white and red wines is skin contact. For white wines, the juice is pressed and separated from the skins before fermentation occurs, while red wine is done the opposite way. This prevents the color from the skin tainting the wine, giving you the clear color you know white wine for. Other than that, the profile of the wine is affected by the grape varietal, and the maturation method; whether it's done in oak, steel, or amphora makes a big difference to the final result.
Let's take you through the spectrum of white wines.
LIGHT & ZESTY
Light, dry & often with tropical, citrus or stonefruit notes, these wines have a fresh clean taste, making them perfect for afternoon drink or pairing with light foods.
Rich stone fruit & citrus notes, with a wieghty mouth feel that is slightly mineral & zippy mouth-watering acidity, makes Albarino a beautiful afternoon drink on it's own, or with some light white fish. It is amazing with fish tacos, ceviche, oysters, or something like grilled vegetables & padron peppers.
Notable Regions: Spanish Galicia, Portugese Vinho Verde
UNOAKED CHARDONNAY (CHABLIS)
Unoaked Chardonnays have similarities with Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, but without the "green" notes. Look to Chablis for a classic lean unoaked style with aromas of apple, starfruit, pineapple
Also known as the "refined" Sauvignon Blanc, it's hard not to love Chenin Blanc for it's versatility. Pear, apple, chamomile & honey notes dominate the profile of Chenin Blanc wines, and it's acidity produces crisp & vibrant wines which can also be made into sweet wines & brandies.
Over 50% of it is grown in South Africa, with France, United States & Argentina forming the bulk of the remainder.
A well loved Italian white, it's the main grape of Soave, one of the most famous & elegant Italian white wines, from Veneto. Garganega gains rich tangerine & toasted almond notes as it ages, but can also be found in lean dry style.
Notable Regions: Veneto
PINOT GRIGIO (PINOT GRIS)
A mutation from Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio is famously known for beautiful melon, peach & lemon notes, and works beautifully with white meats & seafood.
It's one of those uncommon regional varietals that is grown almost only in Spain. It's a beautiful alternative to Sauvignon Blanc & Pinot Grigio. The special thing about Verdejo is that it benefits very well from bottle-ageing, which would give it a rich texture & almond aromas. It's higher acidity & subtle bitterness makes it a great palate cleanser & best enjoyed alongside food, particularly dishes where lime is used.
UNIQUE REGIONAL VARIETALS
- Assyrtiko (a specialty of Greece!)
- Cortese (Gavi)
- Friulano (Sauvignonasse, Sauvignon Vert)
- Muscadet (Melon de Bourgogne)
- Xarel-lo (a rare find from Catalonia, Spain)
- Picpoul de Pinet
- Chasselas (a rare delight from Switzerland!)
- Pinot Blanc
LIGHT & HERBACEOUS
While herbasceous might not immediately sound enjoyable, these wines are often beautiful pairings with salads & herb-driven dishes like pesto pastas. The “green” and herbal aromas like grass, jalapeño, or bell pepper will be balanced out to reveal its underlying fruit aromas like citrus & stonefruit. Additionally, this savory element will give it a salty mineral note, preparing your palate before a meal!
By far Austria's most important grape, Grüner Veltliner is a perfect sunny summer wine made in a lean, herbaceous, and peppery wines with mouth-watering acidity, explaining why it translates to "Green Wine of Veltlin". Expect aromas of lime, starfruit, gooseberry, asparagus & gravel, essentially an exotic alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.
Notable Regions: Austria
Do you love the smell of fresh cut grass & a tangy freshness? Then Sauvignon Blanc might be the white wine of choice for you. The versatility of this grape allows it to be grown in many regions, and thus will have a variety of styles, ranging from clean to luscious.
Notable Regions: Loire Valley (Sancerre & Pouilly-Fume), Bordeaux, Marlborough, Maipo Valley, California
An important white wine of Sardinia & Tuscany, Vermentino produced in both oaked & unoaked styles. Expect lime, grapefruit apple & almond flavors from this dry, acidic grape. Oily textures similar to a Viognier, think of it as a great value Sauvignon Blanc.
Pair it with beautiful fish or chicken tacos, or any medium-weight dishes that play with rich herbs and spices. Due to its bolder intensity, you can easily match this wine with richer fish such as halibut or even meats as bold as fennel-spiced pork sausages.
Notable Regions: Sardinia, Liguria
BOLD & DRY
If racy acidity isn't your thing, give these whites a try! Intense & creamy due to oak aging, these wines will impress you with their weight & complexity. Note that there may be some winemakers that don't always oak age these wines, and some of them may have an oily/waxy texture as a result.
Bolder oaked chardonnays, such as those from California, Burgundy & Australia call for crab cakes, clams & mushrooms due to its richness. Expect more tropical notes such as pineapple or mango from warm climate regions, where the grapes ripen more.
