October 21, 2021

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO WHITE WINECelebrating with white wine (photo: Matthieu Joannon)

Ah, white wine. Many American guys will scoff at it. Why not just drink a beer? Well, for those of us who aren’t so cripplingly macho, a good white wine is a delicacy.

It’s a zesty, enlightening libation that elevates a summer hangout, a trip to the beach or a seafood dinner. After a long day in the sun, there’s nothing better.

If you’re a typical guy, you might not know much about white wine, other than it’s the Rosetta Stone to understanding “The Bachelorette.” That said, white wines have a huge range of quality, from cheap apple juice seemingly designed to give you a hangover to a delicate Riesling. Read on for a few tips on how to start your journey into the world of white wine.

A Brief History of Wine

Wine has its origins in prehistory, first appearing in our archaeological record more than seven thousand years ago. This proto-wine was made with somewhat different practices than our modern techniques, but the point is ancient people loved boozy juice just as much as we do today. One main reason is that fermented drinks don’t go bad quickly. In a time before refrigeration existed, this was a big deal.

Of course, people also liked wine because, well, it tastes good and makes you silly. Roman emperors would pay top dollar for specific, elite wines from around the empire.

Now, we can all be little emperors in our grocery stores.

Today, wine is popular for a variety of reasons. While it’s great on its own, more than any other drink, it’s a drink that elevates its meal. Not only symbolically, but in literal terms of taste. A bit of this acidic fruit drink makes all the other flavors of your meal pop, especially if your drink is paired correctly.

We go into the main factors of creating a great wine in our red wine post, but it’s fairly simple: The type of grape (or, grape varietal) greatly affects the taste. So do environmental factors, also called “terroir.” Finally, winemaking technique, such as casking and blending, are major differentiators from winery to winery.

Major Types of White Wine

White wine is made similarly to red, except with skinless grapes. Unlike reds, white wines are not meant to be aged. They’re also meant to be served at a slightly cooler temperature of around 45 degrees. As for whether you should ice them, that’s a somewhat contentious subject, but many wine experts are ok with it!

The common types of white wine you will encounter are:

Chardonnay: The most popular white wine in the world (and the same grape varietal used in many Champagnes), Chardonnay inspires strong feelings.

Originating from Burgundy, home of the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay has an illustrious history and a tremendous variety. It can be tropical or buttery, steely or sweet, depending on where it was grown and how it was made.

The two axes are malolactic fermentation, and whether it was aged in an oak or steel barrel. Wine nerds will thus talk about a wine being “malo’d” or “oaked.”

You’ve probably had oaked Chardonnay. They have a sweeter, more buttery, toasty taste and are popular in California and New Zealand. On the other hand, unoaked Chardonnays are aged in steel barrels and are acidic, clear and steely. They’re much bigger in Europe. Malo’d wines are usually sweeter and creamier, with a slightly oily texture.

The tastes really are dramatically different. Some Chardonnays are closer to Sauvignon Blanc, others to butterscotch. Most drinkers have a strong opinion but the only way to know what you like is to experiment. For unoaked, look for French wines, or American/New Zealand wines like Hendry, Kune Estate, Iron Horse, Toad Hollow or Kim Crawford. For Oaked, try Stony Hill, Forman Vineyard, or any good single-vineyard from the Russian River or Napa Valley. Chardonnay goes well with most seafood and lighter meats.

It should be said that there’s a plague of cheap, rotten Chardonnays, with industrial flavorings and too-sweet tastes. You really don’t need to spend more than $20 to find a good bottle, though.

Sauvignon Blanc: Cheerful and zesty, Sauvignon Blanc is a great starter white wine. Because it’s usually a monovarietal (not blended), it’s easy to get a firm sense of its taste. Originating from the Loire Valley in France, Sauvignon Blanc is an easy to grow grape. Most winemakers won’t age it in expensive oak barrels or worry about fancy processes or blendings. Because this wine is so cheap to produce, you can get truly excellent bottles for $15.

Typically lighter, more tropical or floral than Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc is terrific with seafood, especially shellfish, salads and goat cheese.

Common Sauvignon Blanc notes are tropical, floral and fruity, with a crisp or silky mouthfeel.

There’s a good variety here because this grape can grow all over the world, from France to New Zealand. California, naturally, has several excellent options like St. Supery, Honig and Mason Estate.

If you want to treat yourself, try an authentic Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. These are French wines, named after the famous villages they are made in. Because of the unique terroir of the limestone-heavy soil of Loire, you’ll be getting a uniquely delicious “gunflint” taste.

Riesling: Considered by some to be a “hipster wine,” Rieslings are prized for their subtlety. Originating in Central Europe and modern day Germany, this wine is usually made with more strict techniques than a Chardonnay. It’s simpler, and so it’s harder for a winemaker to mask the taste when something goes wrong (which, most winemakers will tell you, it eventually will).

More subtle than many popular Chardonnays, Rieslings are also less popular, and so are often underpriced, especially from American wineries like Hogue, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Snoqualmie. That said, some cheap Rieslings are cloyingly sweet. For a unique taste, look for more dry, authentically Austrian wines.

Rieslings almost always have tastes of apples, slate, floral and citrus. A great wine to pair with food, try a Riesling with spicy Asian dishes. They go with most lighter meats & fishes, too.

Dessert Rieslings are made by letting the grapes age on the vine as long as they can until they’re ultra-ripe, or even covered in a benevolent fungus. It’s a dramatically different taste though, so make sure you pick the right bottle.

Pinot Grigio, also called Pinot Gris, is an Italian wine which has become very popular recently. Grown in California and Oregon in America, at its best, it has a blend of lush flavors, fruitiness and acidity. It’s well known for its classic “bite.” Like Chardonnay, California/New World Pinot Grigio is typically sweeter than European offerings. It’s a bit like a sweeter Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s great with fish and charcuterie.

It’s somewhat similar to Moscato, which is a much sweeter wine than some of the others here, pairing well with dessert.

Go Out and Drink!

In truth, the golden rule of wine is that you should drink what you like. Don’t let anyone make fun of you for having a Chardonnay spritzer when you’re out getting beers with the boys.

Of course, the only way to discover what you like is to actually drink it. We’d recommend getting a half dozen bottles of a specific type at a time. This way you can really explore the taste of a style before moving onto the next.

Your wine journey is just beginning. Happy exploring!