Understanding White Wine
Sometimes I feel like a walking encyclopedia of wine. Be it white, red, rosé or sparkling, friends and family ask me so many questions about wine. I don’t mind, but it also made me realize I should write down the answers in an organized fashion so even folks who don’t know me can find the answers to their wine questions too.
There is so much to know about wine, so I’m going to start with information about just white wine and see where that takes us.
What is White Wine?
White wine can be made from either white or red grapes, as the definition of white wine is a wine made with grapes fermented without skin contact. When a grape is squeezed to release its juice, if it has contact with the skin, the juice will take on color from the skins. Most white wines are made from white grapes, which are technically shades of green or yellow-green. The pulp of these grapes is colorless, so the juice when squeezed has very little color.
During the process of releasing the juice from the grape, some of the pigment from the skin is released into the juice. This is how white wines have traces of color.
White Wine from Red Grapes
Although White Zinfandel and White Pinot Noir are made from red grapes, they are white wines because they don’t have skin contact during fermentation. Just as with white grapes, a small trace of the pigment from the grape will be extracted during the pressing process to extract the skins and seeds from the juice. This small amount of skin contact will give White Zinfandel a light rose colored hue, and a White Pinot Noir may be honey colored. There are other white wines made from red grapes including many sparkling wines like Blanc de Noirs, which is made from Pinot Noir or a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Types of White Wine Grapes
Although white wine can be made from almost any wine grape, I’m only going to focus on grapes that are technically listed as white wine grapes. Most folks think there aren’t many white wine grapes, but that’s not the case. For many years, California grape growers focused on only producing a few white varieties of grapes, like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Chenin Blanc.
Over time as the demand for white wines increased, wineries wanted to offer more white varietals, so growers started planting a wider variety of white grapes. Today in California, there are more than 40 varieties of white wine grapes grown and produced into varietal wines or blends. [Note: when referring to a grape type it’s called a variety, but when it’s produced into a wine, it’s referred to as a varietal. Yes, it’s confusing.]
List of White Wine Grapes
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every white wine grape planted in California, but this is many of them. Some you’ll recognize and some you may not.
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
If all the white wine varieties grown in the world were listed, they’d be hundreds of them!
Characteristics of White Wine
When you want to drink something light and refreshing, you think about a white wine. Crisp acidity is the hallmarks of many white wines. These wines might have flavors of citrus—lemon, lime, grapefruit or mandarin— or stone fruit like nectarine, peach and green plum. Or, they may embody flavors of apple, pear or fig. There are many white wines that fit into the crisp, refreshing category, but there are also white wines with traits that allow the wine to pair well with a variety of foods, including more robust meals.
In addition to some white wines being light and refreshing, others might be fuller and bold with a creamy, rounded palate rather than offering crisp acidity. These white wines, like Chardonnay, Marsanne, Roussanne or Viognier, might go through barrel fermentation, barrel aging and malolactic fermentation to add depth and character to the flavors.
You might also find some white wines with an almost herbaceous quality. These wines are perfect for pairing with green vegetables, salads and meals made with a lot of fresh herbs.
Some white wines tend to be more fruit forward, and even when made in a dry style, they are perceived as sweet white wines. Wines made from Gewürztraminer, Riesling or Muscat grapes will have plenty of bright, fresh fruit characteristics and can be made in a sweet, semi-sweet or dry style.
Due to the limited contact with the grape’s skin, white wines will naturally have little to no tannins. Tannins are what add bitterness or astringency to red wines. Tannins also provide texture, balance and structure to a wine, which is why red wines are perceived as being fuller and more robust than white wines. The lack of tannins is why white wines are so easy to sip and are perfect for enjoying when friends gather, or paired with appetizers or lighter meals.
White Wine Production
Producing a white wine is slightly different than a red wine, and most white wines can be produced and bottled in a much shorter time than most red wines.
Harvesting and Crushing
The first step to producing a white wine is sourcing the grapes from a grower and waiting for the grapes to reach full maturity. Although white wine grapes traditionally are harvested before red grapes, in some locations and growing seasons, this rule of thumb doesn’t hold true. When a grape ripens depends upon the vineyard’s location and the climate in that location. If a vineyard planted to Chardonnay is located in a fog belt and doesn’t get sun until late morning and the fog often rolls back in by early evening, those grapes might ripen after a Zinfandel vineyard just a few miles away that gets 10-12 hours a day of sunshine and heat.
Determining the Moment to Harvest
There are a couple of factors that determine when a grape is harvest ready. Brix, or the sugar level in the grape’s juice, should be between 20- and 24-degrees equals one gram of sugar per 100 grams of liquid. A refractometer is the tool used to measure the brix in a crush grape or in the juice of the grape.
