White Wine Grapes and Their Personalities
Wine Academy Table of Contents
What we call “white” wine grapes actually run from green to golden in color. We call these grapes and the wine they produce “white” for convenience. No prizes will be awarded for guessing which one we start with.
a. Chardonnay: The Lady
Chardonnay’s original home is the Burgundy region of France, including the non-contiguous northern area known as Chablis.
Chardonnay has a second home north of Burgundy in the Champagne region.
As to why Chardonnay came to be Burgundy’s white grape, we have to go back to Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, or more precisely to his queen.
The land on which the Burgundy Grand Cru wine of Corton-Charlemagne is located was once the private vineyard of the emperor
Apparently, Charlemagne’s queen disliked the fact that Chuck’s beard seems to be constantly stained from red wine. She forced him to switch cultivation to from red to white, and the rest is history.
- Green-skinned grape variety.
- Originated in Burgundy
- Grown wherever wine is produced.
- Very easy to cultivate in a wide variety of soils and climates.
- A true international grape.
- Tends to be neutral, and so affected by terroir (the character of the land) and winemaking techniques like barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation and lees stirring
- Most white wine ferments in stainless steel
- Fermenting in small oak barrels highlights texture, body, and mouthfeel
- Wines fermented in oak have less oak influence than wines aged in oak, with better integrated oak flavors and well-defined fruit
- Chardonnay takes particularly well to barrel fermentation
- Lactobacillus bacteria consume harsh malic acid (the acid in apples) and turn it into softer lactic acid (the acid in milk).
- Malolactic fermentation is encouraged for most red wines, and some white wines.
- When done with Chardonnay, this process is what gives the wine its buttery character (although “malo” is often overdone).
- Fermentation creates enzymes which break down yeast cells in a process called autolysis
- Cells release flavor and texture compounds such as mannoproteins, amino acids, esters, aldehydes, ketones, and others
- Cells release flavor and texture compounds such as mannoproteins, amino acids, esters, aldehydes, ketones, and others
- Chardonnays may often be aged more than a year this way, possible with stirring
French Chardonnay – Styles
- Lean crisp mineral wines of Chablis, un-oaked
- Sensuous oak aged wines of Côte de Beaune. Fleshy apple, pear, truffle and mushroom notes. Rich, sumptuous mouthfeel
- A variety of Chardonnay styles in southern Burgundy, including the Côte Challonaise and the Máconnais
International Chardonnay Styles
- In cool climates, more acidity, green plum, apple and pear.
- In warmer locations, citrus, peach and melon.
- In very warm locations, fig and tropical fruit – banana and mango.
- Most planted wine grape – 100,000+ acres
- One-fifth of all table wine purchased in the US
- Prohibition largely killed Chardonnay
- Wente Vineyards developed a successful Chardonnay clone in the 1940s
- Resurgence in 1970s
- Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay beats white Burgundies in blind test – 1976 (Judgment of Paris)
A California Style of Chardonnay Develops
- Harvest at advanced degrees of ripeness and higher sugar levels in the juice
- Aggressive aging in new American oak
- Big-bodied wines with big mouthfeel
- High alcohol
- Aromas and flavors of tropical fruit
- Malolactic fermentation for butter flavor
- Not particularly food friendly
ABC – “Anything But Chardonnay”
- In the 2000s, heavy, over-oaked Chardonnay lost business to crisp, lemony southern hemisphere Chardonnays and food friendly wines like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc
- Trend is now to use less oak (or none at all), to pick grapes earlier to preserve acidity
- Ripe apple and citrus notes have taken over from tropical fruit
Cooler Heads Prevail
- Chardonnay does best in cool climate regions with coastal fog that slows ripening of the grapes and protect development of flavor and acidity
- Monterey County (number one county), Los Carneros in Sonoma (number two county), Russian River Valley in Sonoma, Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County
- Much cheap Chardonnay is produced in the hot climate Central Valley of California. It has- little character
b. Sauvignon Blanc: The Pixie
We call Sauvignon Blanc the “Pixie” because of its teasing, impish character.
