The Most Popular White Grape Varieties
Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio are the most important and popular white grape varieties today. The wines made from these grapes can be varietal wines, or place-name wines that don’t mention the grape variety anywhere on the label (a common practice for European wines). White grapes can also be blending partners for other grapes, in wines made from multiple grape varieties.
Chardonnay is a regal grape for its role in producing the greatest dry white wines in the world — white Burgundies — and for being one of the main grapes of Champagne. It's also used in a huge amount of everyday wine. The Chardonnay grape grows in practically every wine-producing country of the world, for two reasons:
It’s relatively adaptable to a wide range of climates; and
The name Chardonnay on a wine label is a surefire sales tool
Most Chardonnay wine receives some oak treatment either during or after fermentation. This is because the flavors of Chardonnay are very compatible with those of oak, and many wine drinkers love the flavor of oak. For the best Chardonnays, oak treatment means expensive barrels of French oak; but for lower-priced Chardonnays it could mean soaking oak chips in the wine or adding liquid essence of oak.
The Chardonnay grape has fruity aromas and flavors that range from apple — in cooler wine regions — to tropical fruits, especially pineapple, in warmer regions. Chardonnay also can display subtle earthy aromas, such as mushroom or minerals. Chardonnay wine has medium to high acidity and is generally full-bodied. Classically, Chardonnay wines are dry. But most inexpensive Chardonnays these days are actually a bit sweet.
The great Riesling wines of Germany have put the Riesling grape on the charts as an undisputedly noble variety. Riesling shows its real class only in a few places outside of Germany, however. The Alsace region of France, Austria, and the Clare Valley region of Australia are among the few.
The common perception of Riesling wines is that they’re sweet, and many of them are — but plenty of them aren’t. Alsace Rieslings are normally dry, many German Rieslings are fairly dry, and a few American Rieslings are dry. Look for the word trocken (meaning dry) on German Riesling labels and the word dry on American labels if you prefer the dry style of Riesling.
Riesling wines are often light-bodied, crisp, and refreshing. High acidity, low to medium alcohol levels, and aromas/flavors that range from ebulliently fruity to flowery to minerally are trademarks of Riesling.
Sauvignon Blanc is high in acidity with pronounced aromas and flavors. Besides herbaceous character (sometimes referred to as grassy), Sauvignon Blanc wines display mineral aromas and flavors, vegetal character, or — in certain climates — fruity character, such as ripe melon, figs, or passion fruit. The wines are light- to medium-bodied and usually dry. Most of them are unoaked, but some are oaky.
France has two classic wine regions for the Sauvignon Blanc grape: Bordeaux; and the Loire Valley, where the two best known Sauvignon wines are called Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is sometimes blended with Sémillon.
Sauvignon Blanc is also important in Northeastern Italy, South Africa, and parts of California, where the wines are sometimes labeled as Fumé Blanc. New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc wines in particular are renowned for their fresh, flavorful style.
Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio
Pinot Gris (gree) is one of several grape varieties called Pinot: There’s Pinot Blanc (white Pinot), Pinot Noir (black Pinot), Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Gris (gray Pinot), which is called Pinot Grigio in Italian. Pinot Gris is believed to have mutated from the black Pinot Noir grape. Although it’s considered a white grape, its skin color is unusually dark for a white variety.
Wines made from Pinot Gris can be deeper in color than most white wines — although most of Italy’s Pinot Grigio wines are quite pale. Pinot Gris wines are medium- to full-bodied, usually not oaky, and have rather low acidity and fairly neutral aromas. Sometimes the flavor and aroma can suggest the skins of fruit, such as peach skins or orange rind.
Pinot Gris is an important grape throughout Northeastern Italy and also grows in Germany, where it is called Ruländer. The only region in France where Pinot Gris is important is in Alsace. Oregon has had good success with Pinot Gris, and more and more winemakers in California are taking a shot at it. Pinot Grigio is one of the best-selling inexpensive white wines in the United States.