Even the newest wine drinkers can tell the difference between whites and reds, but distinguishing the subtle differences among white varietals is a bit more challenging. Each type of white wine offers its own unique profile, and knowing the basics is the first step to finding new favorites. This guide examines what makes a white wine and explores three of the most popular white varietals: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot grigio.
White Wine Basics
Wine novices may be surprised to learn that white wines can be produced from either red or white grapes; many white wines get their lighter hue because they’re fermented without the skins. Juice from these grapes is fermented at lower temperatures in order to preserve more fruit-forward flavors. White wines can be paired with a number of different foods, but they’re especially suited for seafood, lighter vegetables, and cream- or oil-based sauces.
Found across the globe, chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world. It is bold, dry, and full-bodied, and its oak aging gives it a distinct note of creamy vanilla. When chardonnay grapes are grown in cooler climates, the wine emerges more acidic and offers notes of apple and pear. In warmer climates, chardonnay can often be higher in alcohol content, with more tropical fruit flavors.
While its reach isn’t quite as far as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc is produced in a variety of regions, from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley in France to California, New Zealand, and Chile. It’s a light-bodied white with lots of acidity and fruit flavors. Depending on where it’s from, it can also take on uniquely herbaceous flavors, and sometimes even a hint of minerality.
Pinot grigio has many notable producers in the northern regions of Italy, as well as in wine-making areas of Germany, Australia, and the United States. Like sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio is light in body, but its acidity and fruit notes are toned down a little. Its most prominent fruit flavors include yellow apple, lemon, and other citrus varieties. Pinot grigios also often have a salty element that’s reminiscent of the ocean.
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At fine dining establishments, sommeliers often list suggested wines with particular entrées. While great wine and good food can certainly be appreciated on their own, making the right combinations of the two enhances the flavor profile of both. Sommeliers are experts in making these selections, but by following tried-and-true rules, any wine enthusiast can learn to make delicious pairings at home.
The Two Basic Methods
When deciding which food to enjoy with a particular wine (or vice versa), consider whether the pairing will be congruent or contrasting. Congruent pairings balance each other by emphasizing their shared compounds; red wine creates congruent pairings more often than contrasting. Sweet, white, sparkling, or rosé wines often create a contrasting pairing experience, with contrasting flavor elements (such as acidity vs. fat) complementing—but not overwhelming—each other.
Primary Flavor Components in Wine
While food contains six main flavor components, wine has three; it often lacks the salt, fat, and spice of cuisine but shares elements of bitterness, sweetness, and acidity. Understanding which of these components are more prominent in each type can help tasters create the perfect pairing. Generally speaking, red wines are characterized by bitterness; white, sparkling, and rosé wines are largely acidic; and sweet wines are, believe it or not, sweet.
Balancing Flavor Intensity
When making a pairing, consider the intensity of the food and the wine. As a general rule, the wine should be more acidic and sweeter than the food while maintaining comparable flavor intensity. For example, the bitterness of red wines balances well with rich dishes such as red meat. White wines, on the other hand, tend to be lighter, so they often pair best with lighter dishes like fish and poultry. However, there are many light-bodied reds and rich whites that can easily break the “red wine with steak, white wine with fish” rule.
When considering food with layered flavors, like pasta dishes, choose wine based on the most prominent flavor of the food. It’s generally suggested to consider the sauce before the meat when creating a wine pairing with a dish that contains both. After exploring the basic tenets of food and wine pairing, it becomes much easier to recognize flavors and play with more complex combinations.
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