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It is easy to fall in love with wine. In fact, people have been doing it for thousands of years. The first wines were made in China almost 9000 years ago from a mixture of grapes and rice1, and humans have been infatuated since then. Ancient Greeks even had a god of wine (Dionysus), and even Benjamin Franklin had an infamous wine collection. Wine makes appearances throughout history, but it also just tastes great. So, where do you start?
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Today, there are nearly 2,000 different types of wine produced all across the world. With thousands of years of history and such a wide range of wines in production, learning more about it can feel intimidating.
We’re here to help you gain a better understanding of wine. This guide focuses on the basics of white wines, how they’re made, and ways to get even more enjoyment from them. You’re likely already familiar with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but what about Gewürtzaminer and Viognier? Grab a glass of something (Chenin Blanc, perhaps?) and get ready to learn a bit.
Most White Wines are made using the same basic process, although there are many variations a winemaker may use to help produce a quality result.
Step 1: Press Grapes
While wine can be made from just about any fruit, the overwhelming majority of quality wines are made from grapes. Winemakers crush grapes to extract the grape juice. This grape juice is then separated and sent to the next step in the process. In most white wines, the leftover pulp from the grape’s stems and skins is discarded.
Step 2: Ferment Grape Juice
Fermentation is the process of allowing yeast to eat the sugars in the grape juice. When yeast eats these sugars, they produce alcohol as a byproduct.
Step 3: Age in Cask (Optional)
Some winemakers choose to age their wines in casks. While this is common for red wines, many white wines skip this process. Cask aging allows the wine to absorb some of the wood’s flavors (often oak and tannin), resulting in a fuller-bodied wine. Since white wines often have a more delicate flavor and aromas, winemakers choose to highlight these qualities.
Step 4: Filter & Bottle
Once the wine has been fermented (and aged if necessary), it is then filtered and bottled. At this stage, the winemaker will make final modifications, such as adding sugar or sulfites to the wine. The bottle is stopped with either a cork or screw top and then labeled. Many wines are drinkable immediately after this!
Of course, this process has many nuances. Winemakers have many ways to control the outcome through every stage of the process. From the way the grapevines are pruned at the beginning to the final treatment of the wine before it’s bottled, every action impacts the end product.
It may come as a surprise to you, but white wine isn’t only made from green grapes. Red and even deep purple/black grapes can also produce white wines. The juice from most grapes types tends to be light and relatively clear. After the grapes are pressed, the winemaker may choose to leave the juice in contact with the skins and stems. This process gives red wines their color, so avoiding this step allows red grapes to produce white wine.
Today, white wine is produced on every continent except Antarctica. Certain countries have become known for making different types of white wines. France and California have become known for creating Chardonnay. New Zealand, South Africa, and France are known for their Sauvignon Blanc. Germany and South Africa are famous for riesling.
There are many more wines and wine-producing countries than those listed above, but this illustrates two points.
Understanding where wine is made and how location influences its flavor is a bit complex for this article, but we will be focusing on that in a future guide.
There are a number of different factors that may determine what kind of white wine a wine is, but most commonly the grape used is the most influential factor. For example, Chardonnay is made from the Chardonnay grape, regardless of where in the world it is made.
Where a wine is made and other aspects of the production process can also determine what type of wine the finished product is considered. For example, Champagne is also made using the Chardonnay grape, but uses a different production process and must be produced in the Champagne region of France.2
If you’re just starting to explore wine, we suggest starting with commonly available wines such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Each of the wines has distinct characteristics that will help you learn the basics and know what you want in various situations.
Flavor Profile: Sweet, floral, fruity, acidic
Location: Germany, Austria, South Africa
Flavor Profile: Dry, grassy, minerally
Location: New Zealand, South Africa, France
Flavor Profile: Slightly sweet, floral, spicy
Location: France, Italy, Australia, Germany
Flavor Profile: Dry, fruity, buttery
Location: California, France
Similar to understanding wine regions, understanding wine tasting can be a bit complex and intimidating at first. Wine Enthusiast Magazine has a wonderful article on How to Taste Wine that goes a lot deeper, but here’s our quick guide to understanding the flavors in white wine.
Perhaps the most important thing to recognize when starting to understand wine tasting is the body. Body describes how much of a presence wine has when it’s in your mouth. Wines with higher alcohol, oak, tannin, and sugar tend to be described as “full-bodied.” White wines can range from light to full-bodied but are typically lighter-bodied than their red counterparts.
White wines can have an immense range of flavors, from herbaceous, grassy flavors, to fruit, to mineral notes like slate and gravel. These flavors can either be prominent in the wine and steal the show, or they can be part of a complex range of flavors where each is subtle and delicate. In general, white wines tend to be sweeter, more acidic, and less tannic (bitter) than red wines. Although there are certainly exceptions, it’s a good place to start your understanding of white wine.
