Wines come in so many flavors, with thousands of subtle differences, accents, and notes in the taste, that no two wines are exactly the same. Even yearly vintages taste different (have you ever heard someone say “oh, that was a really good year for that wine?”). But there are two categories that everyone knows: red and white.
Red wines often represent stronger, bolder tastes, with strong, rich flavors, while white wines often represent the more acidic, floral, and fruity aspect of wine that narrows in on lighter flavors and subtle overtones.
Most casual wine drinkers do not realize the number of differences between red and white wines, simply assuming the differences all boil down to the fact that different grapes are used. Now, it is true that the two types of wine generally use varietal types of grapes, however, they also utilize different parts of the grape, varying processes, and feature distinct chemical compounds (which corresponds directly to a wine’s nutrition component), all of which combine to give white wines their unique taste.
In this guide, we’ll cover these differences in greater depth, exploring what makes red and white wines different. Then, we’ll explore the different types of white wine and how winemakers are able to create bold, unique, and flavorful tastes.
Different (Parts of) Grapes
While it is commonly known that, for the most part, red wine is made with red grapes and white wine is made with white grapes, what many people don’t realize is that winemakers actually utilize different parts of the grape for the different wines.
When red wine is made, the wine is fermented (this is essentially the part of the process in which grape juice, combined with yeast, undergoes a transformation that creates the alcoholic beverage that is wine), with the skin and seeds of the grapes. This is because the color of the grapes, and thus the wine, is actually held within the skin and the seed.
White wine, on the other hand, is made without the grape skin and seeds (except in special situations). In fact, there are types of white wines, such as White Pinot Noir, that are made with red grapes. Winemakers remove the skins and seeds from the grapes, allowing them to craft a white wine taste that is richer and bolder than many other white wines.
For delicious White Wines from around the world, shop Martha Stewart White Wine.
The production methods used to make white wine feature a number of key differences from those used to produce red wine.
By far the biggest difference between the two production methods has to do with the type of taste winemakers are trying to achieve. As noted above, red wines typically follow a different set of taste guidelines than that of white wine. The rich, bold, and strong flavors of red wine are achieved by increasing oxygen exposure, which rids the wine of the fruity, floral overtones that are intrinsic to the grapes. In order to attain this increased oxygen exposure, red wine is typically aged in oak barrels, since the pores of the wood allow oxygen to circulate through the wine.
The taste guidelines of white wine, on the other hand, typically revolve around the same floral, fruity, and citrusy tastes that winemakers seek to rid red wine of. As a result, white wine is often aged in stainless steel containers, or vats, which allow winemakers to control oxygen exposure, an essential component of the white wine production process.
Again, this difference is NOT true of all red and white wines, but it is a very common one.
White Wine Varietals
White wine comes in a number of different varietals. A few commonly known and popular ones consist of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Riesling, but there’s far more to it. In this next section, we’ll cover a number of different varietals, as well as their common origins, popular pairings, and some of our favorite selections!
Chardonnay is a white wine grape variety grown in almost every wine region around the world—and one of the most popular too. In fact, 93,148 acres of California vineyards planted Chardonnay in 2018.
Originating from Pinot and the nearly extinct Gouais Blanc grape varieties in northeastern France, Chardonnay’s history goes back to the middle ages. Chardonnay is loved by winemakers for the blank slate it allows them to create with. The wine is incredibly dynamic and will take on a variety of different characteristics depending on the soil, terroir, how it’s aged and much more.
Chardonnay’s versatility allows it to grow in almost any climate. Flavors will vary depending on where your wine was grown and through the aging process. Today, Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape variety in the world.
Parents & Origin: Pinot Noir + Gouais Blanc, Northeastern France
Notable Regions: Australia, Italy, California, New Zealand and more
Grape: Green-skinned, sturdy
Flavors: Apple, pear, peach, melon
How to Serve Chardonnay
Chardonnay Serving Temperature
Wine Glass for Chardonnay
How Long to Decant Chardonnay
How Long to Age Chardonnay
5- 10 years
Chardonnay Flavor Profile
Notable Flavors: Apple, Pear, Peach, Melon
Chardonnay varies in taste depending on if it is oaked or unoaked. The difference between unoaked and oaked Chardonnay is relatively straight forward. One is aged in oak, while the other is not. Instead of fruity flavors, when Chardonnay spends time in oak it expresses flavors of vanilla, caramel and even butter.
