Types of White Wine – Your Ultimate Guide

Have you ever been handed an extensive wine list at a restaurant and struggled to pick one? You may have narrowed it down to “something white around x price,” but then what? As you scan the many types of white wine (the Chardonnays, the Sauv Blancs, the Pinot Grigios—and somehow also the Pinot Grises?), your eyes start to blur. “Maybe this Chardonnay,” you practically whisper to the waitress as you point and hope for the best.

What is white wine and how is it different from red wine?

White wine is simply wine that ranges in color from pale yellow to gold. It’s typically made from white grapes. Red wine, on the other hand, is red in color and made from red grapes. 

Additionally, white wine and red wine are made differently. White wine is made by removing the white grape juice from the grape skins immediately, before fermentation (more on that below). Red wine is made by macerating the red grape juice with the grape skins, stems and seeds.

What does white wine taste like?

White wines vary in taste depending on traits like wine type, wine region and even the year that the wine is made, but in general, white wine tastes fruity, floral and citrusy—much more so than red wine. For more wine-tasting tips, check out our guide on how to host your own wine tasting.

White wine terms to know

Not to be all “the tannins in this varietal are positively tannic,” but if you want to discover which white wines are your favorite, it can help to know some basic wine lingo. We promise to keep it short and sweet. 

Variety and varietal

A variety refers to different types of grapes, such as Chardonnay grapes or Sauvignon Blanc grapes. A varietal refers to a wine made from a single variety of grape, such as a bottle of Chardonnay or a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. 

Body type

Body type simply refers to how heavy or light a wine feels in your mouth. A Chardonnay, for instance, has a medium body while a Riesling has a light body, which means the Chardonnay feels heavier in your mouth than a Riesling.

Dry, off-dry and sweet

What is a dry white wine? A dry white wine is simply a wine that isn’t sweet. An off-dry white, meanwhile, is just a little sweet. And a sweet white wine will have a sugary, often fruity taste. Some examples, you ask? Chardonnay is a common dry white wine, Riesling is a common off-dry white wine and Moscato is a common sweet white wine.

Wine tannins are polyphenols found in the skins, seeds and even stems of grapes. They add bitterness, astringency and complexity to wine. You probably have heard that red wines contain a lot of tannins, but do white wines have tannins? Yes, though many people mistakenly believe only red wine contains tannins. 

As we mentioned, red wine is made by macerating the red grape juice with the grape skins, stems and seeds, and white wine is made by removing the juice from the skins. Therefore, white wines are less tannic than red. However, white wines still get tannins from aging in wood barrels, as wood also has naturally occurring tannins.

Acidity is responsible for the sour and tart taste in wine. White wines tend to be more acidic than red wines (though still less acidic than lemonade, a drink known to make your mouth pucker). And wines from warmer climates tend to be less acidic than wines from cooler regions.

Types of white wine 

Technically, there are dozens and dozens of different types of white wine. However, when people discuss wine types, they are typically referring to nine specific varietal wines made from nine different grape varieties: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Moscato, Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Viognier. Here’s a breakdown of each of these varietals: 

Chardonnay 

Buttery Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world, so much so that “Chardonnay” is practically synonymous with “white wine.” But why is that? White Chardonnay grapes, which get their name from a village in the French region of Burgundy, grow in almost every wine region in the world. They’re even one of the three main grapes used in Champagne. They’re also relatively easy to grow and have a subtle taste, meaning winemakers can easily put their stamp on white wine made from versatile Chardonnay grapes. Plus, Chardonnay expresses terroir, meaning the flavors of the land are showcased in the grape. 

Chardonnay is especially known for its buttery note, the result of “malo,” a fermentation that transforms the sharp malic acid in the wine into creamy lactic acid. Malo occurs in all red wines and frequently in Chardonnay, but less often in other white wines. Hence, Chardonnay is often likened to red wine. 

However, not all Chardonnays taste buttery. Chardonnays produced in cool climates tend to have citrus and fruit flavors, such as lemon, apple and pear. Chardonnays produced in warm climates tend to have tropical fruit flavors, such as pineapple. 

The best Chardonnay to buy  

In addition to Chardonnays from Burgundy, France, you should look for New World Chardonnays from California or Oregon, as well as Australia. We like: 

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is a white wine varietal produced from Chenin Blanc grapes, which originated in the Loire Valley of France. The grape can now be found in South Africa, where it is the primary grape variety, as well as in the U.S.—most notably in California. It’s an extremely versatile grape and can be used to produce everything from light, lean and dry varietals to sparkling wine. The grapes can even be left to rot on the vine, resulting in a noble rot that produces a sweet dessert wine.

Old World Chenin Blancs from the Loire typically have notes of apple, honey and quince, whereas New World Chenin Blancs from South Africa and California tend to have more tropical fruit notes of pear, banana and pineapple. 

The best Chenin Blanc to buy 

White wine drinkers tend to prize Chenin Blancs from the Loire Valley, but you can find some pretty great options made in South Africa and California. We like: 

Gewürztraminer

Have you heard of Gewürztraminer wine? This uncommon varietal is made from the pink-skinned Gewürztraminer grape, which originated in France’s Alsace region. It eventually made its way to Germany, northern Italy and Hungary, as well as Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S., it can be found in New York, California and Washington, but there still isn’t a lot of Gewürztraminer in the world. 

It’s too bad, though. Gewürztraminer is a fantastically aromatic wine with distinct notes of lychee, rose and fruit. It’s actually very similar to Moscato in terms of flavor, but it is often less sweet, less acidic and more aromatic. 

