White wine isn’t exactly white. This yellow or gold colored wine is produced using the non-colored pup of grapes with, shockingly, white or black skin. However, regardless of which grape is used to produce it,the fact remains that white wine has long been the choice of many people when offered an alcoholic beverage. Please enjoy this White Wine Primer on the history and types of white wine.
History of White Wine
The first white wine can be traced all the way back to the antiquities approximately 7500 years ago from wine located in what’s now Iran. Unfortunately, even though we’ve located this significant find, it does little to tell us just how long wine has been produced, which, in all fairness could centuries prior.
What we do know is that wine was very present throughout much of the Middle East. In third millennium BC, the tablets of Hattusa can found talking much about white wine.
In Ancient Greece they were already making white wine since Hippocrates who prescribed it to his patients. In fact, Hippocrates had two varietals of white wine he prescribed; the first of which was vinous white wine and the second bitter white wine.
By the time the Romans had capitalized on their strongholds, they took with it the Greeks model of making white wine. Deciding that the wine was so delicious it should be reserved for the patricians, large scale banquets were arranged and attending them was the ultimate sign of prestigiousness. Only the wealthiest could afford the ticket price and the wine played a very predominant role at these feasts. Aristocrats and other members of nobility acquired villas in the Bay of Naples where the wine had been cultivated by the Greeks.
At this time the grape varietal used was the aminum grape which produced a sweeter mulled white wine almost like the Madiera. As the Romans continued to conquer new regions to the North, they began cultivating their vines as well and what came of that was a new-found white wine that was less sweet and drier with some citrus appeals. Not only was wine reserved for those of nobility, but it was also served to all others in the region as drinking water was deemed unhealthy. Therefore, even children would consume white wine in the times and it was drank warm in the winter and chilled in the summer.
With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, wine merchants suffered as well when viticulture declined with the Roman’s fall. Beer was now widely available and many of the everyman preferred it over wine. Tribes didn’t understand the value of wine and didn’t enjoy it much either. This is when the making of the white wine went into secrecy. The Vikings split the sea lanes of the Atlantic and in the South the Saracens were raiding much of Europe including Languedoc, Provence, Southern Italy and the famous Douro Valley which caused them to depopulate. Villagers were given two options; Flee or become a slave.
If it wasn’t for the Catholic Church it’s possible wine could have gone down with the villages in the raids. However, monks strategically and quietly increased their acreages and planted vines at very high latitudes to continue giving the church wine for celebration of Mass. Once things subsided, wine became popular again in the local regions. It was far to difficult to transport and store, but after the enrichment of the nobles, wine began to spread fervently, as the art of the table reflected the reputation of the host.
River trade became of increased importance. The navigability of the Rhine and the Danube would allow transport and trade of the wine for other goods and chattels. Charlemangne created a set of rules on the cultivation of wine for all regions, calling it the Capitulare de villis.
This was a time of great importance in white wine making. Vineyards reached 100,000 hectares, which was almost four times the amount in the early to mid 1990s.
Again wine became popular amongst all walks of life. There was vinum francium which was wine designated for wealthy aristocrats and vinum hunicum which was for the rest of society.
As the wine craze continues, planting began between Bordeaux and La Rochelle, after which it was produced on the banks of the Charente.
During the Crusades in the Mediterranean, Frankish lords provided their troops with wine from Greece. Discovering muscat wine after a visit to the port of Monemvasia, they began charishing the sweet white wine and once back home argued for export so they could continue to consume it.
Again in 1453, the wine market took a nose dive with the Ottoman Empire overthrowing Constantinople. Everything between northern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean came to a stand still. A short ways away, the Spanish had began to replenish their losses with their own wine which they successfully sold to English and Dutch merchants. The port of Sanlucar de Barrameda began to export large amounts of white wine, which was the beginning of Sherry. Sack, as the English called it adored it and ripened for more. On average, 40 and 60 thousand barrels each of 500 liters departed annually for the Netherlands and for England.
By the mid sixteenth century, white wine was being created around the world, and it continues to be one of the most popular types of wine consumed today.
White wine, unlike many other alcoholic beverages, can be made anywhere in the world and from the widest range of grapes. Here are a few that are most commonly found in today’s white wine.