Unoaked Chardonnay is closer in style to Sauvignon Blanc than oaked chardonnay, though Chardonnay has less “green flavors.” Unoaked Chardonnay typically has a more “refreshing” taste and flavors of apples and lemons shine through.
If you prefer your wine to be more minerally and on the dryer side, then you should consider unoaked Chardonnay over-oaked Chardonnay.
Oaked Chardonnay is what sparked the ABC revolution of the 1980s but since has found itself to be more balanced and drinkable. Cooler climate oaked Chardonnays will espouse citrus flavors while warmer climate Chardonnays will show tropical fruit flavors.
Those who enjoy a smooth and rich wine should go for an oaked Chardonnay.
Food Pairings for Chardonnay
Oaked and Unoaked chardonnays pair with slightly different foods. Oaked chardonnay tends to be higher-end and from the regions of California, burgundy, and Australia, among various other regions as well. Unoaked leans toward entry-level prices and is traditionally from Chile, parts of France and New Zealand.
Oaked Chardonnay pairs well with crab cakes, clams, halibut, and starchy vegetables like mushrooms and pumpkin.
Unoaked chardonnay pairs well with raw seafood like oysters, sushi and sauteed fish. It also goes nicely with a Chicken Piccata or vegetable risotto. The delicate flavors need a delicate palette match.
Light white meats
Delicate seafood dishes
Oaked Chardonnay Food Pairings
Oaked Chardonnays are typically heavier in “butter” and will pair with more intense dishes than unoaked Chardonnay. Turn to smoked fish and guacamole with these wines. Another approach is to go with simply-prepared seafood like seared scallops. The simplicity of the food will actually allow the Chardonnay to shine and the flavors in the dish to pop.
Unpasteurized blue cheese
French Brie-like cheese made of goat milk
Herbs and spices
Muscat grapes have a long history - they have been in existence since antiquity and were first mentioned by name in the 13th century. These grapes, prized for their sweetness, are still often eaten as a table grape or even made into raisins. However, a few varieties of Muscat are best known as Moscato, a floral and sweet white wine.
The traditional Italian Moscato, known as Moscato d’Asti, originated in the Piedmont region from a variety called Muscat blanc à Petits Grains. This type of Moscato is usually very low in alcohol and is slightly fizzy, establishing it as a dessert or aperitif wine. However, as the Muscat grape saw expanded consumption throughout the world, different varieties of Moscato began to emerge. One grape variety called Muscat of Alexandria became extremely popular in California, South Africa, and Australia. Muscat of Alexandria is typically used in the production of wines labeled “Moscato” in the United States.
Today, Moscato has seen increased popularity as an affordable wine with an enjoyable flavor, and it is now often sold in anonymous blends in large jugs. In fact, Moscato is the fastest growing wine in terms of popularity in the United States, growing at an average rate of 25 percent per year. Still, despite Moscato’s light taste and low cost, it can play an important role in a wine enthusiast’s collection, especially as a dessert wine or aperitif.
Interesting Fact: Moscato’s sudden rise in popularity has been reflected in the hip hop industry, having been mentioned in songs by artists such as Drake and Lil Kim. Some even credit the genre’s focus on Moscato with the wine’s booming sales.
