White wine is popular across the globe, it boasts recognisable varieties that are synonymous with summer, long lunches, and lazy afternoons. From Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling to Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Semillon, all providing a range of styles and flavours to suit every palate.
In this article, we’ll break down how white wines are made. Which processes are used to create dry versus sweet white wines, what affects wine acidity, and which varieties are worth checking out. We’ll also answer a number of frequently asked questions about popular white wines, food pairings, and the best white wine for beginners to experiment with.
White Wine and Grape Types
This often surprises many casual wine drinkers but you can make white wine from virtually any grape, even grapes that have red skin. It’s actually the wine-making process that determines the colour of the wine, not necessarily the colour of the grape.
Let’s look at Champagne. As an example, a classic Pinot Noir blend (Pinot Noir/Chardonnay/Pinot Meunier). So if the two grapes in the blend are red wine grapes… then why will the Champagne be white? Because, during the wine-making process, the grapes are pressed to release the juice which is then removed from contact with the red grape skins. It's contact with the grape skins that will impart colour to the juice. The result in this example is a white Champagne even though we all know that Pinot Noir wine is usually red.
When the skins are soaked in the juice they release anthocyanin (pigment) which then stains the colour of the wine. Remove the skins from the process and you have white wine.
Interestingly, there’s only a couple of grape varieties used in wine production that have red flesh, these are known as Teinturier Grapes (some examples are Alicante Bouschet from Portugal, Chambourcin from the USA and Saperavi from Georgia) from the French “to dye.” Almost all of the other varieties are grapes with white flesh.
White wine really is the perfect example of how it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
The Difference Between Sweet and Dry White Wines
Grapes are a remarkable living thing. As grapes grow and develop on the vine, the sugar levels, and therefore their sweetness, increases. The longer they’re connected to this life support system, the vine, the longer they have access to water and nutrients, the longer the fruit develops. Basically, the longer a grape is on the vine, the more its sugar content will increase, and the sweeter its wine will be.
One example of a way winemakers utilise this plant biology is Late Harvest Riesling. This white wine is made by picking the grapes at the latest possible moment in the vintage to ensure that its potential for sweetness is at its highest. The late harvest fruit is then fermented to become a sweet dessert wine.
Another example of a type of sweet white wine is Trockenbeerenauslese, or TBA, made using Riesling from Germany and Austria. In addition to using the same grape strategy we just mentioned, the winemakers will also deliberately introduce Noble Rot (Botrytis Cinerea) fungus to the grapes which causes them to dehydrate and shrivel on the vine to the size of a raisin.
When the Riesling TBA grapes are eventually pressed, they produce some of the world’s sweetest and most exquisite dessert wine. Some even call it the King of Wines due to its strong appeal and premium price point.
Another way to produce sweet white wine is to stop the ferment. Fermentation is the production of alcohol when yeast consumes starch or carbohydrate (the residual sugar in grape juice,) so when the fermentation process is halted the residual sugar not consumed by the yeast provides the sweetness that remains in the wine. An example is Moscato, where once the alcohol reaches 5-6% approximately 150g/L of residual sugar remains in the juice. Fermentation is rapidly stopped by rapidly chilling the fermentation vessel to near freezing.
Moscato, which is usually just around 6.5% ABV (Alcohol by Volume,) is quite a sweet wine. Moscato prioritises sweetness over alcohol level so it’s not a wine that’s for everyone. It does, however, often find a place on Sunday brunch lists either in cocktails or as a response to people wanting a glass of wine on Sunday morning… without having to deal with the higher alcohol of other whites. Moscato can be a good compromise wine for many.
Organic wines have also become increasingly popular recently.
Exploring Organic White Wines
Plants are amazing, essentially existing only to procreate. They produce fruit so that an animal will eat that fruit and unintentionally deposit it somewhere else, giving the original plant’s offspring a chance to grow in an entirely different area or region.
