Wineducation: Ten White Grapes

White Wine: generally meaning a lightly coloured clear alcoholic liquid produced from the growing, harvesting, processing and the bottling of white (or, interestingly, red) grapes.

Numerous types of white wines come to us in Shanghai from vineyards and wineries around the world, located in the regions most favourable in terms of environment and climate to growing white wine grapes. We are very lucky. In some countries there is not the variation, breadth and depth that is available here for consumption. You won’t rub shoulders with a Swiss Saint Saphorin at your local wine seller, but the array we do have access to allure and appeal in their wide variety of beautiful colours, labelling and styles.

There are at least 4 key components that determine the style and quality of a white wine. The flavour of white wine varies and is dependent upon these key factors, some of which are purposefully pre-determined and controlled and some of which are open to outside influence and luck:

  1. Growing region and environment (i.e. climate: rainfall & temperature, Locale: altitude & soil)
  2. The white wine grapes used in the wine – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, etc, or blends.
  3. How white grapes are grown & harvested (viticulture; organic v non-organic, Machine v hand-harvesting).
  4. How white grape juice is processed into wine (Viniculture: traditions, wine-maker skills, use of oak & stainless steel).

It is the specific mix of these components that generates a wine’s characteristics; whether they are diverse or common. The specific purposeful variation of those aspects of viticulture or viniculture, contribute to the regional or winery’s style.

With a bit of background on types of white wine and the white wine grapes that make them so unique, you’ll soon be selecting bottles of wine with more purpose.

White Wine Grapes Harvested Round the World

White wine grapes are harvested in a number of regions world-wide. Europe has many regions that are conducive to growing high quality white grapes, such as in France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Smaller harvests are found in Austria, Switzerland and the UK. White grapes are also widely planted in Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.

Naturally, any white wine’s characteristics will vary according to the influencing factors. Grape variety is the most important factor (other things being equal) in determining a wine’s characteristics. Whether Climate comes next in importance or viticultural & vinicultural factors is open to debate.

The most widely-used white wine grapes in today’s winemaking include:

Top 10 Types of White Wine and Their Grapes

Chardonnay (shaar-dun-nay) Throughout the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st, Chardonnay has been the most widely used type of single variety (varietal) white wine grape. Having the most complex, voluptuous characteristics of all white wine grapes, it makes a wonderful, full-bodied, golden, stand-alone drink with its flavours and aromas potentially having hints of butter, cream, citrus, tropical fruits, stone fruits, vanilla and oak. Wines made from this grape have medium to high acidity, which can make it feel fresh and zingy and even help with ageing. It’s a versatile white wine grape that is frequently used to make sparkling wine too. Chardonnays are often given time to mature in oak barrels though in recent times this habit has become less popular in favour of lighter, fresher styles.

Regions: The Chardonnay grapevine can grow under a variety of conditions, which means that it is grown in many wine producing regions. The vine originated in Bourgogne, France and continues to be the staple in Burgundian white wines. Significant plantings are found grown in Australia, Argentina, California, Chile, France, Italy, South Africa and New Zealand.

Sauvignon Blanc (soh-veen-yon blonn) also known as Fumé Blanc in Central France and some parts of the US typically produce a lighter, tangy wine with grassy, sour apple and tropical fruit flavours having a crisp, light to medium acidity. It’s popularity has very much been on the rise in recent years as it can be rather aromatic and savoury.

Regions: The Sauvignon Blanc grape is primarily cultivated in France’s Bordeaux region where it is blended with Semillon grapes. It’s also grown in the Loire Valley of France (around Sancerre), as well as in Australia, California and New Zealand (where it has reached legendary status).

Pinot Grigio (pee-noh-gree-zho) grapes (aka Pinot Gris in France) typically produce a wine that is quite light-bodied with a lemon or other citrus aroma and flavour, but its acidity varies by growing region. A Pinot Grigio made by European wine makers tend to be slightly more acidic than those found in the United States. Pinot Grigio types of white wine tend to improve with a couple of years in the wine cellar. In comparison to Chardonnay types of white wine, a Pinot Grigio is significantly lighter.

Regions: The Pinot Grigio grape is cultivated extensively in Alsace (France), Northern Italy, Germany, Australia, and the west coast regions of the United States, i.e., California, Oregon and Washington State.

Riesling (reez-ling) grapes produce a fresh wine with hints of apples, apricots, and flowers and mid to high acidity. In comparison to Chardonnay, Riesling is a much lighter wine. Riesling types of white wine are sometimes sweet dessert wines but they are just as often crisp, dry and fruity wines from grapes that have been left to mature longer on the vine.

Regions: The Riesling grape is native to Germany where it is used to make the classic sweet Rhine wine, but it is also grown in nearly all wine regions. Rieslings processed in California are considered of less quality than those made in other regions as they tend to be too sweet without enough acidity to balance the flavour.