Parents & Origin: Muscat grape (Piedmont, Italy)
Grape: various mutations from light to dark
Flavors: nectarine, peach, orange, grape
Notable Regions: Italy, France, Spain, California, Australia, South Africa
How to Serve Moscato
Moscato Serving Temperature
Wine Glass for Moscato
How Long to Decant Moscato
How Long to Age Moscato
Less than 2 years
Notable Flavors: Nectarine, Peach, Orange, Grape
Moscato’s flavor is generally straightforward and very accessible, though it often comes with a powerful scent known as the “Muscat aroma” due to high amounts of an aromatic compound called linalool. As for the taste itself, the most common varieties, which are unaged and young, typically exhibit a strong “grape” flavor and a prominent floral aroma. Prevailing flavor notes include nectarine, orange blossom, and peach. It is also important to serve Moscato chilled, as this softens its sweetness and enhances the fruit flavors.
Moscato's Sweet Flavors
Above all, Moscato is known for its sweetness, which for centuries has established it as a popular wine for desserts and for sipping by itself. This sweetness comes from the Muscat grape, which contains considerably more sugar than most other grapes used in winemaking. This results in a final product with more remaining sugar but less acidity, rounding out the wine into something that is light, aromatic, and delicious.
Food Pairings for Moscato
Moscato is traditionally sipped alone or with a light dessert, but its characteristics as a sweet and light white wine offer a variety of food pairings.
Light flaky fish
Moscato goes well with medium to firm sheep and cow's milk cheeses.
Herbs & Spices
Sweet and sour
Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris)
The Pinot Grigio grape is traced back to the Middle Ages, to its ancestral variety, Fromenteau. Pinot Grigio as well as its sister grape, Pinot Noir, spread from Burgundy to Switzerland in 1300 and soon after developed the name Szürkebarát. After many years in 1711, the grape had become wild and rediscovered in Germany by Johann Seger Rulan. He made these vines into the modern Pinot Grigio, at that time named Ruländer. The popularity of the wine dropped off in the 18th and 19th centuries due to poor crop seasons but reinvigorated in popularity in 2005. The Pinot Grigio grape was a favorite of the Emperor Charles IV, who had vine cuttings imported to Hungary by Cistercian monks: the brothers planted these vines bordering Lake Balaton in 1375. These monks are why the grape was named Szürkebarát meaning "grey monk” in the 1300s.
A common misconception about Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris is that the only difference between the two is one is from Italy and the other is from France. This is NOT true! Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are identical in the sense that they are made from the same grape, but there is a big difference in the style of wine produced. Pinot Gris is typically from the Alsace region of France and is sweeter (more on this later) while a Pinot Grigio from Italy will be lighter and crisper. Wines outside of these specific areas choose to use Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris purely for stylistic reasons (as with naming a wine Syrah or Shiraz when it doesn't come from France or Australia) so they generally pick the name that fits the style they are looking for!
Parents & Origin: White wine grape variety of the species Vitis vinifera
Notable Regions: Italy, California, Oregon, and Germany
Grape: Normally has a grayish-blue color, representing its name, but the grapes can have a brownish pink to black and even white appearance
Flavors: lime, green apple, lemon, Meyer lemon, pear, white nectarine, white peach
Acidity: medium-high to high
How to Serve Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio Serving Temperature
Wine Glass for Pinot Grigio
How Long to Decant Pinot Grigio
How Long to Age Pinot Grigio
Notable Flavors: Lime, Green Apple, Lemon, Pear, White Nectarine, White Peach, Almond, Honeysuckle, Honey, Clove, Ginger, Spice
Pinot Grigio offers a refreshing sparkle of acidity in comparison to other whites. There’s also a surprising weighted feeling in the middle of your tongue with each sip! The primary fruit flavors in every bottle are lime, lemon, pear, white nectarine and apple. But, each Pinot Grigio ranges between faint honeyed notes, floral aromas like honeysuckle, and a saline-like minerality. Italian Pinot Grigio, the most popular and often found Pinot Grigio of those produced, is the driest, strongest acid, and possesses a bitter almond note. Pinot Grigio from the US, the next most popular, is a little tamer with less acidity and more exaggerated fruit flavors. Last and not least is the French Pinot Grigio, typically only found as a Pinot Gris, which is more fleshy and more unctuous with faint honey notes from botrytis.
