The White Wine Basics Every Drinker Should Know

A glass of white wine on the table
Getty Images

Look at any wine list or browse any wine shop, and you’ll find a huge variety of white wines from different grapes and regions. From crisp offerings from Italy’s Alto Adige to softly acidic delights from France’s RhĂ´ne Valley, there’s a white wine for every palate. But whether you’re a white wine aficionado or new to the category, it’s important to know white wine basics to get the most out of every sip.  

Of course, considering the sheer volume of white wine varietals out there, there’s as much information to learn as there are white wine grapes planted in all corners of the globe. That being said, you’ll likely encounter only a handful of these grapes on the regular. Below, we break down common white wine flavor profiles and regions, plus some common questions you may have about enjoying these varieties.   

How Is White Wine Made?  

Dry white wines are most often made with white grapes (though, not always) and go through a process of crushing, pressing, fermenting, storing and bottling. First, the grapes are gathered from the vines and crushed. They are then pressed and go through a process called clarification to remove the skins and sediment. The resulting substance then goes through alcoholic fermentation thanks to the addition of yeast. It’s then stored, typically in stainless steel or oak, and the winemaker can do different things at this point to change the flavor of the wines. When ready, it is then packaged for purchasing.  

Sweet white wines and sparkling white wines have slightly different processes—read more about it in our in-depth guide to how white wine is made 

Types of White Wine  

There are many different types of white wine. Although some people believe they prefer white wine over red—or don’t drink white wine at all!—a closer look at the category reveals that white wine spans a wide range of flavors and characteristics. Basically, there’s something for everyone—even self-proclaimed white wine haters. Here, we break down some of the most popular varieties.  


Flavors: Lemon, grapefruit, peach, apricot 

Most famously grown in the Spanish region of RĂ­as Baixas, wines from the Albariño grape variety create refreshing white wines. They tend to be dry, have high acid and medium bodies and bring fresh flavors. It’s not commonly aged and is best to be enjoyed young. Occasionally, these grapes will have a stronger body and complexity after spending some time on lees.  


Flavors: Green apple, citrus, pineapple, papaya 

Versatile and popular, Chardonnay grows all over the world. It reaches its mineral-laced pinnacle in Burgundy, ripens to the tropical richness in California and Australia and takes very well to new oak. It picks up buttery aromas from malolactic fermentation and toasty or vanilla scents from aging in new barrels. By itself, young Chardonnay is most likely to recall fresh green apples in both smell and flavor. Depending upon the winemaker, it can be made to be crisp and stony, buttery and toasty or brilliantly fresh with green apple and citrus flavors. 

Chenin Blanc 

Flavors: Ripe apple, lemon drop, pear, honeydew 

Chenin Blanc is a white grape common in the Loire Valley of France. It’s versatile and can produce dry, off-dry, sparkling and sweet dessert wines. Also known as Steen in South Africa, wines made from Chenin Blanc typically exhibit floral aromas, apple and pear-like flavors and assertive acidity. 


Flavors: Apples, flowers, nuts, honey,  

Most widely grown in Hungary, Furmint is a grape variety most closely associated with Tokaji wines. These grapes have a high acidity and hold up well to botrytis, making them eligible to create wonderfully sweet wine. Furmint grapes are most planted in the region of Tokaj, Hungary, to produce dry, medium and, most commonly, sweet wines.  


Flavors: Lychee, grapefruit, flowers, talc 

This grape reaches its apex in Alsace, France, where it produces intensely floral, aromatic, spicy wines that range from bone dry to decadently sweet. In cooler climate regions such as Oregon and northern Italy (where it is called simply Traminer), GewĂĽrztraminer makes a crisp, grapefruit-flavored white wine that rarely sees oak and often pairs well with Asian dishes and spicy foods. 

GrĂĽner Veltliner 

Flavors: Apple, peach, citrus and mineral notes 

Accounting for over a third of all plantings in Austria, GrĂĽner Veltliner is by far its most popular variety. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and even the U.S. house a small amount of GrĂĽner Veltliner plantings, but it’s most expressive when grown and vinified in its native land of Austria. The broad range of flavors and styles that a well-made GrĂĽner Veltliner can display only adds to its mystique and charisma. Young and unoaked versions of this wine show green grape and apple flavors along with peach, citrus and mineral notes. Top-tier options come from lower yielding vineyards and are allowed to age in oak casks. This will typically elicit a white pepper and spicy characteristic that melds with the mellow fruit and rich mineral backbone that these low-production wines possess. 


Flavors: Marzipan, white peaches, pears 

The most important white wine grape of the northern RhĂ´ne, Marsanne has only recently begun to be varietally labeled in the U.S. Both here and in France, it is often blended with Roussanne, Viognier and (sometimes) Grenache Blanc. Marsanne ripens reliably and makes full-bodied, low-acid wines with flavors of almonds, white peaches and lightly spiced pears. Australia boasts some of the oldest plantings in the world. 


Flavors: Oranges, tangerines 

There are many varieties of Muscat throughout the world, but all are marked by a penetrating aroma of oranges. When fermented dry, Muscat’s fruit-driven scents and flavors generally impart a hint of sweetness. It can be made into excellent light sparkling wines, especially the Moscato d’Asti of northern Italy, or rich dessert wines such as Beaumes de Venise. The fortified Muscats of Australia take the grape to its most luscious and dense extremes. 

