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3. White grape varieties

By Mark Andrew

There are far, far too many white grape varieties to even list here, let alone profile. Instead, I've selected the most famous - you'll find these on wine labels all over the world.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay hails from Burgundy in France and is the variety used to make most white wines from the region, including famous names such as Chablis and Puligny-Montrachet. The new world has also been growing Chardonnay for many years and it is now the most harvested grape variety in Australia, New Zealand and California. Un-oaked Chardonnay (of which Chablis is an example) tends to be very dry with a crisp character that can make the wine feel like it is gripping your tongue. If Chardonnay is oaked during production, the wine will have a deeper colour and aromas of vanilla and butter. New world Chardonnay tend to be oaked and the wines often lose some of the elegance and grip that we see in wines from cooler climates.

No discussion of Chardonnay would be complete without mentioning Champagne, where it is one of the leading varieties in the blend. Some Champagne is made solely from Chardonnay and these are called ‘Blanc des Blancs’.

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio in Italy) can often make very aromatic, slightly honeyed dry wines in Alsace, with citrus and orchard fruits, and a hint of spice. Good Italian PG (usually from the Friuli region) shows a dry and crisp character with a more citrusy flavour profile. Italy also produces a lot of soulless PG that is bland and uninteresting. This is often due to high-yields, which reduces the intensity of the grapes and creates insipid wine. In the new world, Oregon in the USA and parts of New Zealand have emerged as areas of real potential to produce excellent Pinot Gris.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is a very versatile grape with high acidity that can be used to create a number of different styles of white wine, although it is best known in three guises: bone dry, sparkling or lusciously sweet. It is in France’s Loire Valley that the best examples of these styles are to be found. Chenin has not been widely adopted in the new world, with South Africa being the only place to really embrace the grape. After years of unfulfilled potential, we are now seeing an improvement in the quality and consistency of South African Chenin (or Steen as it is often referred to) and some excellent examples are emerging.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc has done extremely well in the new world, where it is grown in a number of countries and has excelled in the cool climate of New Zealand. The legendary Cloudy Bay established the template of Kiwi Sauvignon that is full of tropical fruit, gooseberries, asparagus and freshly mown grass. While many drinkers have embraced the New World interpretation of Sauvignon, fans of the great Sauvignons from Loire Valley appellations Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé would cite producers like François Cotat and the late Didier Dagueneau as the global benchmark. The fruit and vegetal flavours here are less aggressive and the flinty minerality makes for wines that are beautifully refreshing.

Riesling

Without doubt the best examples of German wine come from Riesling, and areas such as the Rheingau and Mosel have been home to the grape’s leading proponents for the last 500 years. It is also produced with some aplomb in Alsace, Austria and Australia, where winemakers in the Clare and Eden Valleys produce the best dry Riesling in the New World. Riesling is a very versatile grape that can produce both bone dry and sweet wines of superb quality. The best of these are loaded with subtle fruit flavours of limes, peaches, apricots and apples, matched with a searing acidity and minerality that does a fantastic job of cleansing the palate.

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