The other factor that many winemakers swear by is the color of the grape’s seeds. An unripe grape will have pale and undeveloped seeds. As the grape matures, the seeds will change from green to light brown. This visual test, along with tasting the grape, looking at the grape’s color and checking the pH level are all clues to help grapegrowers and winemakers determine the optimal time to pick the grapes.
It’s Time to Harvest
When the time is right to harvest, the grapegrower schedules a crew to either pick or machine harvest the grapes in the early morning hours, or at night. Grapes, especially white grapes, need to be picked at cooler temperatures to retain their acidity, which translates to a fresher tasting white wine.
Crushing and Pressing the Fruit
When the grapes arrive at the winery, they may go through a sorting process to remove items like twigs, leaves, unripened grapes, bugs or other items that were harvested along with the ripe grapes. Smaller wineries will sort by hand, a laborious process, but one that ensures only the best fruit is crushed and made into wine. Larger wineries are now employing optical sorters that use high-speed cameras and image-processing software that quickly scan and sort destemmed grapes.
After sorting is completed, the grapes are placed into a destemmer-crusher that removes the stems and gently breaks the skin. Next, the grapes are carefully pressed to extract the juice from the skins, pulp and seeds. This juice, referred to as must, moves on to the fermentation process.
Some winemakers, before pressing the grapes, opt to do a cold-soak or pre-fermentation maceration. This step releases additional aromas and flavors from the skins into the juice. This process might be used on a Chardonnay or aromatic whites.
Before fermentation can begin, the must is chilled and allowed to settle, which permits the solids — tiny remnants of grape skins, pulp and seeds that remain in the juice — to fall to the bottom of the tank. These solids are racked off, leaving the clear juice ready to start the fermentation process.
Fermentation is what turns grape juice or must into wine. During fermentation, yeast transforms the sugars in the juice into alcohol. The yeast can be the natural yeasts, also called native yeasts, from the vineyards that are present on the grapes, or can be cultured yeasts selected specifically for that fermentation process and added to the must. Cultured yeasts are easier to control and can ensure a more consistent fermentation. Winemakers who opt for native yeasts do so because the native yeasts infuse another layer of the vineyard’s terroir into the wine’s aromas and flavors. However, native yeasts can also make fermentation more challenging, which is why not all winemakers opt to use native yeasts when making wine.
Most white wines are fermented in stainless steel or another type of inert container. However, for Chardonnay, winemakers may ferment in oak barrels to add another element of complexity and flavor to the wine. White wines are generally fermented at cooler temperatures (50°F to 65°F) than red wines (75°F to 85°F), as cooler temperatures help preserve the fruit aromas and flavors.
Once the yeast has converted all the sugars to alcohol, fermentation is complete and the result is a dry wine. If the goal is to have a sweet or semi-sweet white wine, the winemaker will stop the fermentation before all the sugars are converted to alcohol. Stopping the fermentation maintains the residual sugar left in the wine.
After fermentation, some wines, like Chardonnay, may go through a process known as malolactic fermentation, also referred to as ML. Though called a fermentation, it is actually the conversion of tart malic acid into the softer lactic acid. This process gives wines a rounded mouthfeel and can add a buttery note to the flavors.
After fermentation is complete, the newly made wine contains dead yeast cells, called lees, suspended in the liquid. As the wine is left to settle, the lees fall to the bottom of the fermentation container and can easily be racked off. Racking is transferring wine from one container, like a stainless-steel tank or oak barrel, to another similar container, leaving the sediment in the first container once the wine is transferred out of it. The first racking will get what is known as the gross lees. Additional rackings may be required to get what is referred to as the fine lees.
The majority, if not all, the lees are racked off the new white wine to help keep the crisp bright acidity. However, winemakers may choose to leave the wine on the fine lees for a few weeks to up to a year. These wines will be periodically stirred to move the lees throughout the wine. Eventually, the fine lees are allowed to settle to the bottom of the tank or container and are also racked off. Aging a wine on the lees will add texture and complexity. Chardonnay is one of the white wines that is often left to age on the lees, especially if it’s barrel fermented and aged.
Post-fermentation, most white wines are clarified, meaning the lees and other particles are removed, and then the wine is placed in either stainless steel tanks or oak barrels to age.
The step of blending is done after the wine has had some time to age, and prior to bottling. Blending can be the mixing of wine lots from different vineyards or vineyard blocks, or mixing wine that was fermented and aged in barrels with the same varietal that was fermented and aged in stainless steel to create a more balanced flavor profile. Blending can also be the mixing of different varietals together to create a unique wine, such as a blend of three different varietals like Vermentino, Verdelho and Vernaccia, known at Peterson Winery as 3V White Wine Blend.