The flavors in any wine come down to an interaction of many different factors. The type of grapes the wine is made from, where they’re grown, and the climate in that location, and every step in the winemaking process has an impact. Certain grapes can only grow in a particular type of climate, so a type of wine that is great in Australia may not be able to be grown in North France. Even the weather in a particular growing season can change the flavors in a wine. Cold weather causes grapes to produce a naturally higher level of sugar. This results in a wine that is sweeter and/or higher alcohol content since there are more sugars for the yeast to eat. This is one reason a Riesling from Germany is usually quite a bit sweeter than an Italian Pinot Grigio
Food and wine can be great friends, but pairing them can get tricky. Have you ever tried one of your favorite wines with a new food, only to be surprised that it tastes different? Wine can actually change the way you perceive food and vice versa.
Expert sommeliers can make sure you get the perfect pairing to match your dish at a nice restaurant, but we have some easy tips to make sure you pick a winning combination at home.
Conventional wisdom says to pair white wines with fish and chicken and red wines with meat, but there really are no strict rules when it comes to pairing white wines with food. Trial and error is a great way to learn. We got some suggestions from wine experts on some more unconventional wine pairings they like:
“Strawberry pop-tarts and a Gewurztraminer from Alsace. Breakfast of champions! Alsatian Gewurtz not only tends to have stunning aromatics to rival the tangy strawberry in a freshly toasted pop-tart, but there’s also a rich viscosity that rolls around in your mouth with the pastry perfectly.” – Coly Den Haan, Owner & Sommelier at Vinovore
“Sauvignon Blanc and guacamole make a delicious snack combination. The herbal flavors in Sauvignon Blanc bring out the fresh, herbal flavors in the guacamole. Sauvignon Blanc is also a great match for corn tortilla chips” – Kristin Anderson, Editor at WineBuyingGuide.com
Different wines are best served at different temperatures. White wines are typically best between 38˚ and 55˚ (Fahrenheit), which means they can be chilled and kept in your normal refrigerator. Wine Folly has a useful guide on which wines should fall into a particular temperature range. Serving wine at the correct temperature allows you to experience different parts of a wine’s complex aromas and flavor.
Your normal refrigerator will be a bit too cold for full-bodied white wines like Chardonnay and Rousanne. You can store them in the fridge, but it’s helpful to pull them out and allow them to warm slightly before serving. Otherwise, they will naturally warm up a bit as they sit in your glass. This is fine and will allow you to get a wider range of flavors.
We don’t want to be snobs, but we’re going to draw the line on this one. No, you should not add ice to chill your wine. As the ice melts, it dilutes the wine and drowns out the more subtle flavors. Plus, the water the ice is made of has its own flavors, which can taint the flavor of the wine.
The standard serving size for a glass of white wine is 5 oz (125 ml.). White wine glasses are often much larger than this, but it can be considered tacky to serve excessively large pours.
We’re big proponents of drinking wine out of whatever glass or cup makes you happy. There’s nothing wrong with curling up with a book at night and drinking wine out of a coffee mug. With that being said, the glass you use DOES impact the way a wine smells and tastes. A white wine glass is typically narrower than a red glass, giving the wine less exposed surface area. This provides slower evaporation of the alcohol, allowing you to pick up on the more subtle flavors and aromas.
If you really want your glassware to enhance your wine drinking experience, then we have a slight preference towards stemware. Holding a wine glass by the stem prevents you from warming the wine in the bowl of the glass. This keeps your wine at the proper temperature for longer.
Stemless wine glasses are great for people who have pets and children since they’re harder to knock over and break. They also are a great fit for parties because of this.
Certain glass shapes work particularly well for certain wine varietals because they allow the vapors from the wine to flow into your nose and the wine itself to flow into your mouth in a particular way. This has resulted in the more recent trend of creating wine glasses for each type of wine. A riesling glass has a different shape than an unoaked chardonnay, which has a different shape than an oaked chardonnay glass.
“Simply put, you can drastically change the taster’s perception of the wine simply by how the wine is delivered onto the palate. The aromas of the wine are also perceived drastically different when drinking a cabernet out of a small short bowled piece of stemware such as a chardonnay glass, versus when you have a large tall bowled glass designed for cabernet or Bordeaux.” – Chef Sean Andrade, Certified Master Chef at AWG Private Chefs.
These glasses are absolutely not essential, but they can be a fun way to improve your experience.
Want to learn about red wine? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Red Wine!
We’re in the process of creating more resources and guides to help you learn and enjoy wine. If there’s a particular question you want answered, let us know in the comments below!
Serving Temperature of Wine – https://winefolly.com/tips/white-red-wine-temperature/
Come hangout! We’ll email you once in awhile with food updates.