wine info

White Grape Varieties

Chardonnay           



Chardonnay is one of the most-widely planted varieties in the world. Arguably not the most characterful grape, hence its common ageing in oak, yet at its pinnacle in Burgundy it produces some of the greatest (and certainly most expensive) white wines in the world. Look out for unoaked Chardonnay, it can make a pleasant change, and usually goes down very well with all those people who say they "don't like Chardonnay".

Origins       

  • Probably Lebanon ( called Meroué and Obaideh) and Syria
  • Apparently unrelated to any other vine variety

Characteristics   

  • Moderately vigorous, and very easy to grow. ‘The most forgiving variety of all’, Brian Croser, Petaluma Winery, Australia.
  • Early budding, so prone to frost damage, but also ripens early
  • High yielding: can be 80 hl/ha, but 50 hl/ha is required for really high quality
  • Produces high sugars and therefore high alcohol levels
  • Acidity falls fast in hot climates, leading to a danger of flabbiness
  • Tastes and flavours vary from barely ripe apples (Chablis), melon (Mâconnais), exotic fruits (California), to buttery (Meursault)

Vinification/ Maturation   

  • Vinification can take place in stainless steel vats to produce simple, steely or mineral styles; or alternatively barrel fermented, often with lees stirring (batonnage), to produce an oaky, yeasty wine with greater complexity
  • Oak is a key element in the maturation of Chardonnay: new oak barrels can be used at one extreme to add the maximum elegant oak flavour; or partially used oak barrels; or big old oak vats which add little flavour; or oak chips or staves may be added to the wine (the cheap and cheerful method)
  • Very malleable for the winemaker

           
Homelands within France:     

  • Cote d'Or: aristocratic, the role model for all other Chardonnays, the finest, subtlest, most complex dry white wines. Arguably the finest oaked dry white wine in the world.
  • Chablis: pure mineral flavours, due to northern climate and calcareous soil. Barrel fermentation and oak ageing rarely used. High acid, unadorned Chardonnay of simplicity, refinement and considerable ageing potential
  • Champagne: blended with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay is the ingredient adding aristocratic vitality

Also to be found in:
France: The Jura and Limoux; Italy; Spain; California; Oregon; South Africa;  Australia; Chile; New Zealand; and Argentina


Chenin Blanc            



Origins       

  • Anjou in the Loire, where documented in the 9thC
  • Also known as Pineau in the Loire, Steen in South Africa

Characteristics   

  • Naturally productive and high yielding
  • Huge range of styles:  bone dry (e.g. Savennières); off-dry (e.g. old fashioned South African “Steen”); medium dry (e.g. most Vouvray); sweet and luscious (e.g. Coteaux du Layon); and even sparkling (e.g. Saumur)   
  • Always high acidity, whatever the sugar level
  • Can have odd aromas: wet dog, wet wool
  • Good concentration, i.e. weight in the mouth, if not over-cropped
  • When sweet can be very, very long-lasting - over 100 years - and even dry can benefit from several years of bottle age       

Vinification/Maturation    

  • For fresh, neutral wines, cool fermentation and stainless steel
  • For greater weight and complexity ageing in old oak barrels   

Homeland       

The Loire

  • The vineyards of Anjou and Touraine, where it seems to thrive in calcareous soils and a marginal climate.
  • Wines are made in all styles from the bone dry austerity of Savennières to the extremely rich wines of the two top Coteaux du Layon Crus, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume. These can produce some of the great sweet wines of the world, from grapes with plenty of botrytis, in vintages enjoying Indian summers. 

Also to be found in   

  • South of France, mainly SW                
  • US: California, where grown in huge volume as inoffensive jug wine               
  • South Africa: taken there in 1655 by Jan Van Riebeeck, still the most common white grape in SA, though declining
  • New Zealand: small quantity, but some promise

Garganega            



Garganega is a white grape variety grown widely in the Veneto region of North East Italy where it is most famous for the production of Soave. Though it can be inoffensively neutral, it has a distinct pea-pod character, and can deliver considerable weight and character.



Gewürztraminer           



Best known as perhaps the distinctive grape of Alsace, where Gewürztraminer can be bone dry or lusciously sweet in late harvest styles.

Origins       

  • Tyrol, Italy (slightly confusingly)

Characteristics   

  • Medium to full intensity of colour
  • Spicy backbone
  • Full bodied
  • Very floral / perfumed - lychees and roses
  • High sugar levels and therefore high alcohol levels (13 degrees plus)

           
Vinification      

  • Often picked with levels of sugar but fermented dry - so can smell sweet but taste dry - the exception being Vendange Tardives and Selections de Grains Nobles in Alsace

Homeland       

  • Alsace

Also to be found in   

  • North East Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Spain (in small quantities)
  • New Zealand, especially Marlborough; Oregon; and Chile (promising results there)

        .

