Whether pairing with foods or sipping solo, there’s really not a time or a place where a crisp glass of white doesn’t fit the bill. However, not all white wines are created equal. Knowing the difference between major grape varieties and winemaking styles is key to finding that perfect pour for every occasion.
How It’s Made
White wine is produced all over the world from an array of grape varieties and regions. Most white wines are produced from direct-pressed juice from white grapes, meaning that grapes are harvested and brought back to the winery, and their juice is immediately pressed out of them (meaning it has little to no “skin contact”). The ways in which this juice is vinified post-pressing varies from winemaker to winemaker, but that’s what makes the world of white wine so exciting.
Post-pressing, the juice is fermented with either naturally occurring (spontaneous/native) or cultivated yeasts in a variety of vessels. Steel, oak and cement are the most common vessels for vinification and aging.
The Effects of Steel, Oak and Cement
Many white wines are vinified entirely in steel, because this material keeps oxygen out of the vessel and preserves natural acidity in the juice. (In wine, acidity is a good and desirable thing.) At the other end of the spectrum, vinification and aging in an oak barrel allows a very small amount of oxygen to come in contact with the juice. This adds a variety of textures as well as layered flavors to a given wine. Cement aging is somewhat of a hybrid of the two, in that cement provides an oxidative environment without imparting oak-driven flavors to the wine.
When fermented and/or aged in oak, white wines tend to take on notes of vanilla, baking spice, cinnamon, clove, coconut and other flavors. Although these flavors tend to give the sensation of being warm and soft on the palate, they are not technically “sweet,” as oak vinification does not add any residual sugar to the vinification process. (And forget the bad things you’ve heard about “oaky” wines. Although over-oaked juice certainly can be unpleasant, white wines with well-integrated oak can provide some of the most delicious drinking experiences you’ll ever have.)
Foods for Pairing
Food pairings often depend on the wine’s acidity and structure. For light-bodied wines that are crisp, refreshing and high in acid, we recommend serving up some equally fresh salads or salty raw bar snacks. White wines with a bit more body and structure can handle slightly heavier cuisines (think roasted poultry, grilled fish and pungent cheeses). White wines with a bit of residual sugar are perfect for pairing with dishes that pack a bit of heat, such as spicy Indian or Thai.
The Most Common White Grape Varieties
Chardonnay: Chardonnay is the grape that can do it all. It’s planted in just about every wine-producing region around the world, since its ability to thrive in an array of climates and soil types is practically endless. Because of its malleable nature, chardonnay is vinified in a variety of styles (usually medium- to full-bodied) and in an array of vessels. For a balanced and straightforward expression, check out the below expression from Sandhi. The wine is produced in Santa Barbara and beautifully meshes an Old World mentality with New World fruit. Early picking and meticulous oak integration lead to the best of both worlds.
Try: Sandhi ($23)
Sauvignon blanc: Like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc is grown in a variety of soils and regions around the globe. In warm and sunny New World regions (think Marlborough, New Zealand and California’s Napa Valley), sauvignon-blanc-based wines tend to show flavors of tropical fruit, citrus and grass. In Old World regions like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, these wines tend to show more earthy rock-driven flavors marked by citrus-like acidity.
Try: François Chidaine ($17) (France), Lieu Dit ($23) (California)
Pinot grigio: Pinot grigio (called pinot gris in Francophone growing regions) has long been associated with cheap mass-produced whites from Italy. Although these wines unfortunately do still exist, high-quality pinot grigio from a reputable producer can be a revelatory experience. When produced at the right hands, pinot grigio is usually copper-hued, floral-driven and super easy to drink. Try this bottle from Alto Adige for a delicious example.
Try: Alois Lageder ($14)
Riesling: If there’s one thing you learn from this white wine primer, let it be this: Not all riesling is sweet. When vinified dry, riesling produces some of the most high-acid and thirst-quenching white wines on the market. For a delicious bone-dry expression, check out Empire Estate. For an off-dry wine that’s perfect for pairing with spicy takeout, Peter Lauer’s Barrel X is the way to go.
Try: Empire Estate ($17), Peter Lauer Barrel X ($21)
Chenin blanc: Never heard of chenin blanc? There’s no better time than the present. This high-acid grape is best known for its French (Loire Valley) and South African expressions, though the grape is cultivated in the United States, Australia and beyond. These wines are beloved for their ripe and medium- to full-bodied flavor profiles, though in well-made expressions, the grape’s high amount of natural acidity keeps them in check. Think of them as adult apple juice, only better.
Try: Badenhorst Secateurs ($16)