Plants can also defend themselves from predatory animals through a variety of systems that have evolved over the years. One prime example of this is when plants produce fruit or even leaves that have a taste or smell that repels a predatory animal. This type of defence mechanism is often mimicked by wineries producing organic or biodynamic wines as a way to protect the crop from bugs, insects, and other pests. Often winemakers/viticulturalists will introduce treatments that activate the vines' defence mechanisms and prepare the plants immunity to ward off any impending threat.
For example, an organic winery may incorporate a natural pest deterrent derived from crustacean shells (called Chitin or chitosan) to protect grapes from insect threats instead of resorting to the traditional chemical-based pesticides.
Introducing animals such as chickens, ducks, sheep, and even owls to combat pests and weeds is also common practice in forward-thinking organic wineries.
One good example of a winery who’s embraced such practices is Macquariedale Organic Wines, the first winery in the Hunter Valley to receive an Organic/Biodynamic certification. Many others have since followed suit and now Australia has a rather respectable organic wine scene.
White Wine Acidity Explained
Acidity in wine refers to the tartness or sourness that you notice when drinking wine, it derives from three types of acid present in wine: Tartaric acid, malic acid and citric acid. Usually, wine has a pH of between 2.5 – 4.5 (pH neutral is 7). Generally white wine ranges from 2.5 – 3.5 pH and red wine from 3.5 – 4.5 pH.
The reasons why white wines have more prominent acidity than red wines can be attributed to:
White wine has a lower pH than red wine so the acid is stronger and more prominent.
All red wines go through a process called malolactic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation converts the malic acid in the wine grapes to lactic acid, which removes some of the acidity and replaces it with a softer creamier feel. That's why red wines often feel quite supple and silky on your palate while white wines feel a little bit more tart or sour.
Region. Where the wine is from is important as cool climates and warm climates have different impacts on a grape’s development. When grapes are young (green) they have high acidity, over time acid levels drop as sweetness levels intensify. The perfect grape is one where the acids, sweetness and tannins are in balance. Cooler climates have cooler night-time temperatures. Cold weather and cool night time temperatures help grapes retain their acidity levels.
Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are very common in cooler climates. For example Marlborough New Zealand is a cooler climate. Sauvignon Blanc from cooler climates will have a more prominent acid profile.
Fermentation can also greatly affect acidity in wines.
With whites in particular, Chardonnay is one example of a wine that often fully or partially goes through malolactic fermentation creating a creamier texture that many Chardonnay drinkers find appealing. Riesling production, on the other hand, typically avoids the malolactic fermentation process to maintain its lean crisp style.
For example, if you were to put a Riesling through malolactic fermentation, it would become a lot less of a classic style Riesling and would gain a more flabby (flavonoid-rich and lacking crispness) taste. It wouldn’t be as nice to drink because all of those lean flavours, those key Riesling flavours, Lime, Orange and Grapefruit characters, work really well with the existing acids.
White Wine Spotlight: Collector Lamp Lit Marsanne
A white wine variety that more people need to try is Marsanne. Marsanne is a grape variety native to the Rhône wine region in Southern France. You will often see Marsanne in blends like Marsanne Roussanne, Marsanne Roussanne Viognier, and Marsanne Viognier. Occasionally you’ll even see winemakers blend it with a red wine like Shiraz.
Marsanne is a great white wine to explore for wine drinkers looking to step out of their comfort zone and educate themselves on new and different varieties. It’s a wine that tastes fantastic when it’s young, yet is also age-worthy and has the potential to develop toasted caramelly characteristics with a more complex and an evolved fruit flavour profile.
While you may taste some residual sweetness from the fruit, Marsanne is a very dry white wine so it’s a great choice for wine drinkers who like their wines to be rich but dry. If you like Chardonnay then it's a strong bet you will also like these Rhône varietals especially Marsanne.
One of my favourite Marsanne wines to enjoy is the Collector Lamp Lit Marsanne which is 100% Marsanne.
Collector is named after the town of Collector in New South Wales, just to the west of Lake George, and the winemaker, Alex McKay, is a truly skilled winemaker. The Right Drop are huge fans of Collector Wines.