Notable Regions: California, Burgundy (Pouilly-Fuisse), Australia
Mostly used as a blending grape, especially in Rhone Valley, it's a great alternative to Chardonnay with aromas of quince, orange, apricot & beeswax. It's rick & fruity, making it a great pairing for Thai or Vietnamese cuisines, and rich shellfish.
Notable Regions: Rhone Valley, California
Hot climate regions would produce ripe stonefruit & tropical flavors, and are often oaked to give it creamy textures. Cool climates would provide higher acidity wines, often resembling Sauvignon Blanc. If unoaked, it is often bursting with citrus flavors - lemon, line, and grapefruit
Sémillon pairs excellent with richer fish based meals & with white meats including chicken and pork chops. Fresh fennel and dill based dishes go particularly well with Semillon
Notable Regions: Australia, South Africa, Bordeaux
One of the top wine grapes of Italy and France, it's actually mostly used in brandy and balsamic vinegar production! As a dry white wine, Pair with hard Italian cheeses, seafood pastas, white pizza and roast chicken
Notable Regions: Puglia
Most loved for its perfumed aromas of peach, tangerine and honeysuckle, Viognier is a full-bodied white wine that originated in the French Rhone. Rapidly growing in popularity in California, Australia, South Africa and beyond, it can be oak-aged to deliver Chardonnay-like richness. Explore Viognier if you like Chardonnay and you can expect it to be slightly softer in acidity, lighter and more perfumed. Off dry styles will bring out the peachy notes in viognier
Notable Regions: Rhone Valley, California, Uruguay, South Africa, Australia
UNIQUE REGIONAL VARIETALS
White Rioja & Grenache Blanc are interesting regional varietals for bold & dry whites, arising out of color mutations of the popular Grenache & Tempranillo grapes. They are mostly grown in Spain.
LIGHT & AROMATIC
These wines are often very aromatic & floral, and can be made in both dry & sweet styles. Most of these are some of the oldest wine varietals across the world, and even Cleopatra is known for her love of Muscat of Alexandria - a lovely rich aromatic white wine.
Gewürztraminer is like the grown-up version of Moscato. It's lower in acidity, has more punchy aromatics, and higher alcohol content. It's tell-tale sign is the lychee or sweet rose aroma that makes it identifiable in a blind tasting.
Origins lie in the German foothills of the Alps, but has since become a popular grape amongst the countries surrounding the Alps- Italy, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, France and Slovenia, as well as other cool climate regions like those in US & New Zealand. In France, it's one of the four Grand Cru grapes in Alsace. Think exotic Middle Eastern & Moroccan cuisines which use nuts & dried fruits for pairings.
Notable Regions: Alto Adige, Alsace
An ancient aromatic white originating from Greece, Muscat is known mostly as a off dry peach & orange blossom notes, but can be made in a variety of styles. Popularly known by it's Italian name, Moscato, this Piedmont style has shot this wine to fame. As they say, "Riesling is sweet, but Moscato is the sweetest."
Notable Regions: Piedmont, Spain (Moscatel), Austria (Muskateller), Sicily
It sometimes has that distinct petroleum like texture & aroma, but it's not a bad thing, as it integrates well with it's lime applie, beeswax notes. Riesling was originally created as a sweet style to balance out it's high acidity, but there's a growing amount of dry style Rieslings as well.
Notable Regions: Mosel, Alsace, Clare & Eden Valley
An offspring of Muscat of Alexandria, it's usually quite dry, despite it's strong aromatics. You can expect notes of geranium, rose, peach & lemon, and is mainly grown in Argentina. It's a great match for savory dishes that feature exotic spices, fruit & aromatic herbs. Something like a ceviche maybe?
Notable Regions: Argentina
UNIQUE REGIONAL VARIETALS
These wines are very sweet and perfect for pairing with dessert and sometimes chocolate. Read up more in our article about Dessert wines!
A sweet, late harvest wine that can only be made when grapes naturally freeze in the vineyard at a minimum -8°C/17.6°F. Popular varieties include Riesling, Vidal, and Cabernet Franc.
These are wines made from grapes that are left on the vine even after reaching peak ripeness. This causes the grape to dehydrate, concentrating the sugars in the grape. Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Muscat & Sauvignon Blanc are popular varieties used
Blended from Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon, the secret is that the region is particularly foggy, inducing noble rot to occur.
Often coming from Spain, seek out Cream Sherry and PX
In Hungary, grapes affected with Noble Rot are called Aszú berries, and they are carefully separated from the rest of the grapes to be used in Tokaji production. The Aszú berries were collected in large baskets called puttony and added in measured amounts to barrels of non-botrytis grape must. Then, the wines were produced and labeled based on how many Aszú baskets were added to the must. Thus, the system of labeling wines with ~3–6 puttonyos was developed.
OTHER REGIONAL DESSERT WINES
Vin Santo is a popular dessert style wine from Italy, while White Port, Madeira, and Malvasia are popular sweet white styles from Portugal.