Grüner Veltliner           



Grüner Veltliner is grown almost exclusively in Austria.  Usually showing great freshness with hints of white pepper, lentil  or tobacco on top of the typical citrus and stone fruit base. Examples from great vineyard sites can be exceptional, and can age to show minerality and class akin to white Burgundy.


Pinot Blanc / Bianco            



Origins      

  • France, as a mutation of Pinot Gris (see below)

Characteristics 

  • Medium to full bodied
  • Fresh acidity levels
  • Soft melon fruit character
  • Medium to high alcohol levels (12-13 degrees)

                        
Vinification/Maturation       

  • Always fermented dry so not presented as a sweet wine
  • Some expensive Pinot Bianco may be aged in oak, otherwise aged in traditional old oak vats to provide slight oxidation during maturation.

Homelands   

  • Alsace (where it’s often known as Clevner)
  • Italy  Good examples from Alto Adige and the Collio on the Slovenian border

Also to be found in   Germany (known as Weissburgunder), Slovenia and Austria    

Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris            



Origins       

  • France - a mutation of Pinot Noir

Characteristics   

  • Light (Italy) to medium intensity (warmer climate)
  • Low acidity, slightly neutral in flavour
  • Light to full bodied, with low to medium alcohol levels (11-13 degrees)
  • Some spiciness in good examples

Vinification/Maturation    

  • Need to preserve freshness by harvesting early (which can leave the wine lacking in character)
  • Sometimes picked late with residual sugar - can make excellent medium sweet styles

    
Homelands   
Italy; & Alsace (where it used known as Tokay Pinot Gris, but now simply Pinot Gris following objections from Hungary)

Also to be found in   
Germany, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, Oregon, New Zealand, California - and now being planted all over the place, such as Chile, due to its inexplicable poularity


Riesling    

 



Jancis Robinson, MW: “the world’s greatest white grape” ?Origins

Unquestionably German: documented in the 15th C

Characteristics   

  • Very hardy; can resist  -20°C
  • High acidity, even when sugar levels are high…but low in alcohol
  • Reflects its terroir
  • Highly aromatic: flowers, honey and spice
  • High yielding, even up to 100 hectolitres per hectare (due to breeding improvements since late 19thC)
  • Ripens late in Germany, but resistant to botrytis
  • Great ageing ability, certainly 10, up to100+ years. As Riesling ages a scent of petrol becomes apparent;and it can appear less sweet
  • Beware similar names of unrelated grapes, e.g. Eastern Europe’s Welschriesling, or South Africa’s Cape Riesling

                       
Vinification/ Maturation       

  • Very simple, stainless steel tank or very large old wooden vats. No new oak anywhere

Homeland       

Germany

  • In particular along the river systems: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau and Nahe
  • Planted on precipitous slopes, usually south or south-west facing, up to 200m above river level. Slate soils help ripening
  • Also Pfalz, Franken, Wurttemburg etc.
  • Order of ripeness (and therefore usually, but not always, sweetness): Qba (Quality wine from specific region); Kabinett; Spatlese; Auslese; Beerenauslese (BA); Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA)
  • Also: Eiswein (literally ice wine), made from picking frozen grapes in December

Also to be found in   

  • Alsace: wines tend to be fuller bodied, with higher alcohol, and dry or off-dry
  • N.E. Italy
  • Austria: v. small production, dry wines on Alsace lines, often high in alcohol
  • California and Oregon: tend to be dry but can be aromatic and successful
  • Australia: Brought to Oz. by Silesian settlers in Barossa Valley, South Australia. Grown in cooler zones, e.g. Clare and Eden Valleys, Adelaide  Hills, can be dry, limey and excellent
  • New Zealand: usually South Island. Often scented and pretty
  • Chile.  Early days
  • South Africa: Known as Weisser Riesling. A sideshow           


Sauvignon Blanc            



Origins      

  • Probably in Bordeaux region
  • Parent of red grape Cabernet Sauvignon (established by DNA analysis)

           
Characteristics   

  • Vigorous plant, so can be too leafy and overproductive
  • Aromas and flavours described as: herbaceous, grassy and nettley; Gooseberries; but can also show more tropical fruits such as white peach and guava; “Cat’s pee”
  • To be drunk young (unless oaked and expensive or Pouilly-Fumé)

Vinification/Maturation    

  • Vinification needs to be as clean and simple as possible in order to preserve freshness.
  • Vinification and maturation usually in stainless steel tanks. SB can also be matured in oak barrels.