Chardonnay is the most planted at the same time most diverse white wine grape. It hails from Burgundy but has spread to many other countries who sell it under the grape name. Usually still, but sometimes sparkling, it’s a wider bodied, rich, buttery citrus when we compare it to other white wines. Notice, not every Chardonnay is alike. some are oaked, meaning stored in an oak barrel which gives them a flavor boost but also tannins, and some people don’t like that. On the other hand, an unoaked Chardonnay is much lighter and fresher, so don’t make the mistake of thinking all Chardonnay taste the same and determine if you prefer unoaked or oaked, so you are never surprised by a Chardonnay again.
From deep within the heart of France and the Bordeaux vineyards, this is another wine that has spread globally. It’s quite fruity with greens like apples and pair as well as tropical with aromas and flavors of melon, mango and berries.
Originating from Germany, it’s a very light wine typically with big notes of green apples. It pairs well with fish, chicken and some pork dishes and often comes in a sparkling wine as well.
This is provably the most widely grown grape used in white wines from Germany. It’s very fruity and well balanced but doesn’t yield very long.
Muscat is a group of over 150 grapes with very specific aromas. The typically come from Austrian and Italian grown grapes and usually have a very distinct, sweet and fruit forward rates.
The most planted vat wine in the world, this modest like grape is grown almost exclusively in Spain where it makes a beautiful dry white wine.
Catarratto bianco comune
From southern Italy, the Catarratto is very aromatic and offers a finished wine that’s very high in alcohol.
From the Loire Valley in France as well as in South Africa, this grape produces a very fruit-forward wine that can be dry or sweet depending on the soil.
From Spain, it’s a little grape used to produce Cava, Spain’s sparkling wine. It is also grown in Languedoc-Roussillon, France and provides very dry, crisp and fruity notes.
Originally used for sweet wines from Bordeaux due to its ability to take the noble rot, it has very fig like characters and will often be blended with a Sauv Blanc to mellow it out.
Trebbiano Bianco or Ugni Blanc
This is an Italian grape that is fairly neutral. In France, it’s predominantly used to make brandy.
From the Rhone Valley, this complex and fruity French grape now holds most of its roots in California.
The white variation of the black grape, they produce full bodied dry wines with some acidity. Surprisingly, they can also make sweet wines.
This grape actually has a pink skin and is very aromatic resembling light flowers and lychees.
Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier
As we discussed in our Champagne and Rose wine guides, both of these wines are used in the development of Champagne and rose wine.
The Pinot gris or grigio, is planted in Venice and is a beautiful copper colored grape with crisp fruity flavors.
It’s used to make rosé wine from Sauvignon blanc. It’s very sweet and heavy working well when blended to create sweeter wines.
The rosé form of Grenache, it’s a sweet white wine with a darker color resembling almost a pinkish amber.
How White Wine is Made
White wine can be made with either red or white grapes. The only difference is that the grape skins are taken out during the fermentation process. Before fermentation can take place, they press the grapes to remove the skin and keep only the juice for the wine.
Next they begin what’s called a cold fermentation process. Because they want to keep the fruit flavors in as much as they can, they ferment the grapes at a lesser temperature than they would for a red wine. During the fermentation, the sugar is reduced into alcohol. Despite the name white wine, most are either straw or yellow colored.
Next comes the oaking which adds vanilla flavors to the wine. During this next second stage of fermentation called Malo-Lactic Fermentation, the MLF allows the wine to become more creamy instead of staying in its oily state. Both the oaking and the MLF are optional and usually the price will be higher because of it.
Next comes filtering where any sediment is removed to prevent the wine from becoming cloudy. And, finally, it’s bottled and sent to the stores for you to purchase and serve to your guests.
Types of White Wine
The dry white wine is a wine typically with less than four grams of sugar per liter. It’s incredibly difficult to develop the wine since there has to be a perfect balance of acidity to alcohol. Today, it’s the most popular style of white wine sold on the market, but it still remains one of the most difficult to produce.
Sweet and fortified white wine
From something that’s simply light, refreshing with a hint of sweetness all the way to one that’s like drinking syrup, the sweet and fortified white wines use the concentrated sugars in a number of ways to try and sweeten the wine. Often, this can be done by leaving the grapes out in the sun to concentrate naturally during a late harvest, but there are other methods as well.
Please see our article all about Champagne.
White wine is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in the world. It can be paired with various foods or left alone to savor. All one has to do is ask the local wine merchant for a recommendation, and they’re sure to find a bottle that pleases the palate. We hope you’ve enjoyed this primer on white wine and stay tuned for articles about specific styles and bottles.