The best Gewürztraminer to buy 

If you can find Gewürztraminer from Alsace or northern Italy, go for that. Otherwise, California has some pretty distinctly floral versions with amazing aromatics. We like: 

Moscato 

Moscato is a popular white wine made from the muscat family of grapes—one of the oldest wine grapes in the world. The muscat family has over 200 grape varieties, which are commonly grown in the Rhône Valley, Italy, Austria and Australia. 

Moscato is considered one of the sweeter types of mainstream white wine. (The sweetest white wine is ice wine—a dessert wine made with frozen Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Chenin Blanc grapes.) However, not all Moscato is super sweet. Some Moscatos are only semi-sweet. And some, like Moscatel wine from Spain and Muskateller wine from Austria, are actually dry but because their aromatics are so fruity, your brain is tricked into thinking they taste sweeter than they do. 

The best Moscato to buy 

This really depends on what kind of Moscato you prefer: still, sparkling, dessert or pink. We like: 

Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris

First things first: Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are two different names for the same grape, a pinkish mutation of the Pinot noir grape. Pinot Grigio is the Italian name for this grape, which grows in northeastern Italy, and Pinot Gris is the French name for the grape, which grows in the Alsace region. So these two wines are basically the same, though they do have a few subtle differences. 

French Pinot Gris wines tend to have notes of honey and spice, whereas Italian Pinot Grigio wines tend to be light, crisp and refreshing. The Italian wines also feature unique stone or gravel notes and thus have a mineral taste. 

The best Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris to buy 

In addition to Old World Pinot Grigio from Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia-Giulia and Pinot Gris from Alsace, you might look for varietals from Oregon, where they make killer Pinots in general. We like: 

Riesling

Riesling is a white wine varietal made from Riesling grapes, which originated in Germany. In fact, Germany still produces the majority of Rieslings, which range from bone dry to off-dry to very sweet. Alsace produces some phenomenal Rieslings as well, as does Austria, a country known for its dry Rieslings. Over in the New World, Riesling grapes can be found in a variety of regions, from Australia and New Zealand to Canada and Washington State.

Riesling has gotten a bit of a reputation for being a sweet white wine, and it certainly can be, but the most highly regarded varietals are dry. Overall, Riesling wines feature notes of fruit, citrus, jasmine and beeswax, as well as a very interesting aroma that develops in aged Rieslings—petroleum. 

The best Riesling to buy 

One of the best Rieslings to buy is the Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling from Washington. At $9.99 a bottle, it is one of the most affordable types of white wine and it was even on Food & Wine’s list of The Best Affordable White Wine, $15 and Under. We also like: 

Sauvignon Blanc

Popular varietal Sauvignon Blanc is a crisp, herbaceous white wine made from a grape connected to two famous French wine regions: Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. These grapes are now found throughout the world, including in South Africa, Chile, New Zealand and California. 

Because Sauvignon Blanc grapes are known to take on a lot of the flavors of the land on which they are grown, you’ll find a wide range of tastes in bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. For instance, French Sauvignon Blancs often taste of minerals and citrus, whereas California Sauvignon Blancs tend to be fruitier. All Sauvignon Blancs typically feature herbal notes. 

The best Sauvignon Blanc to buy 

Because so many wine regions have their own versions of Sauvignon Blanc, this one is really a matter of taste, though you can’t go wrong with a French, New Zealand or California varietal. We like: 

Sémillon

Sémillon is a white grape used to make both dry and sweet wines, including the popular dessert wine Sauternes. This Bordeaux wine is produced from overripe Sémillon grapes blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes to create a honeyed sweet wine. As a dry wine, Sémillon is complex with fruit-forward notes. 

In addition to Bordeaux, the grape grows in warm climates such as South Africa, California and Argentina. No matter where it grows, it has a unique silken texture and a trademark waxiness that Sémillon wine drinkers love. 

The best Sémillon to buy 

You aren’t likely to find a lot of Sémillon varietals, as the grape is frequently mixed with other grapes, especially Sauvignon Blanc. But there are still some great options available. We like: 

Viognier

Rich and oily Viognier white wine is produced from temperamental Viognier grapes, which originated in the Northern Rhône Valley in France. Until recently, the plantings of Viognier were scarce, but this grape—and wine—is becoming more and more popular. It’s now produced in California, Australia, South Africa and even Virginia. 

People seem to love the Chardonnay-like richness of the wine, as well as the bold fruit flavors ranging from melon and mango to tangerine and apricot. Heavy fruit flavors tend to be especially present in New World bottles of Viognier. 

The best Viognier to buy 

Like Sémillon, Viognier can still be a little harder to find—though it is rapidly increasing in popularity—so the best Viognier to buy right now is whatever you can find near you. We like: 

For more food and wine pairing ideas, check out A Master Guide to Wine and Cheese Pairing and Halloween Candy & Wine Pairings to Delight Your Inner Connoisseur

White wine blends 

In addition to the nine major white wine varietals, there are white wine blends—white wines made with two or more grape varieties. These include a French White Bordeaux (Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grape blend) and a White Rioja (which can be a blend of seven different grape varieties). 

How white wine is made 

White wine is all pretty much made the same way, no matter the type. The basic process goes like this: 

How to serve white wine 

White wine should be served chilled to 45 degrees F. You can serve it in a variety of wine glasses, from a classic white wine glass to an aroma collector glass (a.k.a. a Burgundy glass) to a universal wine glass, which is good for white, red and rose wine. 

White wine cocktails

Whether you love white wine so much that you want to enjoy it in as many forms as possible or you need some help getting into white wine, a white wine cocktail may be just what you need. Some of our favorite wine cocktails include sangria, spritzers and wine slushies—all perfect for a summer day by the pool. 

Article courtesy of GoPuff

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