White Wine 101: It’s all in the grapes

Riesling grapes, day before harvest, Anne Amie Vineyards // Photo by Jon Oropeza, Flickr

Riesling grapes, day before harvest, Anne Amie Vineyards // Photo by Jon Oropeza, Flickr

“I don’t like Chardonnay. They’re too oaky.”

“Cabs are too dry.”

“Merlots are…eww, merlot.”

Everyone has an opinion on the wine they like and usually an even stronger opinion of the wines they don’t. That’s good. That’s great, in fact. But bear something in mind next time you hate on a particular grape:

Don’t blame the grape. Blame the winemaker.

Wine does not occur in nature. No matter how “natural” or “minimal intervention” or whatever phrase a salesperson uses, humans make wine. It does not spontaneously appear in a winery on a special morning like a boozy Christmas. It is a product of a human wanting to make something and get drunk, and the result is almost always a reflection of them, not the grape they’re using to accomplish the task.

Variables like climate, the kind of yeast used (native or cultivated, or a combination), budget (those new barrels are expensive), consumer/business trends, winemaker philosophy, and experience all play a part. Like it or not, winemaking is a business and wine needs to be sold so the bills can be paid and you can do it all again next year.

So, armed with the knowledge that people make wine, let’s move through the classic wines of the world and understand that no grape is “always” anything. Be open to new options.

Let’s start with the whites:

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains // Photo by Rosenzweig

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains // Photo by Rosenzweig

“Moscato is sweet!”

Moscato vines do produce a lot of fruit in a warm environment and can become industrial booze-juice factories, pumping out sickly-sweet, syrupy wine; and these are usually sold in large jugs.

However, if you haven’t had an Italian moscato from Asti you should try it before you dismiss this grape—light, low-alcohol, with a touch of spritz is a great way to finish a meal (or start one, depending which way you’re going.) Quality Moscato d’Asti is just barely sweet and doesn’t ruin subsequent dry wines. There are, however, dry muscats made in Sicily (the grape is called zibbibo there), Spain and Portugal (called moscatel) and Tunisia (meski).


Sommelier perspective: 

Moscato d’Asti is a guilty pleasure. It gets dismissed as a beginner wine because of the jug crap, but daaaaamn, a good Moscato from Asti is tasty.

Regions for Muscat:

Asti and Sicily (Italy); Alsace (France)

Riesling grapes // Photo by Gavin White, Flickr

Riesling grapes // Photo by Gavin White, Flickr

“Riesling is sweet, too!”

Nope. The only places in the world riesling carries sugar as a matter of tradition are Germany and Alsace, and even those places make as many dry rieslings as sweet. The best German wines, often marked with “Grosse Lage” or “GG” on the label, are searingly dry and refreshing. The rest often have some sugar, either to balance the high acid or because the United States is the leading export market for German wines and Americans love sugar.

Alsace is a bit more convoluted because it depends on the style of the winery (usually three to 15 generations of tradition) so sometimes you can find a “sweetness meter” on the back label. Or just ask your server, sommelier, or wine shop nerd.

The Germans and Austrians have a sweetness scale and the degree of sweetness varies by producer and vintage. In general, “kabinett” is light and slightly sweet, “spätlese” is richer and sweet, “auslese” is sweet like sunshine and honey and anything higher (beerenauslese, eiswein, and trockenbeerenauslese) is intensely sweet (and intensely expensive.)

Austria, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand all make dry rieslings (unless they’re pandering to us sugar-loving Americans) and American winemakers make the range: many make both sweet and dry versions to cover their bases (they prefer to make the dry, they sell more of the sweet)—again, it’s a business.

Sommelier perspective:

Dry riesling is far more versatile with food and my go-to on a hot day, but sweeter wines are better with spicy food. Any salad with apples gets a dry riesling with me. When I was running a wine program, my dry rieslings had a very low markup because I wanted guests to try them—alas, the “it’s too sweet” stereotype is a high hurdle to clear.

Regions for sweet: 

Mosel, Rheinhessen (Germany), Alsace (France)

Regions for dry

Rheingau, Pfalz (Germany), Wachau (Austria), Clare/Eden Valleys (Australia), Marlborough, Martinborough (New Zealand)

Pinot gris grapes before harvest // Photo by Stefano Lubiana, Flickr

“Pinot Grigio is all I drink.”

And there’s probably a good reason for that. It’s light, refreshing, and works with almost any food. It’s also easily found and pretty inexpensive. Pinot grigio was the most popular white wine in the world for nearly a decade. Worth knowing: the grape is officially pinot gris; grigio is just the Italian term. That means if you’re looking to try a new pinot grigio, try a pinot gris from somewhere else in the world––Oregon, Alsace or New Zealand come to mind as great options––and be aware that California pinot grigio is just gris trying to take advantage of Italian marketing. There are top-line Italian examples from Alto Adige that are stunningly beautiful but far above the expected $9.99 price so they tend to lay undiscovered, sadly; quality isn’t cheap.

Sommelier Perspective:

From a tasting and food pairing perspective, pinot grigio is by definition nothing. It’s blank. It can work with almost everything because it has no personality to assert over food. If I ever think I’m blind tasting a really dynamic and aromatic pinot grigio I know immediately that it’s albarińo from Spain. They’re very similar except albarińo is a wine that can actually hold a conversation. If a guest ever said they were a pinot grigio drinker but felt like trying something new, I always suggested albarińo.

