All the White Stuff: A Primer on White Wines
Every once in awhile, we get emails and calls from customers who have basic wine questions. What’s the best kind of corkscrew? How is Champagne different from Cava or Prosecco? Was Carlo Rossi a real guy? (Yes, but his name was actually Charlie Rossi.)
One question we’re asked all the time: Why do white wines have so many different names, especially when they come from France? It is indeed a confusing situation, but we’re here to help ... like Mr. Miyagi, only with no waxing on or waxing off. Just waxing poetic.
Here’s the deal: The laws that govern the words a French winery may write on its label – including the grape variety – are very strict. This is one area in which the French are, uncharacteristically, very uptight. For centuries, they made the somewhat French assumption: If we tell you that a wine comes from Sancerre, only an idiot wouldn’t know that the grape variety inside the bottle is Sauvignon Blanc. After all, the place that a wine comes from makes it taste the way it does ... right?
What the French didn’t count on when those rules were written with quills was globalization. Or a world in which French people might want to drink vodka instead of wine. Maybe even mix that vodka with Red Bull. Or just have a Bud. Fortunately, in recent years European wine regions realized they needed to loosen up a bit. Nowadays it’s much easier to find a white-wine label that displays the name of the grape – but some will still only mention the region. There's no hard and fast rule, so in no particular order, here are a few wine terms and regions you've probably come across but were afraid to ask about.
You probably know the Spanish region of Rioja for its red wines, but its whites are noteworthy, too. Not only are they excellent for beating the heat, they’re also perfect for making white sangria. Rioja Blancos are made from a grape called Virua, sometimes called Macabeo. There are a couple of other grapes that sometimes find their way into the blend, such as Garnacha Blanca, which is also used in France’s Rhône Valley, where it’s called Grenache Blanc. But you don’t need to know any of the grape varieties – just know that Rioja Blanco has been a Spanish secret for keeping cool in the summer for many centuries.
There’s only one thing you ever have to remember about Sancerre, and it is that it’s always Sauvignon Blanc. Sancerre is an area in France’s Loire Valley wine region (sometimes called the garden of France because of its abundance of farms). While plenty of other grape varieties grow in Sancerre, the whites are always Sauvignon Blanc. They have more of a citrusy, minerally style than what you'd find in a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Muscadet is yet another white-wine grape from the Loire Valley, and it is grown throughout the region. Muscadets are bright, refreshing, light whites all made from a grape called Melon de Bourgogne. But Muscadet sounds much better.
Quickly becoming one of the most popular wines on the planet, Moscato is a sweet, low-alcohol, fizzy, fruity white wine. It’s so popular, even Nicki Minaj has her own brand. Most Moscatos that you find, made from the Moscato Bianco grape, come from Italy. If the label reads Moscato d’Asti, that simply means your Moscato comes from the Northern Italian region of Asti.
Chablis is a small section of France’s Burgundy region that only produces white wines. All Chablis are Chardonnay. No exceptions. That's easy to remember, right?
Guess what? Also Chardonnay. This is an area in Burgundy known for its easy-drinking whites.
Nope! Not Chardonnay! Just seeing if you were still paying attention. Pouilly-Fumé is actually Sauvignon Blanc, from a small area near the Loire Valley. It was what inspired Robert Mondavi, in the 1970s, to change the name of his slow-selling California-grown Sauvignon Blanc to Fumé Blanc. After he made the name change, he sold millions of cases. Apparently American wine drinkers back then could pronounce the word Fumé, but not Sauvignon.
Côtes du Rhône
You probably know this region for its reds, but the whites are very popular summer sippers. They’re usually made in the southern half of the Rhône Valley, blending together the light-bodied grapes Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. In the Northern Rhône there’s a grape called Viognier that's made in a very small area called Condrieu. These wines, however, tend to be very pricey and feature a flavor that’s not for everyone. Stick to the more widely available, affordable, refreshing Côtes du Rhônes.
When you see these words on a sparkling-wine label, it means that it was made in the same way as Champagne. The wine started out like a regular white wine, but it was then bottled with a little extra sugar and yeast. This causes a second fermentation in the bottle, which imparts the fizz. When you come across a Cava from Spain or a Prosecco from Italy that doesn’t have the words “Méthode Traditionelle” written on the label, that likely means the wine was carbonated, like soda.
Thirsty now? Feel free to browse our wide selection of white wines. And don't be shy about asking a specific wine-related question in the comments below.