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White Wine Varietals

There are over 2500 different wine grape varieties. Here are a few that are the most important white wine varietals:

Chardonnay (SHAR-don-nay)
Chardonnay is considered the finest white wine grape variety in the worked. Responsible in France for all the great white Burgundies: Chablis, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé, Puligny-Montrachet are the basis for Champagne. It has become the most successful white grape grown in California, yielding a wine of tremendous character and magnificent flavor. We now have excellent Chardonnay’s appearing on our wine list from all over the world, especially Australia and New Zealand. Some tasters associate Chardonnay with apples, citrus fruits, roasted nuts, ripe figs, or melon, while others describe the wines as creamy or buttery. Winemakers play a particularly important role in the style of Chardonnay which can range from clean, crisp bottling with a hint of varietal fruit to rich, complex, oak-aged examples that need several years of bottle age to fully display their qualities.

Chenin Blanc (SHEN-ihn BLAHNK)
A fresh, light, fragrant and fruity wine which is very attractive and exceptionally versatile. It is one of the most widely planted grapes in the Loire Valley of France where Vouvray and Savenierres are produced. Fine examples are made in California and Washington and it is the most widely planted grape in South Africa. Chenin Blanc can be finished sweet, semi-sweet or even dry.

Pinot Grigio/ Pinot Gris (PEE-no GREE-gee-o / PEE-no GREE)
This almost red-colored grape variety, depending on the place of origin, can be made in remarkably different styles. In Italy, it is crisp, dry, fruity, generally light-bodied, and refreshingly pleasant. In Alsace (Eastern France) and in Oregon it can be richly flavored and full-bodied. Many producers in Oregon ferment it in oak barrels rounding out the flavors of the wine. Light straw in color, it is almost always very dry, but few detect it as dry since the fruitiness of the grape causes it to appear slightly sweet. Notes of citrus, green apple, and sometimes a little spice enliven the wine and with its pleasant fruitiness and lively acidity make it excellent with food.

Gewürztraminer (Guh-VURTZ –tra-mee-ner)
Gewürz means “spicy” and is an excellent and unusual grape that produces lush wines with a delicate spicy character. Widely grown in the Alsace region of France where it makes a spicy, dry wine and in Germany where it tends toward sweetness. In California and Washington, the finish can range between sweet and dry.

Sauvignon Blanc / Fumé Blanc
(So-veen-yawn BLAHNK/ FOO- may BLAHNK)
These terms are synonymous. Generally this is an aromatic Grape variety that can offer a very wide range of flavor differences. The flavor styles range from herbaceous, and sometimes “grassy”, to grapefruit, melon, and passion fruit. Some have had the varietal aromas softened by barrel fermentation and aging. Often classically blended with the less aromatic but soft and fruity variety Semillon.
Sometimes labeled Fumé Blanc in California and Washington, this is an important white grape in France where it is blended with the grape Semillon to produce all of Bordeaux’s white wines from the dry Graves to the sweet dessert wines of Sauternes. It is also the grape of Sancerre and Pouilly – Fumé in the eastern Loire Valley of France. Popular, intense, very assertive, versions of this varietal are now being imported from New Zealand and Australia.

Johannisberg Riesling (JO-han-is-berg REES-ling)
This grape produces wines of distinct varietal character (like granny smith apple) in styles ranging from dry to very sweet “ late harvest” dessert-style wines. Also referred to as “White Riesling” or just “ Riesling”, it is responsible for the finest wines of the Rhein and Mosel regions in Germany. At its finest, the nose of Johannisberg Riesling is flowery, fragrant, and fruity. Excellent examples are being made in California and Washington State.

Pinot Blanc (PEE-no BLAHNK)
Pinot Blanc is closely related in taste and aroma to Chardonnay, although subtler, usually firmer and slightly more tart. This grape is grown mostly in Alsace region of France, in southern Germany where it is know as Weissburgunder and Italy where it is called Pinot Bianco. There is a small amount grown in Oregon. You find wines from California labeled Pinot Blanc but there are disputes if these vines are really Pinot Blanc. The California debate continues.

Semillon (SEM-mee-yawn)
This grape generally makes a rather soft-textured and fruity white wine. Its aroma has been compared to figs; its flavor has been associated with pears and melon. Semillon is blended in France with Sauvignon Blanc for the white wines of Bordeaux especially the sweet dessert wine Sauternes. It is sometimes blended with Chardonnay in Australia and Washington and Labeled Semillon – Chardonnay.

Viognier (VEE-own-yay)
The grape Viognier is extremely difficult to grow with small, unreliable yields. Until recently, it was only planted in the Northern Rhone Valley of France where it is used to produce the wine Condrieu, and blended into Côte-Rôtie. Now, adventuresome wine makers around the world have discovered it. It has the aroma and flavor of peaches, apricot, honeysuckle, mineral and pear. It can be made medium-bodied, but the best examples are very full-bodied, seductive, rich and exotic. Some wines made from this grape variety have been called, “The greatest white wines you’ve never heard of.”

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