Viognier (vee-ohn-yay) produce a complex, medium-body, low to medium acidity wine with flavours and aromas that hint of apricots, peaches, and spice, but without the floral aromas found in other types of white wine. Often blended with other varieties, even into red wines (ironically to improve their aroma). It almost became extinct but has had a steady rebirth since the 1960’,s as wine became an increasingly sought after product.

Regions: The Viognier grape originated in the Rhone Valley of France and continues to thrive there today sometimes making single variety (varietal) wine but also being blended with other grapes.  This varietal is also grown in Australia California and South America.

Chenin Blanc (sheugh-nan blonn) grapes have high acidity that are famously used to making both dry and sweet, aged wines in the Anjou Valley of France. White wines typically do not age well, but Chenin it’s greater than average level of acidity gives Chenin Blanc wines a quite unique ability to age well for 10 years or more, gaining complexity.

Regions: Chenin Blanc originated thousands of years ago in France’s Loire Valley and continues to be cultivated there today. Plants are also grown in California (used in jug wines), Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In South Africa the grape has a very well established degree of success making dry wines with much promise and at good value. California Chenin Blanc grapes are usually bottled into jug wines or table wines. Characteristics of a Chenin Blanc will thus vary, but one might describe it as fruity and light.

Moscato (muss-kah-toh) (aka Muscat and Muscatel, among several others in a family of grapes) is an extremely grapey flavoured grape that is used to make fruity, sweet, dessert wines that carry a hint of musk. Its aroma is often that of the grape itself. As well, this grape is used to make Italy’s Asti Spumanti, a sweet sparkling wine. All other grape cultivars are believed descended from this grape.

Regions: The Moscato grape is grown in most grapevine growing regions, most notably Australia, Austria, Italy, France (the Rhone Valley), Spain and the US.

Pinot Blanc (pee-noh blonn) is a mutation of the red Pinot Noir grape. It can be confused with Chardonnay in appearance and wineries often vinify it in a similar style, using barrel fermentation, new oak and malolactic fermentation. It can also be treated more lightly and made into a crisper wine that still has some ability to age. Bottles labelled ‘Pinot Blanc’ offer fruity aromas, often of apple, citrus fruit, and floral characteristics. Bottles that are vareitally pure, although more difficult to find, provide stronger floral characteristics, stone fruits and a headier minerality. Regardless of their exact composition, most wines under the label ‘Pinot Blanc’ are rather high in acidity and are vinified in tank, though more prestigious examples are fermented in large, 100% used oak barrels. Pinot blanc wines are usually made for immediate consumption and seldom meant for cellaring.

Regions: The Pinot Blanc grape is cultivated in Alsace (Eastern France), Veneto & Alto Adige (Northern Italy), and in Austria and Germany, where it is called Weissburgunder, and in California (where it is used to make sparkling wines) In Alsace, Italy and Hungary, the wine produced from this grape is a full-bodied dry white wine while in Germany and Austria they can be either dry or sweet. Confusingly, wines designated ‘Pinot blanc’ under Alsace AOC rules does not necessarily mean that the wine is varietal(ly) pure Pinot Blanc. (This is in difference to Pinot gris, which is a “true” varietal designation in Alsace.) Rather, the designation means that it is a white wine made from Pinot varieties. Under Alsace appellation rules, the varieties Pinot blanc, Auxerrois blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (vinified white, without skin contact) may all be used, but a blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois is the most common. The most full-bodied ‘Pinot Blanc’ wines from Alsace, with a spicy and smokey character and moderate acidity, are probably dominated by Auxerrois grapes.

Gewurztraminer (geh-vurtz-tram-in-ur) originates in Germany and is best described as one of the world’s most intensely flavoured and aromatic grapes creating wine that ranges in taste from spicy (Gewurztraminer literally translated means spicy) and nutty to peachy and floral, often associated with Lycees. The grapes are usually used to make either a very sweet wine or a very dry wine, both with bold flavours and crisp acidity. It complements Asian cuisine brilliantly. Late harvest ‘gewurz’ is a particularly powerful and highly sought after dessert wine.

Regions: The Gewurztraminer plant is primarily cultivated in Germany and France’s Alsace region, but it is also grown in Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Canada and in New York State and California.

Semillon (sem-ee-yonn) is rather unique in that it has a distinctly figgy, grassy flavour and it is rarely used in the making of a stand-alone wine. The unripe grape is often blended with other grapes, such as Sauvignon Blanc to help balance out the strong Semillon flavours. In the Bordeaux region, mature Semillon grapes are blended with Sauvignon Blanc grapes to produce sweet, full-bodied, world-class wines (eg. Sauternes).

Regions: Semillon is grown in the Bordeaux region of France, as well as in Chile, Australia, Argentina and California.

And if you made it this far, a treat…but you’ll need a VPN: Wine Grapes made sexy

The Wine Man September 2012

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