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White Wine - A Quick Tour for Beginners

Updated on November 30, 2009
White Wine by Andreas Kollegger
White Wine by Andreas Kollegger

If you're new to the wonderful world of wine, you may well be confused by the vast variety of wines – reds, whites, bubbly, blends – and many, many choices within each of those broad categories. We'll choose just one of those for this intro – white wines. We'll give you a short tour of the most common varietals (types of grapes), tell you what you can expect from each of them and what sets them apart from each other.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in America – in fact, it's the only white wine many wine drinkers consume. Chardonnay is very often the first white wine a new wine explorer will discover, largely because it is so “accessible”. Chardonnay tends to be on the dry side (meaning not very sweet), and tends to have flavors of apples, tropical fruit, vanilla, butter, and degrees of oak, depending on how it was produced. “White Burgundy”, from France , is almost always 100% Chardonnay. Many other wine regions around the world produce Chardonnay, including Australia and Chile . There are many good choices of American Chardonnay available for under $20. Popular and reliable producers include BV, Columbia Crest, and Chateau St. Michelle, among others.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio, sometimes referred to as Pinot Gris (the actual grape name), is Italy 's most popular white wine, and is popular around the world, although the Italian Pinot Grigios are somewhat bland. Pinot Grigios are easy to drink, because they have a crisp, light taste. The Pinot Gris offerings from Oregon tend to have more character, offering medium body, with more pronounced fruit and more acidity. Better bottles have fruity flavors of apple, pear, honeydew and some spice. A couple of very nice Pinot Gris from Oregon , available at between $12-$18, are Chateau St. Michelle and King Estate.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc (also known as Fume Blanc) is another very popular white wine. Sauvignon is often described as “freshly mown”, meaning that it reminds the drinker of freshly mown grass. It is a medium-bodied white wine with fruity aromas like melon, grapefruit, and peach, and is dry and refreshing with medium acidity. Sauvignon Blanc is a great summer wine, especially good with seafood and it's one of the best all around matches for hors d'oeuvres and picnics. A very nice choice, for under $15, is made by Babich ( New Zealand ).

Riesling

Riesling wines are probably the most popular German wine, and they are produced in two considerably different styles – dry and sweet. Rieslings are categorized by the ripeness of the grapes when harvested. Kabinett signifies normally ripe grapes, and is a light to medium-bodied, mostly dry wine. You'll often find the word “trocken” on a bottle of Riesling, which means “dry” in German. Spatlese is produced from riper grapes, and produces a bit richer, slightly sweeter, wine. “Auslese”, which means late harvest, is made from an even riper grape, and are often very sweet. Rieslings are typically fruity, with apple, peach, and honeysuckle flavors and floral undertones. Rieslings are relatively inexpensive - you can find excellent bottles for under $10. One consistently good choice is Strub Niertsteiner Riesling Kabinett, as is Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling.

Gewurztraminer

Gewurztraminer is another popular white wine from Germany , while also being produced in France , the U.S. , Australia , and New Zealand . Gewurztraminer is also available in both dry and sweet styles. Gewurztraminers have a bold, full-bodied taste, much more so than most other white wines. Typical aromas associated with Gewurztraminer are lychee nuts and rosewater, and its flavors include pear, apricot, cinnamon, and honey. A nice, inexpensive Gewurztraminer is from Trimbach (France, under $15).

A final note

The best way to determine your preferences with white wine are to just pick up a couple of bottles, and give them a try. For each varietal, you'll want to choose a bottle that's representative of the style you're investigating. Websites like wine.com can help immensely with finding solid, yet inexpensive choices. Once you find a type and producer you like, you might want to pick up a case to have on handy for entertaining, or to just enjoy at home. Most white wines don't improve with aging, so you won't want to keep them around for years. You do, however, want to be sure to store them properly, so they retain the wonderful flavors and aromas you anticipate. You might consider investing in an inexpensive wine cooler, to keep all your wines at their best. WineCoolersDirect.com offers an extensive range of wine coolers, and often has great deals on selected coolers.

White wines are best served chilled, so it's a good idea to refrigerate them beforehand, then take them out about 15-20 minutes before serving. Better yet, is to pick up an electric wine chiller, which will chill (or warm) a single bottle of wine to the right temperature automatically – just set the pre-programmed wine varietal, pop in the bottle, and the chiller cool your wine to the optimal temperature, and maintain that temperature throughout your wine tasting.

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