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White wine: the beginner's guide

Did you know white wine can be made with red grapes? Learn about 4 important varieties to try, read white wine FAQs AND look fancy getting it delivered.

Did you know white wine can be made with red grapes? Learn about 4 important varieties to try, read white wine FAQs AND look fancy getting it delivered.

Truth time: wine is confusing. There are so many varieties and regions, it's hard to keep straight. You may be asking yourself - what in the heck makes a white wine? How would I know which kinds I like? That's where we come in. Whether you're prepping for a wine tasting, or if you know you like white wine, and that's about it, this guide is for you.

White wine is made from either red or white grapes, fermented without the skins. This is where all that sugar and yeast turns into alcohol. This is one of the main differences between making red wine vs white wine. When making red wine, the grape juice sits with its skins to give the wine its notable color and tannins. This process is not a part of the white wine making process. Once a grape is harvested and destemmed, it gets pressed and fermented in tanks at a low temperature. Winemakers will either make a white wine with one grape variety, or several which creates a white wine blend.

The notable favorites

Chardonnay

A crowd favorite, chardonnay grapes are grown just about everywhere, but popular regions are France - mostly Burgundy and Champagne - and California. The body describes the texture or weight of a wine. Chardonnay is considered "full bodied" because it's flavor is rich, complex and well-rounded. We say it's "generally" considered because the body of a wine depends on where the grape is grown and how it’s aged. For example, if grown in a cooler climate, it is more medium to light bodied and is more acidic.

Chardonnay can be oaked or unoaked. It's important to note the difference because it'll be a big change in taste. Oaked has rich vanilla flavors thanks to its wood aged process. If you're a lover of oaked chards, you may also be a fan of white Bordeaux and Viognier. Oaked does have some haters because it can taste like you’re drinking butter, but if you're not a big fan of oaked chardonnay, it's time to give unoaked a try.

Unoaked chardonnay is either aged in stainless steel, or for a short time in a neutral oak barrel. This may seem like it’s no biggie, but it changes the flavor a lot. Unoaked chardonnay doesn't have the buttery, vanilla flavors that oaked has. It's much more fruit flavored, with notes of green apple and lemon.

If you're trying to find the best food matches for this varietal, we suggest trying it with mild foods. Spicy food and chardonnay don’t mix. Try dishes like shellfish, creamy pastas or quiche.

Sauvignon blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is a white grape planted on vineyards in many regions around the world, but mainly Bordeaux, New Zealand, California, Chile and South Africa. Remember how we talked about a wine's body earlier? Well, this wine is considered light bodied. Light bodied white wines are considered crisp and refreshing. Like all wines, the taste of sauvignon blanc will change based on where it's grown. For example, the primary fruit flavors in sauvignon blanc are lime, green apple, passion fruit and peach. However, you'll pick up some flavors more than others based on where the grape was grown. So if you're sipping a New Zealand white wine, you may taste fruity notes like passion fruit and notice a higher degree of acidity, where a California SB has more lime flavor.

Pair with foods that work with this wine's herbaceousness. Foods with basil, rosemary and mint tend to pair best.

Riesling

Riesling is a fruity white wine that is grown in vineyards mostly in areas of Germany, Austria, France, Australia and the Fingerlakes, New York. This wine has strong fruity aromas, even when it’s ice cold, like nectarines, apricots and pears. These wines are usually pretty darn sweet, so to balance out all that sweetness there is a high degree of acidity. But if you're more of a dry wine person, these days there are a number of dry rieslings to taste.

When you're trying to pair with riesling, think spicy. This wine's sweetness and acidity makes a perfect match for spicy foods. Try it in a dish with strong spices like cayenne pepper or ginger.

Pinot grigio

Pinot grigio has a bit of a funny history. Way back, this grape was grown mostly in the Bordeaux region of France. At the time, it was actually the pinot noir grape. The vine mutated into a mix of the pinot blanc (white) and pinot noir (black) grapes. Hence, the pinot gris (gray) grape was born. This grape expanded through Northern Italy where it was called pinot grigio, since "grigio" means gray in Italian. The wine grew wildly popular and is as beloved today as it was then.

Pinot grigio is a light bodied, very dry white wine, with flavors of lime, lemon and green apple. Pair with delicately flavored foods like seafood and lemon, buffalo mozzarella or a pasta carbonara.

Most asked questions about white wine

What is the best white wine to drink?

This is up to your flavor preferences. If you like citrus flavors, try an unoaked chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. If you've noticed you go for more full bodied wines, try an oaked chardonnay. By understanding one wine that you like and it's flavor profile, you'll be able to try wines with similar flavor profiles as you expand your palate.

WHAT IS A GOOD WHITE WINE THAT ISN'T TOO SWEET?

If you don't like sweet wines, this means you have a preference for dry wines. Try something considered "off-dry" first, like a riesling or chenin blanc. If that still feels too sweet, go for something drier like a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or chablis. If you're looking for a sparkling wine that aisn't too sweet, try a bottle that is considered "dry." This would be options like cava, or champagne and sparkling rosé that are defined as brut or extra brut.

WHAT IS THE BEST SWEET WINE FOR BEGINNERS?

If you're looking for a wine that is on the sweeter side, you've got a lot of options. Look for any bottle that is considered "semi-sweet," "sweet" or "very sweet." An example of a semi sweet wine would be moscato. This is a pretty sweet wine, so consider trying a moscato to see if that is sweet enough for you. If not, up the sweetness. Examples of sweet wines would be a wine that was harvested late, giving the grapes enough time to produce even more natural sugars. Very sweet wines are dessert wines. Think port, for example. For a sweet sparkling wine, consider any bottle that says "sweet." 

WHAT KIND OF GLASS SHOULD YOU DRINK WHITE WINE OUT OF?

There are a lot of wine glass shapes out there so this can be confusing. The general notion though, is that white wine is served in a medium sized wine glass with a u-shaped bowl.These help to highlight the aromas of the wine and keep it cool. When you're drinking a white wine with a creamy texture, go for a white wine glass with a larger bowl. These help highlight the wine's texture.

WHAT IS THE BEST WHITE WINE TO USE IN COOKING?

The most versatile wine to cook with is dry wines - think sauvignon blanc, or pinot grigio. You can certainly cook with richer or sweeter wines, and some recipes call for them specifically, but follow the instructions carefully as they can become bitter during the cooking process.