There’s a white wine for any type of food.
It sounds like a bold claim. The meat-glorification of the traditional Western diet would seem at first to refute this notion. White wine with steak, or beef stew, or spag bol? For most, white is for light dishes, for seafood and chicken or a salad on a summer’s day, but the huge variety of styles, textures and flavours that can be coaxed from the innocuous white grape make it hugely adaptable to cuisines from across the world and across the taste spectrum.
Perhaps it’s the inherent simplicity that lies at the core of any white wine. Press the grapes, get the juice, ferment. No time is needed on the skins, no pigment extraction is necessary, no real need to mature and develop further in oak; the simplest – and sometimes the best – white wines retain pure, elegant fruit qualities that simply don’t require complex plates of food to enjoy.
Of course, having said all this, a good white can be anything but simple. Applied to this somewhat Spartan backbone can be layers of winemaking wizardry that mould, morph and manipulate the grape into a vast array of different outcomes. Varying degrees of residual sugar can be left in the wine to promote off-dry or sweet qualities (think Vouvray or Riesling). Malolactic fermentation or lees-stirring (lees are dead yeast cells that fall to the bottom of the tank or barrel) can add layers of texture and buttery, creamy character (think Muscadet), while many of the more robust white grapes, such as Semillon, Viognier and Chardonnay can stand up to – and indeed, thrive on – contact and maturation with French or American oak. Pair a Meursault with a rich, earthy beef bourguignon, or an Alsace Gewürztraminer with a Thai green curry. Try an Auslese Riesling with Roquefort, Amontillado sherry with gumbo, or a white Rioja with parsley sauce-slathered roast pork and then, palate educated, consider once again the statement at the top of this article.
Below is a far from exhausting overview of some of the more prominent and widely available white wine grapes.
The UKs favourite grape in 2016, Sauvignon Blanc has exploded across the wine world in recent years. The homeland of Sauvignon is the Loire valley, and here appellations such as Sancerre and Pouilly Fume produce wines with light citrus or apple notes, a touch of something herbal, refreshing, mineral-driven acidity and a light but alluringly smoky finish. The big name nowadays however, is New Zealand, or Marlborough to be precise. Marlborough Sauvignon has big grassy character – akin to bell pepper or asparagus in some examples – and fruitier notes of gooseberry and passionfruit. Some producers are now experimenting with MLF and partial oak ageing, but it is a primarily unoaked, clean, pure varietal grape, and this lends it well to pairing with many seafood dishes such as scallops, prawns, mussels or hake.
Albarino has shot to fame in recent years, riding the back of the trend away from heavy, overly-oaky whites and towards drier, more terroir driven wines. It hails from damp, humid Galicia in north west Spain and northern Portugal (where it is known as Alvarinho), and has a strikingly acidic and refreshing mineral character, with notes of apple skin, peach and something somehow stony and chalky, like tide-washed pebbles on a rocky Atlantic beach. Cracking with shellfish, but its’ acidity cuts right through oily fish such as mackerel and sardines, or a buttery fish pie. Increasingly being planted throughout the New World, especially in California and New Zealand (some is now being pioneered in England too), producers are experimenting with partial MLF or ageing in second-hand oak, to enhance some of the wines textural qualities.
The go-to grape for many white wine drinkers. Italian Pinot Grigio has classic flavours of lemon, lime and nectarine, with better examples showing light floral aromas. Wines from Pinot Grigio have a distinct weightiness in the mouth, and this fullness of texture can make them a good accompaniment to light chicken dishes. In France it is known as Pinot Gris, and here (primarily in Alsace) the wines tend to be off-dry, with notes of baking spices, honey and occasionally melon – strikingly different to its Italian alter-ego. Try it with creamy sole Veronique or hard gruyere or Comte cheese. It is planted widely throughout the New World, with producers usually labelling themselves as Gris or Grigio depending on the style they’re most closely alluding too. Pinot Gris from Central Otago in New Zealand and from Oregon and Washington State is developing a reputation for quality, particularly examples made in an off-dry, less easy-and-fruity style.
Riesling is considered by many to be the king of white wine grapes. Top German Rieslings sell for thousands, and can be cellared confidently for decades. It has a unique textural and flavour profile, and this can vary drastically from one growing region (or more specifically, terroir) to another. Young German Rieslings can taste of apples or lime, with honeyed floral notes, while older, matured examples become somewhat beeswax-ey and mellow, developing a distinctive, smoky whiff of petroleum. Crisper, leaner versions can be found in the Clare and Eden valleys of Australia. It can produce luscious sweet or off-dry wines from botrytized grapes (particularly prevalent in Germany under the pradikat system), opulent icewine in Canada, and even sparkling wine – you name it, Riesling can do it. Try a young, fresher Riesling with crab or a coconut based curry, or drink an older, sweeter bottle from Alsace with a particularly buttery chicken Kiev.
Behind this rather unfashionable and unattractive moniker is one of the most distinctive and aromatic grapes on the planet. Wines from Gewurztraminer display unique flavours; rosewater, grapefruit, pineapple, honeysuckle, and a distinct lychee aroma that renders them a mercy at blind tastings. As bizarre as it sounds, sniffing the bouquet of a richer, more exotic example can conjure comparisons to a box of Turkish delight. The home of Gewurztraminer is Alsace, where the wines can be found in an off-dry style, although there are plantings in Italy, Germany and in small pockets across the New World. Its maverick, exotic qualities make it a great pairing with many of those foods that don’t usually work so well with wine – think Asian or Arabic dishes, such as tagine, Szechuan pepper, fragrant curries, or, if you can settle to eat brunch for lunch, kedgeree (although this is also excellent with good Champagne).
Chardonnay is grown from England to Israel to Tasmania and back again, and produces some of the most sought-after and complex wines in the world. The home of Chardonnay is Burgundy. In Chablis, the wines are lean, mineral driven, citrus-steely swords that works wonders with oysters or sashimi. Further south, in the Cotes de Beaune, Chardonnay is fuller and often oak-aged, developing soft notes of pear, hazelnuts and flowers. These wines are heady, rich, earthy, so pair accordingly; roast duck with dauphinoise potatoes, or a wild mushroom risotto with a generous dash of truffle oil. Known as something of a winemakers’ canvas, Chardonnay can adjust to a myriad of production techniques and climatic growing conditions. In hotter parts of Australia and California, it can develop more tropical fruit notes, such as mango and pineapple, and when combined with the vanilla-inducing properties of American oak can produce, big, striking wines. New Zealand, Chile and Oregon all have good reputations for top tier Chardonnay, and following its ancient deployment as a component of the traditional Champagne blend, it is increasingly being championed as the keystone grape of English sparkling wine.
Along with Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon is one of the components of a white Bordeaux blend, and like the red Bordeaux blend (perhaps not quite as emphatically), has as such been exported across the winemaking world. When blended with Sauvignon, it adds body and fullness, producing wines in a rounder, more textural style that work exceptionally well with moules marinieres or meatier fish such as cod and turbot, while its ability to balance complex pickled and ginger flavours means that it is increasingly being known as a sushi-suitable wine. Semillon can display pear or waxy citrus flavours when bottled as a varietal, and lends itself well to oak ageing and comparatively high levels of alcohol. The Hunter Valley in Australia has developed a reputation for high quality Semillon, and here the wines are often barrel-aged, developing toasty, honeyed flavours and great textural depth.