Popular White Wine Varietals
Episode #7 of the course Introduction to red and white wine by Paul Kalemkiarian
Today, we’re going to look at the most popular white wine varietals from around the world and what makes each one special.
One of the quietest revolutions in modern winemaking has taken place in the vineyard itself. Just as 21st-century humanity has mastered the way in which the most successful beef herds should be bred and apples grown, so too have they developed completely new vines, which have at last made it possible for winegrowers to make successful—and more reasonably priced—wines.
The key to all the effort lies not only in the choice of the right grape for the particular piece of soil and climate but also in knowing how best to turn that particular grape into wine. With the exception of California, where a living can be made as a grower selling to wineries, most of the world’s winegrowers have to be winemakers too or vice versa. This is a little like a farmer having to harvest their corn, grind it into flour, and then bake that flour into perfect bread. It’s no wonder that the French vigneron wryly looks at their cattle-tending neighbor and envies such an easy life.
Making wine is hard work, undoubtedly, but it’s also driven by passion. Those tending the vineyard put great care and passion into planting and nurturing the right grapes for their terroir. (Determining the microclimates and micro-terroirs within vineyards has become an art in itself!) Those engaged in the vinifying process must have a passion to create wines that have balanced and beautiful expressions of the grapes. Sometimes, winemakers do this by blending and other times, by letting a single varietal take the stage—and then there are all the ways that wine can be processed and aged. Through it all, certain red wine grapes have risen to the top of wine lovers’ lists around the world for good reason.
Italy and southern France are awash with this. If you find yourself saying, “But I don’t remember any very tasty whites from those areas,” you get full marks. This vine is the mainstay of white French “plonk” and Italian whites like Soave and Frascati. That it’s high in acidity and “neutral” is often the kindest thing to say about its flavor.
By a whisker, Chardonnay is the greatest white wine grape—and absolutely the trendiest. It’s the grape that gives white Burgundy its marvelous dryness combined with honeyed lusciousness. It also gives a stony, nutty bite to Chablis and lends the light, yeasty fragrance to the blanc de blancs, Champagne. The Americans and Australians have not been slow to emulate wines from the Burgundian regions of Meursault and Puligny Montrachet, sometimes with stunning, if richly flavored, results. More recently, New Zealand and northern Italy have begun to produce piercingly fresh Chardonnays.
Riesling is Chardonnay’s only rival as the world’s top white grape. Certainly, it is more versatile because it manages to make some of the world’s sweetest wines, as well as some of the driest. In Germany, nearly all the greatest wines, from dry to sweet, are Riesling. It is also beginning to be seen in northern Italy and Austria to some effect.
Elsewhere, Australia is the most successful grower, making an individual green-fresh wine. Riesling’s great ability is to preserve acidity while building up grapey, honeyed ripeness. As it ages, the wine is marked by a unique and surprisingly pleasant “petrol” flavor.
The most obvious spicy, fruit salad grape of them all is Gewürztraminer. Until recently, hardly anyone outside Alsace grew it. Due to its exotic, tropical-fruit taste, it’s now popping up in Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, and even Spain. In New World countries, Australia uses it and New Zealand has produced some of her finest wines from this mouthful of a variety.
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
Known as Pinot Grigio in Italy and as Pinot Gris in Alsace, the grape is thought to be a mutant clone of Pinot Noir. It gets its name from the Italian and French terms for “grey,” as the grape is more grey in color than Pinot Noir. And while it is not technically a white grape, it is used to make extremely popular white wine. It is now extensively grown in New World countries, and its flavors vary widely by region—from crisp, light-bodied acidic wines to more full-bodied, “spicy” wines, often with tropical fruit notes.
Sauvignon Blanc grapes make wine with the greenest flavor of them all. At its best in the Loire villages of Sancerre and Pouilly, it makes a dry but not tart wine. It is tremendously refreshing and tastes of all things green: nettles, newly mown grass, gooseberries, etc. In Bordeaux, it softens, and in California, winemakers tend to make it rather heavy and butter-oaky. It’s better in New Zealand and most recently, South Africa. It is often used in France and Italy to add acidity to their hotter-climate whites.
Generally one of the world’s versatile grapes, Chenin Blanc is, for that matter, very widely planted. It ripens late and has a great deal of acidity, matched by a fresh taste. In the Loire, it usually makes iconic fruit-driven wines and is best as a high-acid base for sparkling wine. Chenin is one of the few grapes that can make interesting dry wines, sparkling wine, and viscous dessert wine.
Muscat is the grape varietal that can make a wine that actually tastes of grapes. In Alsace, it is very dry but as perfumed and crunchy-fresh as a bunch of the best from the hothouse in high summer. Elsewhere, it is usually sweet and often fortified. Piedmont in Italy makes it into the delicious “playpen fizz” of Asti Spumante.
That’s the round-up of the world’s most popular white wines. Now that you know more about them, maybe the names are no longer quite so intimidating. Next time, we’ll look at how white wine is made.
Oz Clarke’s World of Wine: A Grand Tour of the Great Wine Regions by Oz Clarke
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