Classic White Wine Grapes
The aromas and flavours of a wine come in many different forms, and very rarely does a wine smell or taste of grapes. Nevertheless, the grape variety employed is probably the single most important determinant of the taste and aroma characteristics of the final wine. Since the widespread use of varietal labelling (placing the name of the grape on the label), many wine grapes have achieved a degree of fame previously unimaginable. Below are thumbnail guides to what I consider the six classic white grape varieties. Some will be familiar to even the novice wine drinker, although others, such as Viognier and Chenin Blanc, have spent less time in the limelight.
Each profile contains information on:
Spiritual home: the Old World locations where the grape has its home. Most grape varieties have just one or two locations in the Old World where they are traditionally cultivated. This section tells you where.
Grown elsewhere: some grapes have found a niche in the New World, and may have gained considerable fame as a result, such as Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. Others are almost ubiquitous, whereas some have travelled little. This section gives you a brief one-liner as to where the variety is found, with more detail in the profile.
Keywords: this section gives just one or two words that give some idea as to the intrinsic flavour of the grape. It is merely a quick note to 'hang your hat on', so to speak, and is by no means comprehensive. Much more detail is given in the profile.
Profile: A guide to the growing requirements or preferences, taste and aroma, ability to age and so on.
Spiritual home: Burgundy, important in Champagne.
Grown elsewhere: Ubiquitous.
Keywords: Tropical fruits, citrus fruits, other white fruits.
Profile: The seemingly ubiquitous Chardonnay seems to be planted everywhere. There are multiple reasons for this, but they include the grapes ability to cope with varied climes, its fame as the grape behind great wines such as Chablis and other white Burgundy, and also the wines produced have a great aptitude for taking on flavours from oak. The variety itself is thin-skinned and gives good yields, another feature that appeals to the winemaker. Other than Burgundy and Champagne, the grape has found fame on the labels of wine from Australia, New Zealand, California, South Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, Southern France and even Italy. It would have been quicker to list where the grape isn't extensively cultivated! The characteristics of the wines produced vary considerably, and many aromas an flavours to be found are often down to oak ageing rather than the grape variety. These include, butter, vanilla, spice, toast and mealiness. The grape itself can give rise to a buttery feel, but also flavours of apples, lemons, melon, pineapple and other tropical fruits, particularly from warm, New World climes. Other characteristics include wet wool (especially Burgundy) as well as minerals and flint (especially Chablis).
Spiritual home: Loire Valley, Bordeaux.
Grown elsewhere: Has found fame in New Zealand.
Keywords: Green fruits, tropical fruits.
Profile: This grape is responsible for some of the fine wines of the Loire Valley, with such well-known names as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. To the modern wine drinker, however, it is probably better known as the grape behind the richly flavoured wines that have put New Zealand on the wine map. It also, however, has an important role to play in Bordeaux where, together with Semillon, it is used to produce Sauternes, the fine botrytis-influenced dessert wine of the region. This is a thin-skinned variety, and is therefore susceptible to botrytis infection (although less so than Semillon). Characteristics of the grape when used to produce a dry wine include cut grass, minerals (especially Sancerre), gunflint and cordite (especially Pouilly), gooseberries, tropical fruits (especially new Zealand), foliage and even cats urine!
Spiritual home: Germany.
Grown elsewhere: Widely planted in Alsace, also Australia.
Keywords: Limes, minerals.
Profile: This grape, which will grow in a wide range of conditions, is most famous for producing some of the finest white wines in the world when it is grown on the steep, slate vineyards that lie on the banks of the Mosel in Germany. This is still the case today, although thanks to the marketing of sickly sweet, non-Riesling derived, fruitless sugar-water concoctions under such fine German names as Piesporter and Niersteiner, German wine has hit a low in terms of public regard. Seek out wines from top producers to find fine Rieslings from Germany often at a bargain price. This grape is also grown in Alsace, where although produced in a very different style it is also responsible for some very fine wines. Plantings in the New World are increasing, with some success in particular from New Zealand and Australia. Characteristics include floral aromas, fruit blossom, apples, limes, other citrus fruits, tropical fruits (especially New World), as well as slate, minerals and petrol (especially Germany).
Spiritual home: Bordeaux.
Grown elsewhere: Success in Australia.
Keywords: Honey and buttered toast.
Profile: One of two grapes, together with Sauvignon Blanc, that is responsible for Sauternes. Like Sauvignon, Semillon is thin-skinned and thus susceptible to Noble Rot (botrytis) infection. Unfortunately it is also susceptible to Grey Rot, which does not have the beneficial effects of the more noble infection. Other than in Bordeaux, Semillon is little grown. Nevertheless it has found a niche in the Hunter Valley in Australia, where unoaked versions are capable of long ageing, developing fabulously rich flavours as they do so. Characteristics from dry wines include a waxy texture, butter, honey, toast, lanolin, limes and citrus fruits, lemon curd or meringue. Typical Sauternes often tastes of pineapple, quince and other rich fruits, alongside the botrytis.
Spiritual home: Condrieu (Northern Rhône).
Grown elsewhere: Plantings are increasing.
Keywords: Peaches and pine kernels.
Profile: In recent years Viognier was at risk of extinction, with just a few hectares maintained in the fine Northern Rhône appellation of Condrieu. These wines were not widely appreciated despite, in some cases, being extremely fine. In recent years though, many wine makers in Languedoc-Roussillon and the New World have latched on to this grape and plantings are increasing dramatically. These New World examples, if well made, will make a welcome alternative to the excellent although usually expensive Condrieu bottlings. Many have hailed the grape as the 'new Chardonnay' and I would not be surprised if it becomes as well known, even if it is more difficult to pronounce! Characteristic flavours and aromas include peaches, apricots, musk, pine nuts and kernels. Problems with some New World wines include lack of balance due to excessive alcohol.
Spiritual home: Loire Valley.
Grown elsewhere: Also planted in South Africa.
Profile: As with Viognier, many wine experts might raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Chenin in my list of classic grapes. Nevertheless, if we define classic grapes as those capable of producing a fine, age worthy wine without being blended, then Chenin is most definitely in. This grape is responsible for some of the finest dessert wines in the world, from numerous appellations in the Loire Valley, including Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume, Vouvray and Coteaux du Layon. It also produces some dry wines in the Loire, and is also widely planted in South Africa, where it is known as Steen, although these wines are of much less significance. Like some other grapes above, this thin-skinned variety is also prone to botrytis. Typical characteristics of the sweet wines of the Loire include quince, honey, herbal tea and minerals.
Other White Grapes
There are tens of thousands of grapes suitable for viticulture, although only a few are capable of making great wine. Here are a few of the other important white grapes.
Gewurztraminer: A superb grape which produces fine wines in Alsace. Some love it, some hate it. There has been limited success in the New World, particularly New Zealand. Characteristics: spice, bacon, banana, floral elements, sometimes troubled by low acidity.
Pinot Gris: Another of the top grapes of Alsace (where it is often called Tokay Pinot Gris), this also produces fine, spicy wines, with better acidity than Gewurztraminer. Also found in Italy (as Pinot Grigio) and Eastern Europe. Characteristics: spice, bacon, tropical fruits.
Muscat: The final variety in this trio of Alsatian grapes. Also found in the Southern Rhône where it is used for dessert wines, as well as Australia, where some exceptionally fine liqueur wines are made. Characteristics: musk, sometimes grapey, orange and citrus peel, floral and aromatic.