Pinot Blanc 

Flavors: Green apple, citrus 

Similar to Chardonnay, but lighter and more elegant, Pinot Blanc has never acquired the cachet or reputation of its big brother Pinot Grigio. But in Alsace, northeast Italy, Oregon and parts of California some very nice versions are made, ranging from lightly herbal to spicy to citrusy. Pinot Blanc is best when left in stainless steel. 

Pinot Gris/Grigio 

Flavors: Citrus, fresh pear, melon 

Pinot Grigio creates light, zippy, food-friendly white wines that do not clobber the palate with oak and alcohol. Most popular versions come from the Tre Venezie, but Alsace and the Pfalz region of Germany also do well with the grape. Its alter ego, pinot gris (same grape, different name), has become the pre-eminent white wine of Oregon, where it produces lively, pear-flavored wines that may carry a hint of fruity sweetness. The California version of Pinot Grigio is a bit heavier, but vintners in Washington make intense, tart wines that match well with seafood. 


Flavors: Green apple, citrus, apricot, peach, honeysuckle 

In flavor, Riesling ranges from dry and stony to floral and sweet, much like Chenin Blanc. The sweetest versions can age for decades. The greatest Rieslings are the German wines of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheinhessen and Rheingau; close behind are those of Alsace. Washington, New York and Australia can lay claim to making the best examples of Riesling outside of Europe, from bone dry Rieslings that marry beautifully with shellfish and Pacific Rim dishes, to sharply etched, achingly sweet late harvest Rieslings and ice wines. 


Flavors: Lime, citrus, stone fruits 

Roussanne is widely planted throughout southern France and has become quite popular among the Rhone Rangers of California and Washington State. Full-bodied and tasting of lime and citrus, its nervy acids make it a fine blending partner for Marsanne. 

Sauvignon/FumĂ© Blanc 

Flavors: Grass, herb, citrus, pineapple, peach 

Sauvignon Blanc does well in widely diverse parts of the world, and is something of a chameleon grape that can deliver interesting flavors across a wide spectrum of ripeness. The FumĂ© Blanc moniker, coined in the 1970s by Robert Mondavi as a sales gimmick, is still commonly used and often indicates that the wine has been barrel-fermented. In Sancerre and Pouilly-FumĂ© in the Loire Valley, it sports an aggressively herbaceous, grassy pungency, which combines with the bracing acids and stony minerality of the soils. It has become the benchmark white wine of New Zealand, where the intensity of the green citrus and berry fruit flavors is predominant. In California, it is made in a wide range of styles, but often ripened and barrel-fermented to taste like a peachy, tropical Chardonnay. Late harvest Sauvignon Blanc, often blended with SĂ©millon, makes some of the greatest sweet wines in the world, most notably Sauternes. 


Flavors: Fig, melon, light herb 

Like Sauvignon Blanc, its frequent blending mate, SĂ©millon can make a fine, bone-dry white wine, notable for its texture and softly grassy aromas, or it can be late harvested, shriveled with botrytis, and turned into some of the world’s greatest dessert wines. As a solo varietal, it has had sparse success, though Washington state does very well with the grape, as does Australia. Though low in acid, SĂ©millons are wines that can age nicely and take on added layers of subtle spice and herb. Young SĂ©millons taste of figs and melons, adding leafy notes as they age. 


Flavors: Flowers, citrus rind, apricot, peach 

Viognier is intensely aromatic, and when perfectly ripened, smells of apricots, peaches and citrus rind. It’s a difficult wine to make, as it can be quite bitter and austere when not-quite ripe and turn flabby and hot when overripe. Excellent wines using this grape that are made in Washington, California and Australia tend toward the ripe, hot, peachy styles. Viognier is also blended and/or co-fermented with Syrah, adding wonderful high notes of citrus and flower to the finished red wine. 

White Wine Food Pairing 

From ginger, pizza and chicken wings to Super Bowl snacks, popcorn and cheddar cheese, just about anything can be paired with wine. And though food and wine pairings are mostly about personal preference and what tastes good to you, there are a few rules to keep in mind: Drink sweet wines with sweet or spicy dishes, drink acidic and light wines with salty or fatty foods and choose a wine that isn’t too simple when eating flavorful foods, so it won’t be overwhelmed.  

The old school rule says you drink red wines with meat and white wine with fish, and though a light white wine probably would be a nice accompaniment to a light fish, what goes with what is really very dependent on the specific bottle you pick up—not to mention your personal likes and dislikes. For example, a full-bodied, intensely flavored and oaky white wine may be too much for a simple white fish with lemon. But, if the fish has a heavy, creamy sauce, it may be a better pairing for an equally intense wine.  

What Is a Dry White Wine?  

A dry white wine is a wine usually made from a white grape that has had most of the sugar consumed by yeast during fermentation. This leaves the wine without a lot of sweetness, but often still plenty of fruit and flavor. Some examples of a dry white wine include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.  

Does White Wine Go Bad?  

Occasionally there is a flaw in the winemaking process, the wine was stored incorrectly or oxygen has found its way into the bottle to spoil the wine. This can ruin a wine before it’s even opened. Well-made and well-stored wine, however, can last from a few days to a few weeks once opened, depending on how you preserve it.  

For more information, check out our explainer on how to store wine and the answer to the age-old question, “Can wine go bad?”  

This article was updated on February 1, 2023.  

Published on March 16, 2011
Topics: White WineWine 101Wine Basics