If you're new to the world of white wine, it can feel intimidating to get started. With so many choices, the best way to start is to take your time and enjoy the taste testing!
White wines come in many flavors, with many subtle differences in notes, accents and flavor. Because wine is produced in so many different regions and climates, no two bottles are the same. You may even find that you prefer a certain vintage (or year) more than another, simply because the conditions of the climate during the year the grapes were grown and harvested were particularly pleasing to your palette.
In this guide, we'll go over the main types of white wine as well as the flavor profiles for each, so you can be confident the next time you need to pick out the perfect bottle of Chardonnay.
Styles of white wine
White wine comes in a number of different styles and varietals. These styles include everything from light, dry, herbaceous or sweet. Unlike the bolder aspects of red wines, white wines often embody a lighter, more acidic taste, often with strong fruity and floral accents.
For white wines, alcohol levels are usually in the range of 5-15%; however, the average level of alcohol is about 10%. This is less than red wine due to the reduced level of sugar in the grapes, which converts to ethanol at a lower rate.
What white wine is best for beginners?
Your individual flavor preferences should guide you on where to start. If you are drawn to something sweet, try a Moscato. Do you enjoy citrus? Try a Chardonnay. If you prefer to stay away from anything sweet, this likely means you'll enjoy a “dry" wine. Some of the most popular dry wines are Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc.
Breaking down the different types of white wine
Below you'll find some of the most popular white wines broken down by flavor profile.
Bold and dry white wine
Dry wine simply means that the flavor is not sweet and does not contain residual sugars from the grapes. Below are some options in this category.
Prominent flavors: White peach, green apple, lemon, basil
Originating in Italy and France, Trebbiano is derived from those region's top grapes called Ugni Blanc. These grapes are often used in brandy and balsamic vinegar because of their bold and flavorful profile.
Prominent flavors: Apple, pineapple, vanilla, butter, crème brûlée
Chardonnay is considered one of the most popular white wines, made from one of the most widely grown and versatile grapes in France. In the last few decades, California Chardonnays are in high demand. Many of them spend time in oak barrels, often imparting a toasty vanilla character.
Prominent flavors: Peach, tangerine and honeysuckle, vanilla
Viognier hails from southern France. Often described as lightly perfumed and spritzy, you'll find this wine can range in intensity depending on which winery produced it. If you like Chardonnay, you'll most likely enjoy this one as well.
Light & dry white wine
When a wine is described as light, it means that it feels lighter in the mouth and typically contains lower alcohol levels compared to a heavier bodied wine. Here are some suggestions in this category.
Prominent flavors: Lemon, lime, pear, apple, nectarine, honeysuckle
Throughout the world, a typical bottle of Pinot Grigio is considered simple, crisp and classic. The dry aspects of its profile seem to delight most wine lovers. This wine pairs great with something creamy and salty.
Prominent flavors: Persimmon, mandarin orange, apple, lemon verbena
Known as a great table or dessert wine, Chenin Blanc is incredibly versatile because it can come as sparkling, still or sweet. Hailing from the popular Loire Valley of France, you can't go wrong with this light and refreshing option.
Prominent flavors: Green apple, pear, lemon, and other citrus fruits
Chablis, made from Chardonnay, is most noted for being fermented and aged in stainless steel instead of traditional oak barrels. And due to the grapes being grown in a cool climate with chalky soils, some describe Chablis as having notes of gunflint and wet stones.
Herbaceous white wine
Herbaceous wines offer flavors and aromas that embody herbs. Here are just a few.
Prominent flavors: Lemonade, white melon, grapefruit and lime blossom
If you love bright acidity and a lower alcohol content, this is a great choice – especially in warmer seasons when you want something subtle and refreshing with summery flavors. Vinho Verde originated in Portugal.
Prominent flavors: White peach, lime and green apple
Sauvignon Blanc originates from the famous wine region of Bordeaux, France, but the grape varietal is now grown all over the world. Sancerre is the most recognizable area for Sauvignon Blanc in the Loire Valley. This wine can have quite a vast spectrum of styles including herbaceous, fruity or even tropical. You'll find it has a broad appeal for wine lovers.
Prominent flavors: Lemon, grapefruit, tarragon, ginger and honey
Sometimes described as having a slightly tingly aftertaste, this white wine - originating in Austria - is one of the best in terms of bang for your buck. Well made bottles are surprisingly affordable and a great option for wowing any dinner guest.
Sweet & semi sweet white wine
There are a range of white wines that are considered sweet. The level of sweetness you prefer is a learning experience. But sweetness in wine is achieved by balancing the sugar and alcohol content with a contrasting acids and tannins. Here are several popular choices.
Flavors: Orange, pear, lemon and honeysuckle
If you're looking to dive into the sweet wines, definitely add a Moscato to your cart. Moscatos embody unique combinations of sweet and citrusy. The origin of this grape is quite old and can be traced back to Greece.
Prominent flavors: Apricot, apple, lemon, lime, pear and pineapple
Rieslings are a much lighter, fruitier version of a Chardonnay and originated in the Rhine region of Germany. This variety can have many expressions inspired largely by the region and the winemaker. Riesling's taste profiles may become even more desirable as they age.
Prominent flavors: Rose, peppermint, almond, lemon and a slight hint of citrus
Made from a pink-skinned Grecian grape, Moschofilero has a wide-ranging expression, anchored by hints of floral. This wine is nicknamed “The Chameleon" because of its range.
Sparkling wines are not just for special occasions anymore. These versatile wines are great for pairing with a meal because the bubbles act as a reset for your palette. The flavors tend to be bright, crisp, fizzy and fruity without being overly sweet. The bubbles are caused by the high levels of carbon dioxide, which may be the result of natural fermentation in a bottle or tank, or, as is the case with more affordable sparkling wines, they are injected with the carbon dioxide.
Prominent flavors: Peach, cherry, citrus, almond, cream, and toast
Perhaps the most famous sparkling wine of all, it can only be called Champagne if it comes from the region of Champagne, France. Another designation is that Champagne is only made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes. Though all Champagne is considered sparkling, not all sparkling wine can be called Champagne. The name is defined by the geographical location rather than the style in which it's made.
Prominent flavors: Lemon, citrus, green apple, and pear
Sparkling wines that come from the Veneto region of Italy are called Prosecco. They're known for having larger bubbles and offer a range of sweetness, which is described as extra brut to dry. Prosecco is considered a more affordable cousin to Champagne because it's produced in tanks rather than by the bottle, which means it's less labor intensive. A glass of this bubbly is a nice light option for any night of the week.
Prominent flavors: Lemon, lime, almond, fig, baked apple
Made in Spain, Cava has a dry, zesty and sometimes creamy taste, with smaller bubbles. Cava is produced in the same way as Champagne, but uses different grapes–primarily the Macabeu grape, which leads to a less acidic taste. Pair this wine with Spanish tapas or a charcuterie board with various cheeses.
How is white wine made?
White wine can be made from either red or white grapes without the skins. Once the grapes are harvested, the skins get removed and the grapes are pressed and juiced using wine presses. The next step is fermentation, when yeast is added. This process converts sugar to alcohol and produces carbon dioxide and heat. The winemaker must decide how much heating, cooling, aerating and stirring they want until the fermentation process is complete. After an aging process–which can be accomplished in barrels, stainless steel containers or concrete vessels–the wine is ready for bottling, taking careful attention not to add any oxygen.
Choosing a white wine is much easier when you break down their styles into dry, herbaceous and sweet. Depending on your taste preferences, you'll have plenty to choose from in each of those categories. White wine continues to be a popular mainstay in the wine racks of homes across the world.