Sauvignon Blanc’s home territory is at the eastern edge of the Loire River region of France. Distinctive appellations are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
Under the local Loire Valley name of Fiers, Sauvignon Blanc is mentioned in Chapter 25 of François Rabelais’ Gargantua in 1534.
The term Sauvignon Blanc refers to the vine’s resemblance to the leaves of wild grapes, from the French word Sauvage.
Sauvignon Blanc migrated to Bordeaux in the 17th century where it crossed spontaneously with Cabernet Franc to create Cabernet Sauvignon
- Sauvignon Blanc is widely planted around the world.
- Crisp, dry, and refreshing white varietal wine.
- Some New World Sauvignon Blancs, particularly from California, may also be called "Fume Blanc“ – some oak
- Cooler climates bring noticeable acidity and "green flavors" of grass, green bell peppers, cat’s pee, and nettles with some tropical fruit and floral.
- Warmer climates bring on more tropical fruit notes but there is a risk of losing aromatics from over-ripeness, leaving only slight grapefruit and tree fruit (such as peach) notes, as well as a risk of losing acidity.
France – Three Regions for Sauvignon Blanc
- Loire – Lime, grass, minerals. Best examples are medium-bodied, high alcohol, high acidity with white peach, grapefruit
- Bordeaux – lighter bodied, lemony, grassy, high acidity, lemon curd, lemongrass and, if oak-aged, creamy nutty flavors and textures
- Southwest France/Languedoc – light medium body and high acidity, citrus, often blended with Ugni Blanc or Colombard
New Zealand – Marlborough
- Cool maritime climate
- Long steady growing season
- Grapes develop natural balance of acids and sugars.
- Brings out flavors and intensity.
- Asparagus, gooseberry, cat’s pee and grassy, green flavor
- Methoxypyrazines become more pronounced and concentrated in wines from cooler climates.
In the South Australian regions of Adelaide Hills and Padthaway, Sauvignon Blanc is riper in flavor (than New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), with white peach and lime notes.
Western Australia: Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc, often blended with Sémillon.
Sauvignon Blanc – Chile – Best examples from cooler coastal region. Notes of grass, lime juice, pineapple, green banana, high acidity and salinity American Sauvignon Blanc
- Napa – warmer climate – white peach, grapefruit, and honeydew melon, medium body, medium acidity and moderate alcohol
- Sonoma – cooler climate – green apple, honeydew, pineapple – moderate alcohol, light to medium body, mid to high level acidity
- Washington State Columbia Valley – mineral, grapefruit, lime, light-bodied, high acidity
- Some examples have oak aging, lees stirring
c. Riesling: The German Prince
Riesling is produced all over the world of wine, but in general, it thrives in cool climates. Its home is in Germany, where it represents more than half of all fine wine production. German Riesling is produced in a number of quality levels, based on the sugar content of the grape juice before fermentation. We cover this system in the section on Germany.
Rieslings from Germany and Alsace in France indicate Riesling on their labels
- Aromatic grape with flowery, almost perfumed, aromas
- High acidity
- Makes dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling white wines.
- Usually varietally pure and unoaked.
- No malolactic fermentation
- Highly terroir expressive
Riesling's naturally high acidity and pronounced fruit flavors give it great aging potential
- Well-made examples from favorable vintages often develop smoky, honey notes
- Aged German Rieslings may take on "petrol" character.
German Riesling’s Reputation Problem
- For many years, sickly sweet and cheap German wines were widely sold as “Rieslings,” although most of the grapes used for these wines were Sylvaner and Müller Thurgau.
- The fact that many quality Rieslings have sweetness to balance their high acidity puts off many buyers with bad memories of these forgettable wines.