Regions for Pinot Gris/Grigio:

Veneto, Friuli, Alto Adige (Italy); Alsace (France); Marlborough (New Zealand); Willamette Valley (Oregon)

Sauvignon Blanc // Photo by Stefano Lubiana, Flickr

Sauvignon Blanc // Photo by Stefano Lubiana, Flickr

“Sauvignon blanc is so grassy!”

It certainly can be. This is mostly about how the vines are grown and maintained—some of that green flavor comes from too much vigor in the canopy or overcropping to get more juice yield.

Chances are that the grassiest of the bunch came from a large name brand from New Zealand (initials KC) or its ilk. This grassiness can be managed, however, and wines from the Loire Valley in France (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé) often show more of the peach and citrus fruit that also can be the hallmark of sauv blanc. California sauvignons are more tropical (kiwi, star fruit, fresh hay) and wines from Friuli and Alto Adige in northeast Italy are stunningly beautiful (and often half the price of Sancerre). I’m also a big fan of South African sauvignon blancs since they tend to give you the best of the tropical California wines with the lightness of Sancerre. Plus, South Africa is stunningly gorgeous and I like to think that soaks into the wines somehow (no proof, but I’m sticking to it).

Sommelier Perspective: 

New Zealand wines have the highest average price per bottle of any major wine country in the world. Next time you think you “have to” get a NZ sauv blanc, try one from somewhere else. Every time I’m given the choice to choose for a table I pick a South African or French, or even one of the outstanding coastal wines from Chile.

Regions for sauvignon blanc: 

Marlborough (New Zealand); Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé (France), Friuli, Alto Adige (Italy), Robertson, Walker Bay, Hemel-en Aarde Valley (South Africa), San Antonio, Leyda (Chile), Adelaide Hills (Australia), Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara (California)

Chenin blanc grapes // Photo by Jim Budd, Flickr

Chenin blanc grapes // Photo by Jim Budd, Flickr

“I’ve never heard of chenin blanc.”

That’s a shame. Chenin blanc’s homeland is the western end of the Loire Valley in France (sauvignon blanc controls the eastern end). It is, at this point, the darling of only sommeliers and uber-nerds because it’s impossible to generalize with this grape. I was ignorant to the beauty and diversity of chenin until I really started studying. Now I feel that if riesling is considered the greatest white grape for showing terroir, then it’s only because there’s far more of it in the world than chenin.

You’ve probably never had a chenin unless it was Pine Ridge’s chenin/viognier blend and if so, that’s a suitable set of training wheels. But let’s get on your big kid bike and explore the world. On one end, chenin makes bright, crisp whites. It can handle warmer environments and make beautiful fuller wines that can trump chardonnay. On the far opposite end, it makes long-lived sweet wines that challenge Sauternes and Tokaj. It also makes some really nice sparkling wine for a great price. If you ever need a desert island grape that can do it all, consider chenin blanc. Just pay attention to the style of dryness (code-words are below).

Sommelier perspective: 

I think I’ve gushed enough, don’t you think? Just writing this reminds me that I don’t drink enough chenin blanc. In fact, I’m going to the store now. Bye!

Regions for dry (sec) chenin:

Savennieres, Saumur (France); Napa, Santa Barbara (California); Swartland, Stellenbosch, Walker Bay (South Africa)

Regions for slightly sweet (demi-sec) chenin:

Vouvray (France)

Regions for sweet (molleux) and dessert-style chenin:

Vouvray, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume (France)

Chardonnay grapes // Photo by John Morgan, Flickr

Chardonnay grapes // Photo by John Morgan, Flickr

“Chardonnay is so…”

Yeah, yeah, we know. Oaky and buttery. Chardonnay is a winemaker’s grape in that it will handle just about anything thrown at it. Ideally you just leave it alone and let it be what it is—a fuller-bodied, versatile, food-friendly white wine—but unless you have an exceptional vineyard it can be a bit boring. In even the most minimal of wineries, there’s some work that’s usually done to help chardonnay reach its potential. Sometimes that’s a crisp white and other times it’s a creamy oak bomb. It’s all down to the winemaker.

When they’re pressing chardonnay grapes in a winery, it smells like fresh green apples exploded everywhere. Why? Because the malic acid in wine grapes, particularly chardonnay, is the same as in apples. After that, many chardonnays go through a conversion of the malic acid into softer lactic acid (like in milk) and then often put into oak barrels.

How new the barrels are, and what kind of wood is used, introduces a whole spice rack to the wine. Think of the smell of a brand new deck versus one that’s been through a year of weather—one smells piney and woody, the other smells like nothing. New oak barrels are the first, used barrels the second. I also like to use a sandpaper analogy. Are you trying to change the shape (50-grit, or new barrels) or are you just polishing (500-grit, used barrels)? As a broad generalization, chardonnay with a lot of new oak applied to it tastes like oak. Chardonnay with little-to-no new oak tastes like apples and citrus. See? Not always oaky.

Sommelier perspective:

Chardonnay gets a bum wrap because of the 1980s trend of California winemakers slathering their wines in oak. It’s a long story as to why that happened, but the result was a cocktail-like wine that became a multi-billion dollar staple of the industry. Oaked chardonnays are crap with anything other than grilled chicken or buttered popcorn (just my opinion) but they put tens of thousands of wine retailers’ kids through college. I prefer French, Oregon, and New Zealand chardonnays but chances are you can find one from virtually any country that makes wine because it’s been the most popular white grape forever.

Regions for unoaked/low oak chardonnay:

Chablis AOC, Burgundy AOC (France); Italy, New Zealand, Tasmania and Margaret River (Australia); Willamette Valley (Oregon)

Regions for oaked chardonnay:

California (though this is a horribly broad generalization), Washington state