Food Pairings for Pinot Grigio
Given the high level of acidity and lack of tannins and sweetness traditionally in Pinot Grigio, it is best enjoyed with food! And by food, we mean tangy herbs. The honey, citrus undertones of Pinot Grigio typically pairs well with white meats, seafood, and fresh vegetables.
Tilapia, scallops, sea bass, perch, sole, haddock, trout, cod, redfish, halibut, snapper, mussels, clams, oysters, chicken, turkey,
Look for semi-soft firm cow’s and sheep’s milk cheeses. Gruyere, Muenster, Grana Padano
Herbs & Spices
Parsley, mint, tarragon, thyme, fennel, chives, white pepper, coriander, turmeric, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, clove, Allspice
Fresh vegetables and salads, shallots, garlic, ginger
Cucumber, yellow squash, celery, onion, parsnip, jicama, kale, green apple, green melon, white beans, cauliflower, broccoli
The Riesling grape was first produced in the Rhine winemaking region in Western Germany. Many originally thought that Riesling came from wild Rhine grape varieties, but recent DNA research has traced its origin to one Gouais blanc parent and one parent that is half-wild, half Savagnin (the same grape that would eventually produce Sauvignon Blanc). The first known reference to Riesling came in 1435, when it was noted in the storeroom of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen. It became very popular with the German nobility at the time, and these nobles started the spread of Riesling as they carried it with them on their travels.
Riesling continues to have a strong presence in Germany after its centuries of storied history, and it is currently the most common grape variety grown there. The grape was brought to France’s Alsace region in 1477 at the urging of the Duke of Lorraine, and it remains immensely popular there as well. Finally, Riesling was brought to regions such as California, New York, Australia, and New Zealand in the mid-19th century.
Interesting Fact: Riesling has somewhat of a stigma in the United States due to a common belief that it is “too sweet.” However, Riesling is available in a wide variety that covers the entire spectrum of dry to sweet.
Parents & Origin: Rhine (Germany)
Notable Regions: Germany, California, Alsace (France), Finger Lakes (NY), Washington State, Australia/New Zealand
Grape: green-skinned, originated as a cross between Gouais blanc (a rare grape dating to the Middle Ages) as well as a wild vine-Savagnin hybrid parent
Flavors: apples, apricot, peaches, pears
Sweetness: sweet to dry depending on the region
How to Serve Riesling
Riesling Serving Temperature
Wine Glass for Riesling
How Long to Decant Riesling
How Long to Age Riesling
While most Riesling is usually consumed young, Riesling is one of the few white wines that has marked the potential for improvement with long-term aging. The grape’s high acidity, along with a compound called TDN, ensures this aging potential. The result is that a bottle of high-quality Riesling can not only last, but improve well over 100 years later. Heavily-aged Riesling contains a large amount of TDN, which produces a unique aroma that smells similar to petrol, though this scent is seen by wine enthusiasts as a sign of quality.
Notable Flavors: Apples, Apricot, Peaches, Pear
Riesling is usually pure and is very rarely oaked, resulting in natural flavor profiles of apple, apricot, peach, and pear. It is also highly aromatic with a distinctly floral aroma. The wine can be either sweet or dry; German and Californian Rieslings tend to be sweeter, while French and New York varieties tend to be drier. What distinguishes Riesling the most from other wines is its floral aroma, aging potential, and unique balance between sweetness and acidity.
Riesling's Delicate Flavors
Riesling grapes are harvested through a careful process to ensure maximum flavor. Grapes are grown over a long and slow ripening period with low yield, to keep their natural flavors concentrated. The delicate grapes require special care to protect their skin during harvesting in order to prevent the leak of tannins into the wine. Then, once the wine is fermented, it is usually consumed in its freshest state to keep its fruity flavors prominent.
The range of Riesling’s many varieties is explained in part by the climates in which it is grown. Many Rieslings from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand face warmer growing conditions, which results in a slightly sweeter and less acidic final product. In contrast, the Rieslings produced in cooler European regions have a drier flavor profile.