- The International Riesling Foundation has strict guidelines as to classifying sweetness levels of wines based on sugar vs. acidity (each in grams per liter) taking into consideration pH.
- Grams per liter is a measure of the amount of acid or sugar in a wine while pH is a measure of the strength of acidity.
- It is all about how sweet the wine tastes rather than the actual level of sugar in the wine – the perception of sweetness.
- It is worth mentioning here that throughout the world of wine, makers of mediocre wine add sugar to cover up flaws and then add tartaric acid to reduce the perception of sweetness.
- In good Riesling, by contrast, both the sweetness and the acidity are largely the result of the sweetness and acidity levels of the grapes themselves.
- South Australia – Riesling from Clare Valley and Eden Valley. Crisp and dry with characteristic lime notes.
Riesling from cool climate Margaret River in Western Australia may be bone dry with lemon, lime and floral notes
The very cool climate Finger Lakes region in New York State is making a reputation for dry Riesling.
d. Pinot Gris: The Two Faces
We call Pinot Gris the “Two Faces” because the styles of Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio (the same grape), are so very different.
Pinot Gris originated in Burgundy, but is no longer produced there. Its present French home is the eastern region of Alsace.
Wines called Pinot Gris
- Spicy full-bodied Alsatian style
- some sweetness in Alsace versions
- New World wine regions
- Marlborough, New Zealand
- Tasmania and Victoria, Australia
- Oregon and Washington
- Apple, pear, melon notes
- Moderate to low acidity and higher alcohol
- Oily texture – full-bodied
Wines called Pinot Grigio
- Lighter-bodied, acidic Italian style Pinot Grigio
- Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, Alto Adige
- Northeastern Italian Pinot Grigio is the most popular imported white wine in the United States
- Some California wines are produced in this style and may be called Pinot Grigio instead of Pinot Gris
- Easy drinking, undemanding, goes well with food
e. Viognier: The Countess
The great elegance and class of Viognier gives it its nickname.
Viognier’s origin is in the northern section of the Rhône Valley of France, especially in the far northern appellation of Condrieu.
Viognier around the world.
- Full-bodied, lush white wines
- Usually meant to drink young
- Peach, pear, violet, floral, minerality
- Likes long warm growing season
- But not too hot, otherwise the is the risk the wine will have too much alcohol and too-low acidity
- Central Coast California, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand
Viognier has become Virginia’s signature grape. Its thick skin and loose clusters make it more reliable in the state’s humid climate than Chardonnay.
Viognier almost disappeared
- Viognier is difficult to grow and is susceptible to numerous vine diseases
- By the mid-1960s, only 35 acres of vines grew in the northern Rhône in and around Condrieu
- In the 1980s, however international winemakers “discovered” Viognier
- Highly fashionable today, it thrives around the world (including 11,000 acres in France alone)
And how do you pronounce it?
- The “i” is like the “i” in “onion”
- The “gn” is like the “gn” in “lasagna”
- The “er” at the end rhymes with “yay”
- You stress the final syllable
f. Chenin Blanc: The Jack of All Trades
The title is a reference to Chenin’s versatility.
Chenin Blanc’s original home is the Loire Valley of France, especially the Anjou and Touraine regions.
- Chenin Blanc’s high natural acidity makes it suitable for a wide range of wines – dry, sweet, still and sparkling
- When picked at optimum ripeness and when kept to a low yield, it exhibits floral and honeyed aromas and flavors, also green gage plums
- A great quantity of high yield low quality Chenin Blanc is produced for blending purposes in California’s warm climate Central Valley.
- The cooler climate Clarksburg, California area is producing age-worthy varietal Chenin Blancs with musky melon aromas
- South Africa is the world’s largest producer of Chenin Blanc
- Introduced into the South Africa by the Dutch in the 17th century
- For centuries South Africa produced inexpensive, relatively neutral off-dry white wines
- With the re-integration of the country into the wine world after the fall of apartheid, there has been a move towards quality
- South African varieties designed to drink young often have notes of guava, banana, pineapple and pear
g. Sémillon: The Courtesan
Sémillon gets its title because when lovingly produced it is downright sexy.