Alex McKay grew up in the Canberra district near Lake George. He did his initial work at Lake George Winery which, back in the day, was an iconic winery from the area and they produced some fantastic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
After Lake George, Alex then went on to work for Hardys. At the time, Hardy's were one of the biggest wine producing companies in Australia, with major winemaking operations in Canberra, Tumbarumba, Adelaide Hills, and the Barossa. Hardys (Accolade Wines) is still pretty large now but they’ve since consolidated locations where they produce wines.
While at Hardys, Alex trained under Steve Pannell, another great winemaker. His work at the Kamberra Winery provided him with first hand and detailed knowledge on the various iconic winegrowing sites, their background information, the soil specifics…all of the inside knowledge. So, when Hardys pulled out of Canberra in the 90s, an opportunity presented itself. McKay knocked on all of the doors of the best growers in the region and began sourcing his grapes from them to produce his own wines.
Alex has since produced some phenomenal wines and won several major awards, such as the Trophy for Wines of Provenance at the National Wine Show in 2016. This requires wineries to submit three wines from across a 10-year period. Collector Wines submitted three samples of the Collector Marked Tree Red from the 2005, 2009, and 2015 vintages and ended up beating the competition. This included wines such as the Peter Lehman Stonewall Shiraz and the Grant Burge Meschach Shiraz, both of which are iconic Barossa wines that retail for significantly more than the Marked Tree Red. That was the quality of the competition. Collector won the Trophy, scoring Gold Plus on all three wines.
Alex McKay has consistently made great wine across a long period of time. It’s genuinely impressive.
Something else that’s really interesting about Collector Wines wines is that all of the wines are named after artwork by Canberra artist Rosalie Gascoigne, whose works convey the beauty of the region's landscape. Alex has long been drawn to these powerful works and the way they had been assembled. There’s one called Lamp Lit and another called Rose Red City. There’s also one called the Marked Tree.
If you’re after another white wine of his to try in addition to the Collector Lamp Lit Marsanne, I also recommend the Collector Tiger Tiger Chardonnay from Tumbarumba.
There’s a surprising diversity of wines that fall under the large white wine umbrella. A variety of drops for all tastes and occasions.
If you’ve been avoiding white wines because you didn’t like one that you tried a while ago, now’s the perfect chance to dive back in and give white wine another go. For those that are long-time white wine enthusiasts, why not experiment with something new and different like a Marsanne?
Odds are you’ve just scratched the surface of this exciting wine category.
Quick-Fire White Wine Q&A
Here are some common questions people have when researching, buying, and sharing white wine.
What Is the Most Popular White Wine?
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc outsells virtually every other variety of white wine.
What’s the Best White Wine for Beginners?
Any white wine will do for a beginner, just be open minded. Once you try it, work out what you liked and didn't like and adjust for your second white wine purchase. Would you have liked it sweeter or more dry?
Is White Wine Sweet or Dry?
White wine can be sweet or dry depending on how the grapes are grown and how the wine is produced.
What Snack Goes With White Wine?
Cheese, crackers, and chips go well with white wine.
What Meat Goes With White Wine?
Fish and other seafood or roast chicken pair well with white wine. A quality charcuterie plate works well also.
What Fruit Goes Well With White Wine?
Try pairing dried fruit, muscatels, and apples with your white wine. The acids in most other fresh fruit can conflict with a white's flavour.
Is Chardonnay a White Wine?
Yes. Chardonnay is an incredibly popular white wine grape that was originally produced in France but is now grown and produced by wineries all over the world.
Is Rosé a White Wine?
No. Rosé wine isn’t a type of white wine. Rosé is typically a wine that is made from the juice of a red wine grape that has spent a small amount of time in contact with the grape skins.
What Is a Fruity White Wine?
Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are two examples of white wines that can often have a fruity flavour.
Is Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc Sweeter?
Pinot Grigio is generally sweeter than Sauvignon Blanc due to its higher residual sugar level though the difference is marginal.
What Is in White Zinfandel?
White Zinfandel is a “blush” or Rose wine made from Zinfandel that's usually off-dry in taste.
Is Riesling Sweeter Than White Zinfandel?
No. Most Riesling is bone dry, not sweet.