The winemaking team will spend many hours perfecting a blend before a final decision is made. If a varietal is not going through the blending process, the winemaker will still taste from every tank and barrel multiple times to ensure the wine is aging well and determine when it will be ready to bottle.
White wines often have a brief window of time between harvest and bottling, sometimes only a few months. Prior to bottling, winemakers often put white wines through a cold stabilization process. The wine is chilled down to a point just above freezing (32°F) for several days. This causes tartrate crystals to form and drop to the bottom of the tank. Once the process is complete, the wine is carefully transferred to another tank, leaving the crystals behind. If a white wine isn’t cold stabilized, it might form harmless tartrate crystals when chilled for an extended period of time. Generally, these harmless crystals will fall to the bottom of the bottle if the bottle is left in an upright position for a few hours. Then, if you carefully pour the wine, the crystals will remain in the bottle and won’t end up in your wine glass.
After a wine has been cold stabilized, the winemaker may clarify the wine again by fining and filtering it. Fining agents remove suspended proteins, while the final filtering is done to reduce the chance of bacterial spoilage. Not all winemakers do the final clarification steps as they believe these steps also reduce the aromas and flavors in a wine.
After the final clarification, the wine is pumped into a sterilized bottle, a cork or screwcap is added and a label is adhered to the bottle. The bottle is then put into a wine box, sealed and stacked on a pallet. Once the pallet is full — a pallet holds 48 or 56 wine cases — it’s moved to a temperature-controlled warehouse.
When a white wine is bottled, it generally “rests” for at least six weeks or longer. This resting period lets the wine settle after bottling and gives it time to get over bottle shock. A temporary condition, bottle shock happens after bottling, or when wine is shaken during traveling, like when it’s shipped to you via carriers like Fed Ex and UPS. Wine is a living entity and when it’s shaken up, it can shut down. During bottle shock, the aromas and flavors will be muted and disjointed.
After bottling, it can take more than a month of bottle aging for a white wine to come out of bottle shock. Even with wine whites, wineries will wait a few months or up to a year before they release a wine. Bottle shock from shipping will disappear after a week or two.
A Chardonnay that has been through barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation and barrel aging can age in the bottle for a year or longer before the beauty of the aromas and flavors fully develop.
Just because a wine is bottled doesn’t mean it’s being ignored. Winemakers will periodically taste bottled wines to determine the optimal time to release them.
Storing White Wine
I’m often asked how long can a white wine age. It depends. There is no short answer, but here are some factors to consider about storing your wine purchases.
How or where you store or cellar your wines are important factors in how long the wines will age. The four factors are the same for all types of wine — 1) a dark environment, 2) free from excess vibration (you don’t want to store wine near train tracks or above a subway), 3) cool, and 4) humid. Wine caves, basements and underground storage all work well, but so does a wine refrigerator.
If the wine you’re storing has a cork, be sure you’re storing it on its side to keep the cork wet and prevent it from drying out. A dry cork will shrink and allow air leakage into the wine.
Temperature and Humidity
Ideally, white wines should be stored at a temperature of 45 – 55°F with around 60% relative humidity. If you don’t have ideal storage conditions, try to keep your wines at or below 70°F if you plan to keep them for an extended period of time.
What happens if the wine gets warmer than 70°F? The warmer the wine, the faster it will age. I once lost the entire contents of my wine cellar area in a heat wave. Lost might not be the correct word, more like I had a lot of baked, pruney tasting wines. We were away on a trip, so no one was home to turn on the air conditioning and the inside house temperature got into the 90s. The wine storage closet was on an outside wall, so it got even hotter.
Storing wine in an inside wall closet on the floor is generally the coolest place in a house or apartment, unless you have a basement. If you don’t have good storage, then only buy what you can drink within a reasonable amount of time.
Also, do not store wine in a regular refrigerator for an extended period of time. Refrigerators are usually colder than 40°F. Leaving the wine at too low of a temperature can cause the cork to dry out and shrink. When this happens, oxygen can seep into the wine and accelerate the aging process. If you do store wine in a refrigerator, let it warm up a bit before serving. When a wine is too cold, the full aromatics and flavors aren’t released. If you’re served a wine that you think is too cold, just wait 10-15 minutes, then try it again.
Duration of Storage
Back to the question, how long can I store wine? The reason the answer is “it depends” involves the following questions:
- How was the wine made?
- Does the wine have high acidity or barrel tannins to help preserve it longer?