- Dry and sweet wines
- France, Sauternes, Bordeaux Blanc
- Australia, Hunter Valley, Adelaide Hills
- Washington State
- Easy to cultivate
- Low in acidity
- Note that the Aussies spell Semillon without the accent.
Sémillon, blended with some Sauvignon Blanc, is the grape used for the exquisite sweet Sauternes from Château d’Yquem in the Graves region of Bordeaux.
h. Gewurztraminer: The Spice Box
- Very aromatic, spicy
- lychee, floral, rose, passion fruit, savory finish
- High natural sugar, results in…
- Off-dry and/or
- High alcohol
- Cool climate
- Germany, Northeast Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Southern Australia
i. Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains: The Sweetheart
- Small round berries
- Ripens early
- One of the world’s oldest grapes
- One of the few wines that tastes like grapes
- Makes formidable sweet wines in southern France and Greece
- As Moscato in Italy, the basis for Asti and Moscato d’Asti sparkling wines
j. Albariño: The Mermaid
- Native to Galicia in northwest Spain and northwest Portugal. Plantings in cooler areas of California, New Zealand, Uruguay, Argentina.
- Distinct botanical aromas of apricot and peach
- May be a light crisp wine, or fuller body.
- Better examples have good complexity with mineral notes and sometimes a slight salinity that goes well with seafood.
k. Torrontés – The Mountain Goat
Argentina – White Torrontés
- Thrives in northern Salta province of Argentina
- Extremely high altitude (highest vineyards in the world at 8000 feet plus)
- Makes up for low latitude closer to the equator 25°S.
- Aromatic wines with moderate acidity, smooth texture, peach and apricot aromas and favors
l. Roussanne: The Redhead
- Native to Rhône region of France
- Unusual russet color when ripe
- Warm climates – rich wines – flavors of honey and pear, and full body
- Cool climates – floral and delicate, herbal tea
- Plantings in California, Texas, Washington and Australia, Crete, Tuscany, Spain
- Late ripening and poor yielding, susceptible to vine diseases
- Rounds out both white and red blends, makes then fuller and sweeter tasting, mellower
- Often blended with Marsanne and sometimes Viognier
- Can be a component of red Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape
m. Verdejo: The Spanish Knight
- Native to the Rueda region of Spain
- High altitude vineyards with calcareous soils and wide diurnal swings
- Extremely aromatic grape, soft and full-bodied
- Normally harvested at night, to prevent oxidation and browning of the grape juice
- Obscure for centuries, but modern winemakers have established Verdejo as the finest white wine in Spain
- Rueda wine must be at least 50% Verdejo
- Often blended with Sauvignon Blanc or Macabeo to add body and richness
- Single varietal Verdejo is produced
- Typically Verdejo-dominated wines are crisp with soft, creamy, nutty overtones, and sometimes accompanied by notes of honey
- Typically mineral and highly acidic
n. Grüner Veltliner: Jewel of the Danube
- Most widely planted grape in Austria, concentrated in northeast along the Danube
- Large plantings in nearby areas of Moravia (Czech Republic), Slovakia, and Hungary
- Herbaceous notes: green pepper, radish, dill, celery, lentil; citrus: lemon, lime, grapefruit; spice: white pepper, ginger; honey; minerality
- Generally dry and crisp
o. Assyrtiko: Greek Treasure
- Native to Greek island of Santorini
- Expresses nature of island’s volcanic soil
- Maintains its acidity as it ripens
- Bone dry with citrus and minerality
- Spreading all over Greece where it produces milder and more fruity wines
- Blended with aromatic Aidani and Athiri grapes for Vinsanto, noted sweet wine
- Slowly beginning to be grown in the New World (Australia)