From Rieslings with high sugar content to bone-dry Sauvignon Blanc, white wine varies in texture, density, and flavor profiles. How much do you know about the world’s white wines and white wine regions? Read on to learn the major white wine varietals and white wine producing regions.
Major White Wine Varietals and Regions
Any wine that contains bubbles of carbon dioxide gas is considered a sparkling wine, but technically, only those wines from France’s Champagne region can be called “champagne.”
How does wine get its bubbles? There are four ways of infusing the wine with gas: methode champenoise, the transfer method, the charmat process, (aka bulk process), and the least popular, carbonation. Below is a brief overview of each process; read our Guide to Champagne and Sparkling Wine for details.
- Methode champenoise: The wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. Bottles are turned periodically to ensure proper aging and fermentation. This process produces small, refined bubbles.
- Transfer method: Wine is produced similarly to the methode champenoise, but after the bottle fermentation, the wine undergoes filtration to remove sediment.
- Charmat: Pressurized tanks capture carbon dioxide released during fermentation, forcing gas which normally escapes during fermenation to instead stay inside the wine.
- Carbonation: The wine is injected with carbon dioxide.
Sparkling wines will be dry or sweet depending on how much residual sugar they contain. The absolute driest wine is labeled “extra brut.” They are drier than wines labeled “extra dry” or “extra sec” because they contain less residual sugar. Next in line comes “demi-sec” and then “doux.” The last two are considered dessert wines.
When drinking sparkling wines, look for general flavors like citrus, (or lemon), honey, apple, toast, and yeast.
Also known as Pinot Gris,* these wines can vary from the crisp, light, and dry Italian Pinot Gris to the more rich, honey flavored French Alsatian style wines (wines made from the Alsace region). U.S. and California Pinot Grigio is rare, and the wine will vary in style from winery to winery. They are perfect for hot summer days.
*“Gris” is French for gray. You’ll notice that the wine will have a slightly gray tint.
Riesling is known for its balance of acid and sugar levels, making it sweet, but also a great pairing for many dishes. They generally have a spicy, fruity flavor, (mainly peach and apricot fruits), and possess a floral bouquet on the nose, and then a long finish.
There are many different styles of Rieslings, from dry to very sweet. German style Rieslings tend to be sweeter, which California Rieslings can vary from the more German style to a dry and oaky wine. Generally, California produces lighter Rieslings with a medium sweetness. Rieslings also make for a great late harvest dessert wine.
The word “gewurtz” means “spiced” in German, and that’s what you should think of when you think of Gewurztraminer. Although the wine is sweeter, (and people often group them with Rieslings), Gewurztraminer holds its own because it offers a crispness and a spice alongside its floral attributes. Many Gewurztraminers have rose and floral notes, with clove and nutmeg qualities.
Like Riesling, Gewurztraminer wines can vary in levels of sweetness, from dry to medium-sweet to late harvest. It’s best when drunk young.
When you think of the Sauvignon Blanc grape, one thing should always come to mind: acidity. Most Sauvignon Blancs possess this quality, and many also have prominent crispness, and grassy and herbaceous flavors.
Sauvignon Blanc is another dominant grape in France. It is the most prominent white grape in France’s Bordeaux region. Often, the French mix it with the Semillon grape—a dry, white grape that is grown in the same region—and age it in oak barrels. Those are the characteristics of a Bordeaux style white wine.
Robert Mondavi began aging his Sauvignon Blancs in oak, which can take away from the crispness. He called this “new” wine Fume Blanc, but it is actually just the Sauvignon Blanc grape that has been fermented in a different style. The alternative is fermenting the wine in steel, which can give the wine that mineral quality that steel tanks often lend to a wine. However it is made, whether it’s crisp and acidic or slightly oaked, Sauvignon Blanc is the second best selling grape in California, second only to Chardonnay.
Chardonnay gained its reputation from the French Burgundy region, but the Burgundy and the stereotypical “California style” Chardonnays are very different. Typically, the grape produces butter, cream, nutty, smoky, vanilla, and oak flavors, which can usually be found alongside apple, lemon/citrus, melon and pineapple fruit flavors. A typical California style Chardonnay will have a lot of oak flavor to it, while the Burgundy style Chardonnays will be more crisp, and you will find a lot more of the fruit coming through. This is only a generalization, of course: there are many California wineries producing a Burgundy style Chardonnay.
Chardonnay fermented solely in steel tanks will be very crisp and can sometimes have a mineral/steel flavor to them. If you are not a fan of this traditional, oaky California style, then I suggest searching out a Chardonnay that has been fermented in steel tanks, or perhaps aged in oak only slightly after fermentation.
Just like Chardonnay is associated with the Burgundy region of France, Viognier is also associated with a specific region in France: the Rhone region. The Rhone River itself begins in the Swiss Alps and goes throughout France, and along its river are some great growing regions, including the Rhone region, which obviously gets its name from the river that runs through it. Viognier is the primary white grape for the Rhone region, and it is often the primary grape in Rhone blends. To learn more about Rhone blends, research the other two predominant grapes from the same region: Marsanne and Roussanne.
Viognier is a dry, full bodied white wine, but its flavors differ from that of the Chardonnay grape. Viognier tends to have more floral notes, with apricot, pear and peach fruits as opposed to the apple/melon flavors of the Chardonnay grape. It’s sometimes blended with Syrah, which is a typical practice in France.