- Do you have ideal or less than ideal storage conditions?
When people ask me how long they can store a wine, I ask them the three questions above. Most people go into overload and decide they should just drink their wine within a year of purchase. For most white wines, drinking them within 1-3 years from when they were bottled is the best answer. A barrel fermented and aged white wine can easily age five or more years. I recently had a Chardonnay that was 10 years old and it was so delicious.
The best rule of thumb is if you don’t have ideal storage conditions, enjoy your wine now and then buy more!
Popular White Wine Varietals
Above you discovered a long list of white wine grapes grown in California. Now we’ll explore the top white wine varietals produced in the state.
A genetic cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, Chardonnay was first planted in California in the late 1800s. In the 1970s, Chardonnay plantings boomed as it surged in popularity. You can now find Chardonnay that is bright and crisp, or rich and creamy, or lean and chalky. Chardonnay also makes some of the finest sparkling white wine in the world. Its versatility is what keeps this varietal as the most popular white wine not only in California, but worldwide.
Rapidly rising in popularity, Sauvignon Blanc is a crisp, dry wine with aromas and flavors of lemon, lime, grapefruit, green apple, fig and melon. Some Sauvignon Blancs can have herbaceous notes, which are expressions of the climate, soil, vineyard practices and winemaking techniques. This varietal also makes a delicious late harvest wine that is luscious and sweet.
Also known as Pinot Grigio or Grauburgunder, the Pinot Gris grape is a mutation of Pinot Noir (a red-skinned grape) with pinkish-gray skin. Also recently increasing in popularity, Pinot Gris comes in a broad spectrum of wine styles depending upon the growing conditions and winemaking techniques. A round, almost rich mouthfeel, with forward-fruit flavors of white peach, ripe pear, Fuji apple and melon is tempered with bright acidity, creating an easy sipping, balanced wine.
Once the most widely planted white grape in California, Chenin Blanc’s zesty acidity and distinctive flavors of quince and apple helped it make a recent comeback in popularity. While it temporarily fell out of fashion, Chenin Blanc remained widely planted throughout California, especially in the Central Valley, as it was mostly used as blending wine in many inexpensive white blends. It’s wonderful to see its revival as a single varietal.
The Viognier grape originated in the Rhône region of France. Viognier can be found as a single varietal or blended in small amounts with Syrah (a red wine.) Increasing in popularity in California, this aromatic wine often smells as if it will be sweet, but can been made bone dry. It can also be found in a variety of styles from creamy and oaky to bright and crisp.
Also known as Alvarinho, this is a refreshing white wine and often a favorite of Sauvignon Blanc lovers. Generally a dry wine, Albariño offers zesty acidity with citrus, melon and white nectarine flavors bathed with a slight seductive saline essence. I was first introduced to Albariño while eating oysters on the half shell, which is a perfect pairing. At the time, I could only find Spanish Albariños, but since then more California wineries are producing this delicious and appealing white wine.
This aromatic white can be made as a dry, off-dry/semi-sweet or sweet wine. The distinctive floral and tropical fruit nose and palate with just a kiss of spice make this the perfect wine to share with beginning wine drinkers. My mother was a renowned teetotaler in my northern Minnesota hometown community. On her first visit to California after I moved here, she expressed curiosity in wine tasting. Having been in love with wine since the day I arrived in the state, I happily obliged her and took her to Souverain, a winery that no longer exists. She fell madly in love with Gewürztraminer, and that love affair continued until she was no longer able to drink wine.
Like Gewürztraminer, Riesling can be found as a dry, off-dry/semi-sweet or sweet wine, and is also a wine known for its seductive, almost perfumey aromatics. Riesling can be made in a wide range of styles, helping to increase its popularity. Its unique flavors of citrus, apple, floral and a waxy essence make it easy to pair with spicy foods like Indian or Thai, and proteins like duck, pork (especially bacon), and rich shellfish like shrimp and crab.
Muscat, also known as Moscato, is made as still, sparkling and dessert wines. Originally from the Mediterranean area, Muscat may be the world’s oldest grape variety. The wine’s aromas are reminiscent of orange blossoms in springtime, and the flavors include Meyer lemon, Bartlett pear, Mandarin orange and white floral notes. Although it can be made bone-dry, the semi-sweet version of Moscato is currently very popular, and is another good wine to share with novice wine drinkers.
Handy Tool Takes You on a Wine White Search
The above list gives you a few of the white wine varietals you may find along the Wine Road while wine tasting, but there are many more as well. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are still the most widely produced white wines in Sonoma County, but the number of other white wine varietals is increasing all the time. To view all the wines available along the Wine Road, go to Wine Road > Winery List. Click on the dropdown entitled “Search by Wine Type” to view the options available. This handy search tool will lead you to which wineries produce which varietals or blends.