Food Pairings for Riesling
Due to its even balance of sweetness and acidity, Riesling pairs well with most foods, especially those with a bit of spice. Riesling has long been noted for how well it pairs with spicy food, and it is one of the few wines that is excellent with the robust heat of Thai and Indian cuisine. It also pairs well with white fish, chicken, and pork (especially the drier varieties). Sweeter Rieslings also pair with most sweet foods.
Delicate, non-stinky soft cow's milk (and dried fruit!)
Herbs & Spices
Roasted vegetables with a light sweetness
The Sauvignon Blanc grape is traced back to the Loire Valley and Bordeaux regions in Western France. But this does not actually imply that the wine originates from Western France; research suggests it descends from the Savignin grape, which originated in the Alps.
The first vines of the Sauvignon Blanc grape were brought to California. These grew phenomenally in the Livermore valley and the introduction of Sauvignon Blanc in California has flourished ever since. The establishment of the wine in Chile is a more intriguing story- in the 18th century, cuttings of the Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, creating Cabernet Sauvignon, in Bordeaux were transported to Chile before the outbreak of insect disease on the plantations in France, and have grown in their fields ever since. For New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc grapes were transported to pair with Müller-Thurgau.
Interesting Fact: Sauvignon Blanc grapes originally grew wild in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux until winemakers from the 19th century tamed them-“sauvignon blanc” translates to “wild white” because of this.
Parents & Origin: Savagnin (Loire Valley, France)
Notable Regions: Napa Valley, New Zealand, Sancerre Pouilly-Fumé, Bordeaux Blanc
Grape: green-skinned, early origins as an indigenous grape in South West France with the French words Sauvage ("wild") and blanc ("white")
Flavors: gooseberry, honeydew, grapefruit, white peach, passion fruit
How to Serve Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc Serving Temperature
Wine Glass for Sauvignon Blanc
How Long to Decant Sauvignon Blanc
How Long to Age Sauvignon Blanc
Notable Flavors: Gooseberry, Honeydew, Grapefruit, White Peach, Passion Fruit
Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with Semillon and Muscadelle. The wine is almost exclusively unoaked, but when in the barrel the flavors added with oak aging are vanilla, pie crust, dill, coconut, butter, nutmeg, and cream. The wine is made completely dry, but some New Zealand and California wineries add a gram or so of sugar to create a more unique texture. What distinguishes Sauvignon Blanc the most from other wines is its herbaceous flavors, caused by its aromatic pyrazines.
Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carménère, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon all have two things in common: 1) They are a part of what is referred to as “the Bordeaux varieties” and 2) Each grape has methoxypyrazine, an aromatic compound group that is also found in green bell pepper. This bell pepper compound has traditionally been thought of as a negative component in large amount, describing the wine as having “green” flavors, but winemakers have learned how to reduce it over time to allow more favored aromas like black pepper, green peppercorn, and sage to fill the wine.
Food Pairings for Sauvignon Blanc
Given the high level of acidity and sweetness, and lack of tannins traditionally in Sauvignon Blanc, it is best enjoyed with food! And by food, we mean dishes with tangy herbs.
Herbs & Spices
White Wine Blends
White blends are a winemaker’s way of ensuring quality and bringing their unique visions to life. Sometimes two, three, four or even five grapes allow a winemaker’s artistic expression to shine and truly bring the quality of the grapes out from one another. While the popular white blends consist of White Bordeaux (Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle) and White Bourgogne (Chardonnay, Aligote), there are hundreds of other white wine blends out there that allow winemakers to show off their expertise.
To learn more about white wine blends, click here.
White Wine Recap
That may seem like a lot of information, but it is only the beginning. It is also important to remember that while the above information provides a strong foundation and general guidelines, the way a wine tastes has a great deal to do with its maker, meaning a typically dry wine, such as Sémillon, can be made into a sweet wine with the proper techniques. At the end of the day, we don’t expect everyone to be a wine connoisseur! After all, the only thing that really matters is your own taste and preference. If you are looking to learn more, try exploring some of our other educational pieces on our blog. There’s a whole world of wine to be explored.
Don’t forget to shop Martha Stewart White Wine for some of the best!