Classic White Grape Varieties
Home: Burgundy and Champagne, France
Also found: All major regions
Tasting terms: Tropical fruits, citrus, melon and peach
Chardonnay is one of the world’s most famous grape varieties. Its popularity is related to its highly adaptable nature – it lends itself well to a wide range of growing conditions and winemaking techniques. Perhaps even more to its credit, Chardonnay is the grape behind white Burgundy; Chablis, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault are considered to be some of the very best in the world.
Regarding winemaking, Chardonnay is often fermented or aged – or both – in oak barrels, giving the wines a nutty and toasty quality. Many Chardonnay wines undergo malolactic fermentation, a winemaking process which converts harsh malic acid into soft, creamy lactic acid. This imparts creamy and buttery aromas and texture that is typical of much of the world’s great Chardonnay. Aside from its historical home regions of Burgundy and Champagne, fantastic Chardonnay is made throughout the world in regions like Australia, New Zealand, California, South Africa, South America, the South of France and Italy.
Home: Loire Valley and Bordeaux, France
Also found: Australia, Austria, California and New Zealand
Tasting terms: Green fruits, such as lime and gooseberries and tropical fruits in warmer climates
When tasted blind, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the easiest varieties to recognise. The typical Sauvignon Blanc is pale, has light to medium body, is usually unoaked and has very refreshing, crisp acidity. The dominant aromas are of green fruits such as gooseberry and lime. Most examples are consumed when the wine is young and the fruit in its prime. It is the grape variety behind the famous Loire Valley whites of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. It also plays a major part in white Bordeaux, in both the dry styles and the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. More recently, New Zealand has developed Sauvignon Blanc as a regional speciality thanks to their refreshing, pungent unoaked style. California has a wine style called Fumé Blanc; these wines tend to be slightly riper in style with some oak influence.
Home: Bordeaux, France
Also found: Australia
Tasting terms: Lime, honey, wax and lanolin
Apart from the Semillon produced in Hunter Valley, Australia, this grape variety is only found in blends. It is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc, as is the case in the dry and sweet white wines of Bordeaux. This grape is thin-skinned and is sensitive to noble rot, the fungus responsible for the sweet wines of Sauternes. It can age well, developing toasty and honey characteristics with time.
Home: Alsace, France and Germany
Also found: Australia, Austria and New Zealand
Tasting terms: Lime, floral and mineral
Many people think of Riesling only as a sweet wine. This is because most Riesling comes from Germany, and traditionally German wines are off-dry or medium-sweet. It’s important to note, however, that, as with any grape variety, Riesling can be made sweet, dry or anything in between. Today, there are many dry examples from Germany, Alsace, Austria and Australia. A typical Riesling will be pale in colour, light in body, and have a very crisp and refreshing acidity. Riesling is rarely oak aged and offers aromas of minerals and lime. As the wine ages, it will develop notes of honey, petroleum and diesel.
Home: Northern Rhône, France
Also found: Australia, California, South of France
Tasting terms: Peach, apricot, violet and orange blossom
Viognier is an aromatic grape that produces full-bodied, creamy wines with aromas of peach, apricot and orange blossoms. The acidity is moderate, and oak is often used during the winemaking and ageing processes to impart extra complexity. The best examples come from Condrieu in the Northern Rhône Valley in France. Here, the wines offer elegance, finesse and a certain minerality that is often lacking in New World examples.
Home: Loire Valley, France.
Also found: South Africa
Tasting terms: Bruised apples, honey and wet wool
Chenin Blanc is perhaps not as famous as some of the varieties mentioned above, though it is certainly a classic variety when one considers the quality and ageing potential of its wines. Chenin’s home is the Loire Valley, where it is used to produce sparkling, sweet and dry wines. Some of the best sweet and off-dry wines in the world come from the regions of Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux and Vouvray. The only other area where Chenin has significant plantings is South Africa, where it is known locally as “Steen”. Although the South African expression can be of excellent quality, it lacks the intensity, finesse and age-worthiness of the Loire wines.
Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio)
Home: Alsace, France (formerly known as Tokay Pinot Gris)
Also found: North-east Italy and New Zealand
Tasting terms: Peach, spice, blossom and often a viscous texture. Pinot Grigio from Northern Italy, however, tends to be lighter and crisper with aromas of pear and citrus.
The Pinot Gris variety is related to the noble Pinot Noir. Though it’s a white variety, it has relatively dark skin and can give wines a slightly darker hue than other whites. The acidity of the wines produced is moderate, and most examples are unoaked. In Alsace, both dry and sweet wines are produced, the latter being labelled as Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grain Nobles. The wines from Italy and New Zealand are dry, fresh and fruity.
Home: Alsace, France
Also found: North-east Italy and New Zealand
Tasting terms: Peach, spice, rose petal, a perfumed scent and often a viscous texture
Gewürztraminer is a classic Alsace grape variety and is packed with aromatics. Due to its heavily perfumed, floral nose, it does not have universal appeal. Take care not to recommend a Gewürztraminer to just anybody, as it can come as quite a shock to a novice palate. Something of an acquired taste, the wines are unoaked, medium to full-bodied and have moderate acidity. There are both sweet and dry versions, though most styles are off-dry to medium.