White Wine Regions
The Wine Road region of Northern Sonoma County isn’t the only place that makes amazing white wines, but of course, I’m a tad prejudiced and think the best white wines come from here.
French White Wines
When I started exploring other regions of the world that produce white wines, I thought I already knew a fair amount about wine varietals. But then I got to French wines and realized I had a bit of a learning curve ahead of me. The wines in France are referred to by regional names rather than varietal names. So if you want a Sauvignon Blanc, you have to know what region is known for producing the best Sauvignon Blancs and what that region calls them.
A French white wine from Burgundy will most likely be Chardonnay, but it won’t be labeled Chardonnay. Rather it might be labeled Chablis, Bourgogne Blanc, Chassagne-Montratchet, Santenay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, St. Aubin, Volnay, Beaune or several other names. When I’m looking at buying a glass or bottle of a French white Burgundy, I just pull out my phone and start doing some research before I make my selection.
Again, as with French Chardonnay, don’t expect to see Sauvignon Blanc on the label wine. You’ll either need to know what you’re buying, do some research, or dive in and try something new and hope for the best. In the Loire Valley, Sauvignon Blanc will be labeled Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. In the Bordeaux region, a white Bordeaux will be a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Other grapes permitted in a white Bordeaux blend include Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Ondenc, Mauzac and Sauvignon Gris. In 2020, the Council of Wine in Bordeaux (CIVB) allowed Albariño and Lilorila to be added to the blend option list.
France is renowned for many white wines, include Champagne, which can only be called Champagne if it’s from the Champagne region. Other regions in France refer it to as sparkling wine, just as it is referred to outside of France. The dominant white grape used to make champagne and sparkling wine in France is Chardonnay. Blanc de Blancs appears on the label to indicate it’s 100% Chardonnay. However, outside of the Champagne region, including in California, many other white grape varieties are used to make sparkling wines. The most common white grapes used to make French sparkling wine are Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Mauzac.
There are many other white grapes grown and produced in France, but each one requires a lesson in understanding the region where the grapes are grown. If you want to dig deeper, check out the Alsace, Rhône Valley, Provence and Laguedoc-Roussillon regions to explore what white wines they produce and how they are labeled.
Italian White Wines
With 20 wine regions in Italy, there are plenty of delicious white wine options to explore. A few of the better-known regions and the white wines they produce are:
- Tuscany – Tribbiano and Vin Santo
- Piedmont – Gavi, Arneis and Moscato
- Vento – Prosecco, Souve and Pinot Grigio
- Friuli-Venezia Giulia – Pinot Grigio, Frilliano and Chardonnay
- Umbria – Tribbiano and Grechetto
- Trentino-Alto Adige – Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Gewürztraminer and Müller Thurgau.
- Lombardy – Franciacorta
New World White Wines
Australia and New Zealand have both made their mark on the wine world, and are producing some very interesting white wines.
With over 300,000 acres planted to grapes, Australia is a formidable force in the wine world. Some of the dominant growing regions you’ll see on white wine bottles include Margaret River, Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Beechworth, Yarra Valley, Tasmania and Hunter Valley. As for the white wine varietals, the most exported Australian white wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Sémillon and a variety of sparkling wines.
With 10 wine regions spread across the two main islands, New Zealand is making its mark on the white wine world with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, plus we see limited amounts of Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Albariño and Pinot Blanc.22
The wine regions in the north island include Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Gisborne, Waikato/Bay of Plenty and Northland. South Nelson, Central Otago, Marlborough, Canterbury and Waipara are the regions in the south island. Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough wines are what we see most often in the New Zealand wine sections, as these two regions are the largest wine producing regions in the country.
California Wine Regions
There are five large wine growing regions in California that include many AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) or appellations. A side note: An appellation can be a political boundary, like the name of a county, state, or country. Or, it can be a federally recognized region known as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). California has well over 50 appellations, created from political boundaries, and almost 150 AVAs, which are federally recognized winegrowing regions.
Here’s an overview of the primary California wine growing regions and some of the white wines they produce:
North Coast, which includes Sonoma County, Napa Valley, Mendocino County, Marin, Solano and Lake County. Within each of the AVAs under the North Coast umbrella, there are multiple sub-appellations. Sonoma County has 12 sub-appellations, seven of them are within the boundaries of the Wine Road, with the main ones being Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley.
The North Coast region grows and produces well over 40 white wine varietals and countless white blends.
