With all the bottles of wine on the market, it’s no wonder people often have no idea what they like and what they don’t like. On many an occasion in the past I have found myself loving a bottle of wine only to have no idea what sort of white wine it was. With so many grapes being used in wine it is easy to confuse. Hopefully this will help put some confusion at bay when it comes to knowing the difference between various white grape varieties.
Definitely a medium to full bodied grape, Semillon is a native to the Bordeaux region in France even though today the region that holds the title for having the most success with this grape is none other than the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales in Australia. While it can be often be said (and rightly so) that wines that are dominated by Semillon lack youthful aroma, they always tend to have a fairly full body and be low in acidity. It is for this reason that Semillon makes a wonderful “second” grape in blending of wines producing some wonderful flavours. Semillon even works well when blended with the well-known loner, Chardonnay, giving richness and weight without sacrificing the aromatic delicacy. That is not to say that a Semillon alone won’t make for good wine. Semillons on general are a variety that is best drunk after a few years.
Origins in the Loire Valley of France, Chenin Blanc grapes have a natural high acidity as well as an uncanny ability to get along with the botrytis mold that likes to suck the water out of grapes. It is because of both of these features that Chenin Blanc grapes are so versatile and used in all sorts of wines ranging from fizzy, sweet and dry. Flavors are similar to that of a Sauvignon Blanc; herbs, green apples and gooseberry. A little known fact to some people who believe that white wines must be consumed within the first couple years of vintage would be surprised to know that Chenin Blanc tastes best around ten to fifteen years.
Sauvignon Blanc tends to be one of those grapes that you either love or hate. A crisp and mineral tasting wine that has it’s origins in France; the aromas of this grape have conjured a variety of adjectives. Such descriptions range from passion fruit, mint and basil to asparagus and even freshly cut grass. Being that these wines are crisp and very refreshing and somewhat uncomplicated its ability to be paired with foods is incredible. Foods ranging from shellfish to goat’s cheese are all great matches with Sauvignon Blanc.
Chardonnay comes in all different sizes and shapes and is grown all over the world. While some complain that this variety of grape is rather boring, there is a reason it is the most widely consumed grape variety in the world. Because this grape very readily will sink its roots in almost any soil, the flavours and aromas vary greatly. In the southern hemisphere, the aromas range from peaches and pears to mango, pineapple or even banana. Northern hemisphere grapes however, are much different ranging from delicate citrus to full flavoured citrus, sweet spices and nuts.
Muscat is a sweet grape that comes in many forms from all over from Italy to Spain to Australia. Because of this broad variety it is hard to pin down on specific flavour or aroma for Muscat. Sometimes apple, pear or flowers can be detected in some of the lighter wines while in the more robust Muscat wines you might find chocolate or coffee.
I don’t think there is any better way to sum up the Gewurztraminer (ger-vertz-tramina) grape than by quoting Matt Skinner, author of “Thirsty Work” where the inspiration for this article comes from. Matt states, “Like and oversized drag queen with too much make-up, way too much perfume, mega high heels, and very little shame, this variety is the flamboyantly camp member of the white grape family! But, sadly, it also doubles as one of the uncoolest grape varieties in the world. In fact, it’s fair to say that if Gewurztraminer were an outfit it’d be socks, sandals, and a camel brown safari suit. Try pronouncing it – apart from being much harder to say than Chardonnay, it even sounds a bit naff. And that’s the problem.”
This can be a very correct way to describe this Alsace favourite because the aromas of this grape are some of the most bold and bizarre but that doesn’t mean that this is a bad grape by any means. In fact it really isn’t all that bad! These grapes tend to have flavours and aromas reminiscent of ginger, rose, lychee and cinnamon to name a few and because of low acidity are rich and carry much weight in your mouth giving a long lasting flavour. Perhaps this is why this grape makes a great match with mild spicy, sweet and tangy foods such as Chinese or Thai.
Another under appreciated grape historically from Germany. Oftentimes people complain that this grape is too sweet and try to avoid it all costs. It wasn’t until recent years that this grape is making a comeback as a match to seafood and dishes with Asian infused flavours. The best Rieslings have aromas of citrus, flowers and spice while the flavours can be more of lemons and minerals. Super dry Rieslings are very popular nowadays while the best examples of more expensive Rieslings are actually the very sweet late harvested dessert and ice wines. It is also worth noting that Rieslings are another white grape that ages very well so don’t worry about drinking a 20 year old bottle!
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
Technically, Pinto Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same. Pinot Grigio planting has been concentrated in northeast Italy while Pinot Gris makes its home in Alsace in France. Pinot Gris, is a French expression for light delicate and fresh and has flavours that are slightly fat and rich often from the time is spends in wooded barrels. On the other hand, Pinot Grigrio (meaning the same as Pinot Gris) is usually stored in steel tanks and drunk while it’s young and light and vibrant. Again, Matt Skinner best explains these two grapes as being like “identical twins separated at birth and raised in different countries.”
While these are just some of the many varieties of white grapes out there, they are without question the most popular of the bunch. Each grape is unique in its flavour and aromas and should thus be treated as just that, an individual. Not all white wines are created equal and not all white wines are meant to be drunk old but all whites are meant to be enjoyed.