Homelands within France       
A. Bordeaux

  • Large quantities of SB planted. Wine often undistinguished as a varietal but SB is key ingredient in blends with Sémillon
  • Dry: Graves and Pessac Léognan.  Sweet: Sauternes and Barsac

B. Loire

  • The Central vineyards, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, plus satellite appellations: Menetou-Salon, Quincy & Reuilly. Here SB has classic style and flavour. Key is white chalk and clay soils
  • Also Touraine and all over the Loire valley

Also to be found in 

  • France: Very widely planted throughout France, e.g.  Sauvignon de St. Bris, S.W. France, for example Bergerac; Languedoc: Vin de Pays  (Note: from warmer climates in the south SB tends to be rounder, slightly sweeter and less crisp)
  • N.E. Italy, esp. Friuli
  • Austria: Styria in the south
  • New Zealand: the Definitive New World style, though first wines bottled only in 1974. Widely planted but most successful in Marlborough, home to 2/3 of plantings. Cool climate and sharp draining soils
  • South Africa: First planted in 18thC. Recent success, esp. in cooler or higher sites, e.g. Bamboes Bay, Cederberg, Elgin and Cape Agulhas. Cape style between Loire and NZ
  • Australia: Few real successes; too hot
  • California: Often blended and/or oak aged: “Blanc Fumé” style
  • Chile: Formerly less varietal character as often inadvertently mixed with Sauvignonasse, a related but lesser grape; now excellent results

Now one of the most popular grapes in the Uk market - perhaps because so recognisable a style?

 

Semillon            



Origins      

  • Bordeaux region

Characteristics   

  • Not strong flavour - pears? - but good weight
  • Can be very high-yielding (and therefore flavourless)
  • Affinity for oak
  • Thin-skinned: so vulnerable to rot (see below)
  • Often blended, with Sauvignon Blanc or others
  • Dry Semillon ages well, becoming deeper in colour, and gaining a rich, waxy texture

                           
Vinification/Maturation  

  • Formerly often over-sulphured (particularly cheap Bordeaux Blanc)
  • Better wines usually matured in French oak barrels

Homeland       
Bordeaux

  • The classic white grape of Graves, Péssac-Leognan & Sauternes/Barsac
  • Usually blended with Sauvignon Blanc: Dry, 50-75% Semillon, 25-50% SB; sweet, 80% Semillon, 20% SB + up to 5% Muscadelle

Also to be found in   

  • France: eastern satellites of Bordeaux, e.g. Dry, Montravel, and wines from the Dordogne; Sweet, Monbazillac
  • Australia: New South Wales, esp. Hunter Valley - a classic Austalian style, capable of long ageing: toasty and fat
  • South Africa: in the 19thC was the dominant white grape: now only small plantings

     
An aside on Noble Rot (Botrytis Cinerea, "pourriture noble")

This is a grey fungus which attacks the grapes to hugely beneficial effect. Filaments break the skin and go into the grapes: reducing water, thereby aiding concentration; heightening sugar levels and thus raising potential alcohol; adding interesting flavours - honeyed, flowery - and glycerol. Noble Rot needs specific weather conditions for the mould to flourish: cool, foggy mornings, with some moisture, and warmer afternoons. (If too cold or too dry, then no botrytis: if too rainy then there's a danger of ruinous grey rot). Grapes are picked very late, in October and November in France, in several tries, i.e. passages through the vineyards, over several weeks to select the ripest bunches.



Torrontés

Torrontés is the distinctive white of Argentina, a highly aromatic grape perhaps most comparable in flavour to a dry Muscat. Whilst Torrontés can become too tarty and flabby if grown in unsuitable areas and handled poorly, in the high altitude vineyards of Argentina’s north-west, in La Rioja and Salta, the results are outstanding, with a vital freshness to balance the exotic fruit.


Viognier    

Characteristics

  • Fickle grape to grow, subject to problems in the flowering and setting of fruit
  • Best picked late and fully ripe, with high alcohol, at least 13.5 degree
  • ...but can be too fat and overblown if grown in too hot temperatures
  • Very aromatic, with scents of apricot and honeysuckle
  • Intense stone fruit palate
  • Only top examples should be aged - otherwise best enjoyed young

Vinification/maturation

  • Wide range of styles: crisp and pure from stainless steel to powerful, barrel-matured examples

Best known as the only grape of Condrieu, an appellation in the northern Rhône, over the last forty years Viognier has spread down the Rhône (in the south it is useful as a blending grape) and to the Languedoc. In the New World there are highly successful Viogniers from California, South Africa, Australia, Chile, and notable value in Argentina.

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