The Far North growing region is in the very top section of the state. It includes the counties of Humboldt, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity, and currently has five AVAs. The Far North region is slowly getting recognition as winemakers from areas like Sonoma and Napa counties are buying grapes from winegrowers in these counties. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Albariño and Viognier are the white wine grapes being produced in this fledging growing region.
The Sierra Foothills AVA includes parts of eight counties — Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Tuolumne and Yuba counties. Here you’ll find Italian whites, white Rhône varietals like Viognier, Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc and plenty of Chardonnay.
The Inland Valley region, also known as the Central Valley isn’t an appellation or AVA, but is a large geographic wine growing region in the state. There are many counties within the Central Valley, with Lodi being the most well-known AVA in this region. Lodi, a primarily red wine region, also produces Chenin Blanc and many white Rhône varietals.
The Central Coast AVA is the wine region covering San Francisco to Los Angeles and, like the North Coast, has many AVAs and sub-appellations within its borders. This region includes these counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Monterey, San Francisco, San Mateo, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz. Within each of these AVAs are several well-known sub-AVAs like Edna Valley, Livermore Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Cruz Mountains.
The Central Coast AVA covers a lot of acres, so just about any white wine grown in California can be found in it. Look for Chardonnay and a wide variety of Rhône white varietals, plus more.
The Southern California region (not an appellation or AVA), encompasses the South Coast AVA that includes the counties of Orange, Riverside San Bernardino and San Diego and has an additional 11 AVAs within its boundaries. With growing conditions similar to part of France, you’ll find Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Plus a few Italian varietals like Pinot Grigio are being produced here.
If you’d like to dig deeper into understanding the American Viticultural Areas in California, the Wine Institute offers an overview of California AVAs, plus a downloadable map showing the growing regions and a list of all the AVAs and the counties where they are located.
Tasting and Serving White Wine
Tasting White Wine
There are a lot of guidelines about tasting wine, but the most important one is just to enjoy it! That said, here are a few things you might want to consider.
If you just want to just sip away, then select your favorite glass and go enjoy the wine. However, if you want to make sure you’re getting the most aromas and flavors from the wine, then which wine glass you select is important.
I’d recommend you pour the same wine in a few different wine glass styles or shapes that you normally use. Swirl the wine and then smell the aromas. Do you detect aroma differences between the glasses? Now take a sip from each glass and see if the flavors are different from glass to glass. Does the wine taste the same to you or can you get additional flavors from one glass and not another?
Because I write a lot of tasting notes every year, I’ve amassed a lot of different wine glasses that help me to do this. I have glasses just for white wine, just for red wine, and others just for varietals like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus several styles of all-purpose wine glasses.
What I’ve discovered is that for most occasions, an all-purpose wine glass from a reputable manufacturer works just fine. You’ll find more of the wine’s nuances are apparent when you sip the wine from a glass made specifically for just fine wine rather than a jelly jar (yes, I’ve been served wine out of a jelly jar). My last purchase of all-purpose wine glasses was under $25 for a set of six. If I’m going to spend the money for a nice bottle of wine, I want to be able to get everything from the wine that it has to give.
White Wine Glasses
If you decide you want to have a different glass for white wines vs. red wines, there are a few things to keep in mind. Traditional white wine glasses are generally taller and narrower that red wine glasses. Since white wines don’t have to breathe, or aerate, as much red wines, a large surface area isn’t as important. All-purpose wine glasses are often tall and wider around the base, and then get narrower toward the top, which is similar to a white wine glass.
Serving Temperature Also Matters
Ever been served a well-chilled white wine that had very little aromas or flavors? Then, after the wine sat in your glass awhile, the aromas and flavors bloomed. The reason the wine tasted better with a little time was the wine was poured directly from being chilled in the refrigerator and it was too cold. A refrigerator’s interior is about 40°F or less, and the ideal serving temperatures for white wines is between 49-55°F.
If you’re serving white wines, think about taking them out of the refrigerator about 15-30 minutes before your guests arrive, so that the first sip is just right. You also don’t want to let a white wine get too warm, or it might start to taste flabby and tired. Think of this process as the Goldilocks effect for serving white wine — not too cold and not too warm, but just right.
Develop Your Tasting Palate
There are four things to consider when tasting and evaluating wine, be it white, rosé, sparkling or red.
- The Look – does the wine have an appealing look, is it the color you expected it to be?
- The Smell – what aromas do you pick up when you sniff the wine? Think about fruit, herbs, floral, oak, savory elements and anything unusual or maybe doesn’t see appealing or correct.
- The Taste – take your time, let the wine slowly glide across your palate and note what you’re tasting. You’ll also want to consider how the wine feels in your mouth. Is it smooth, rough, acidic, round, mellow, rich, etc.? Also take note of the finish, or how long the wine stays as the sip reaches its conclusion. Does the wine’s essence stay with you, do other flavors appear at the finish, or does the wine conclude abruptly?
- The Take-away – once you’ve finished a few tastes, think about what makes this wine unique or memorable. What impressed you about his wine, and would you want to buy it or remember it as a future purchase?
After you do this exercise with wine a few times, you’ll find it is easier and easier to evaluate wines and learn what you like or don’t like. Maybe you thought you didn’t like Chardonnay, but what you didn’t like was the oak flavors in barrel-aged Chardonnay. After tasting a stainless-steel fermented and aged Chardonnay, you may realize you love the aromas and flavors of Chardonnay without oak influences.
If you want to remember your tasting experiences for future reference, I’d recommend keeping a wine tasting journal, listing the wines you’ve tasted and your impressions.
Practice Improves Your Palate
It’s easier to taste several wines by going wine tasting rather than trying to purchase them all yourself. If you don’t live near the Wine Road area in Northern Sonoma County, or another wine growing region, you could host a wine tasting night with friends. Ask each person to bring a specific varietal, like everyone bring a Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma County. These types of intimate tastings give everyone the chance to taste one varietal from a specific region and discover how the same wine grown in the same region can smell and taste different. And, you can practice developing your palate while enjoying time with your friends.
If you plan to try a lot of wine in a short period of time, another good practice is to either not finish every drop of wine poured, or to swirl, sniff, taste and spit. The more wine you drink the less you’ll be able to discern the nuanced differences. This is why wine critics and wine competition judges spit rather than swallow.
White Wine and Food Pairing
Pairing food and wine can seem daunting at time, but there are a few simple guidelines.
General Pairing Guidelines
Finding the right combinations of wine and food is like creating a new recipe. Items that complement each other will pair well together. A crisp Sauvignon Blanc that has lovely flavors of Lisbon lemon and lime zest will pair well with a lemony chicken piccata or pan-seared halibut served with citrus pesto.
Also, food and wines with contrasting flavors work well together. Try serving a semi-sweet wine like an off-dry Riesling with Chicken Tikka Marsala, and enjoy how well the floral, citrus and apple flavors of the wine pair with the complex spices in the food.
When pairing wine with a hearty or robust meal, make sure the wine isn’t overpowered by the food. Lobster served with drawn butter needs to be paired with a richly textured Chardonnay that has been barrel fermented and oak aged, which will allow it to compete with the rich flavors of the seafood.
If you’re serving a lighter meal, look for a lighter wine. A summer picnic with turkey sandwiches and a chilled pasta salad will pair well with a Chenin Blanc or Pinot Gris.
Foods that are high in acid pair well with wines with more acidity. Serving Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, popcorn or macaroni and cheese brings out the best flavors in both the food and the wine.
Avoid having the food overwhelm the wine and vice versa. I still remember with dismay when I brought a delicious buttery, oaky Chardonnay to a dinner party, and the hostess served it with the first course, a spicy pumpkin soup. The spices in the soup overwhelmed the wine, leaving the wine tasting like white liquid.
Some Perfect White Wine Pairings
Here are a few classic white wine pairings:
- Lobster with clarified butter on the side – barrel-aged Chardonnay
- Chicken verde enchiladas – Grüner Veltliner
- Quiche Lorraine – sparkling wine
- A lightly-seared white fish like sea bass, tilapia or sole – Pinot Gris
- Roast pork – Chenin Blanc
- Oysters on the half shell – Albariño
- Caviar served with crème fraiche on a homemade potato chip – Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine
- Classic Caesar salad with grilled prawns – Sauvignon Blanc
- Crab cakes – Viognier
- Apple pie – Gewürztraminer
- Crème brûlée – late harvest Muscat or Riesling
Cheese and White Wine Pairings
White wine and cheese make for an easy pairing. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Goat milk gouda – unoaked Chardonnay
- Triple cream brie – barrel-aged Chardonnay
- Chèvre – Sauvignon Blanc
- Parmigiano-Reggiano – semi-sweet Riesling
- Feta – Pinot Gris
- Asiago – sparkling wine
- Manchego – Albariño
Have fun trying different foods and wines together. And, if you’re not sure your combination is going to work well together, have a backup bottle of wine in the wings just in case.
Enjoying White Wine at Tasting Events
The best way to explore new wines and new wine brands is to go wine tasting. My favorite wine tasting days are at the Wine Road events. Why? You buy one ticket for the day or weekend, and can visit your choice from a long list of wineries.
The Wine Road has three annual events — Winter Wineland in mid-January, Barrel Tasting the first weekend in March and Wine & Food Affair the first weekend in November. Each event has its own unique take on wine tasting, and the list of participating wineries can vary from event to event.
In 2023, Wine Road started quarterly tasting events called Wine Trails. These Saturday-only events are more low-key, but equally great for exploring new wineries and wines along the Wine Road. Although none of the Wine Road events are exclusively focused on white wines, you can opt to only taste white wines if that’s your preference. The three annual events have an online program that sometimes lists what a winery is pouring for the weekend.
If you are searching for an event that exclusively pours white wine, just north of the Wine Road area, along Hwy 128 in Mendocino County, in February every year the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association hosts White Wine Weekend. This weekend-long event is completely focused on white wine, sparkling wine, and rosé, a rare treat for white wine lovers.
White Wine and Food Pairing Experiences
It’s become more common for wineries to offer wine and food pairings. However, a wine and food pairing experience generally requires an advance reservation, so be sure to plan ahead.
The Wine Road website makes is easy to find wineries that daily offer wine and food pairings. Under Wineries, go to Winery List. Next in the dropdown menu entitled “Search by Amenity” select “Wine & Food Pairing – Daily” and then press GO. You’ll get a list of wineries that daily offer wine and food pairings. This list may not include Wine Road member wineries who only have pairing on weekends or Saturdays. If you don’t see a winery on the list, be sure to go to that winery’s website to see if they offer occasional wine and food pairings. If you only want white wines, be sure to make that request when you book your reservation.
White Wine Trends
Sauvignon Blanc has quickly moved up the list as the favorite white wine, a role dominated by Chardonnay for decades. Many lesser-known white wine varietals are increasing in popularity as wine drinkers seek to expand their palate knowledge and fulfill their curiosity about wines they’ve not tried before. I recently discovered Cortese, a crisp delicious Italian white wine, at the Idlewild tasting room in Healdsburg. That same weekend I enjoyed a delicious white Rhône blend at Mounts Family Winery in Dry Creek Valley. It was a blend of 50% Clairette Blanche, 25% Grenache Blanc and 25% Picpoul Blanc. You never know what wine treat you’ll discover along the Wine Road.
Orange wine continues to grow in popularity, although it is definitely an acquired taste. Orange wine, also called amber wine, is made from white wine grapes where the grape skins remain with the fermenting juice and in some cases, the skins stay with the juice for days or even months. The skin’s pigment creates the orange/amber color, plus this extended skin contact extracts phenols and tannins into the wine, making a more robust, complex wine.
Being sustainable isn’t a trend. It’s a way of thinking, a way of life, and the Sonoma County wine industry was on the cutting edge of this movement.
In January 2014, the Sonoma County Winegrowers announced their goal of being the nation’s first 100% certified sustainable wine region. This region includes all of the Wine Road. Today 99% of the of the vineyards in Sonoma County has been certified sustainable by a third-party program, making Sonoma County the most sustainable winegrowing region in the world.
But in Sonoma County, we don’t just look at making sure the vineyards are sustainable. Over 15 years ago, the Wine Road and its members started taking measures to reduce their environmental footprint. There are also local movements to ensure we build a sustainable workforce for the vineyards, cellar and other winery jobs. Plus, the Sonoma County Winegrowers have collaborated with Ford Pro to develop a pilot program to electrify the business of farming in the county.
12 Fun Facts about White Wine
- August 4th is National White Wine Day
- Eight white wines have a day of recognition every year — Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Riesling, Albariño, Moscato, Furmint
- White wine dates back over 6,000 years
- White wine originated in ancient Persia
- There are over 600 wine white grape varieties
- White wine contains antioxidants like resveratrol
- Approximately three pounds of grapes produce one bottle of wine
- A ton of white wine grapes can produce 720 bottles or 60 cases of wine
- Chardonnay is the most planted white wine variety in California
- To chill a white wine faster, add water and salt with the ice in your ice bucket
- White wines get slightly darker as they age
- At the myth-busting 1976 “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting, a California Chardonnay won over numerous French Chardonnays, creating great controversy, but also validating California wines as being as superb as French wines.
I hope you enjoyed reading a longer overview on white wine. Now go open a bottle of your favorite white wine, or seek out a white wine varietal you’ve yet to try.
More from my site
- Posted in: White Wine
- Tagged in: Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Idlewild Wines, Mounts Family Winery, Peterson Winery, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, sustainability, sustainable farming, white wine, wine, wine & food pairings, wine regions, Wine Road, Wine Road events, wine tasting, wine trends, winemaking,