DNA-profiling has concluded that Chardonnay is a cross between a member of the Pinot family and an ancient, and almost extinct, variety called Gouais Blanc. Gouais Blanc originated in Croatia and was probably brought to France by the Romans. The first recorded reference to Chardonnay goes back to 1330. Some historical theories haw Chardonnay coming from Lebanon, but there are no written references to that until long after 1330.
As they say in the wine business, Chardonnay is low in varietal character. That means that the grapes have fairly neutral flavors that are less identifiable than in other grape varieties. A lot of what determines the taste of a Chardonnay is what the winemaker does to the grapes. Using oak to ferment and/or age the wine produces a richness and the familiar flavor of toast ariel vanilla. Leaving the wine on the lees adds complexity. Conducting malolactic fermentation reduces the overall acidity and produces a softer, creamier wine. All these are flavors not derived from the grapes themselves.
Chardonnay is hardy and versatile and can grow successfully in all but the most extreme wine regions around the world. It can make great though somewhat different-wines almost anywhere it's reasonably comfortable. Cool-climate Chardonnays tend toward a dry crispness and clean fruit flavors. Warmer-climate Chardonnays lean toward richer honey and butterscotch flavors.
In Burgundy, where it's been considered the noble white wine grape, Chardonnay goes into all the region's great white wines, such as Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuisse, and Chablis. It's one of the three grapes along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier-allowed in Champagne and the only grape in blanc de blanc.
"Anything but Chardonnay." You've probably heard the mantra. Chardonnay is ubiquitous. Some would say boring. Others might say over-oaked. Chardonnay is particularly compatible with oak and usually receives some oak treatment-with the exceptions of Chardonnay wines from northern Italy, Chablis, and France's Maconnais district. Recently, a bunch of un-oaked Chardonnays have entered the arena and are gaining momentum.
Chardonnay didn't become the most popular white wine in the world for no reason. You can expect a tremendous variety of flavors, medium to high acidity, medium to full body; and minimal fruit to tropical fruit. And you can count on a wine that's dry.
The traditional home of Chenin Blanc is the Loire Valley of France, where it's been cultivated among picturesque chateaus since the Middle Ages. Chenin Blanc is a sturdy grape with high natural acidity and the versatility to produce crisp, dry table wines, sparkling wines, and sweet dessert wines. From France you'll find dry Chenin Blancs from Saumur and Savennieres, off-dry wines from Vouvray and Anjou, dessert wines from Coteaux du Layon, and sparkling wines labeled Cremant de Loire.
Outside of France Chenin Blanc is often used as a blending grape, with only a small percentage of it going into varietal bottlings. However, South Africa produces the full range of Chenin Blanc wines, referring to the grape as Steen. It's even used in their fortified wines and spirits.
Chenin Blanc is a cooperative sort of grape. It ripens in the middle of the season so that no extraordinary harvesting measures have to be taken. With its compact clusters it's easy to pick. The grapes have tough skins that minimize damage as they make their way to the crusher. And their natural acidity helps the aging process. A number of California producers make the classic dry style of Chenin Blanc that typifies the Loire.
Most people either love Gewurztraminer ... or hate it. It's got intense aromas and strong flavors and is fairly difficult to enjoy with food. Sommeliers typically suggest pairing Gewurztraminer with highly seasoned food and spicy Asian and Mexican dishes. But it's probably best sipped all by itself.
The grape is thought to be a mutated form of the Traminer grape. And because of its taste, it got gewurz (meaning "spicy") attached to it by Alsatians in the nineteenth century. The name caught on, but it wasn't until 1973 that the term Gewurztraminer was officially adopted.
The first thing you'll notice is that Gewurztraminer smells like flowers. And when you taste it, you'll see that it can be sweet and spicy at the same time. Not all Gewurztraminers are sweet. It depends on who's making them.
Alsace has had arguably the most success with Gewurztraminer. Producers there make it dry, dry, dry-unless they're using the grapes for dessert wines, in which case the wines are exceptionally sweet, sweet, sweet.
In Germany Gewurztraminers are usually off-dry to medium sweet. They have less alcohol and more acidity than their Alsatian counterparts. The high acidity camouflages the perception of all that sweetness.
Because Gewurztraminer grows best in cool climates, it has found good homes in Austria, eastern Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States-especially Oregon, Washington, and New York. A few US. producers offer a dry version of the wine, but most produce Gewurztraminer with a perceptible sweetness.
Muscat is the world's oldest known grape variety and has grown around the Mediterranean for centuries. Early records show Muscat was shipped from the port of Frontignan in southwest France during the time of Charlemagne. Actually, Muscat is a family of grapes with more than 200 varieties. The grapes range from white to almost black. And the wines vary from fine and light-even sparkling-to deep, dark, and sweet. Muscat is the only variety that produces aromas and flavors in wine just like the grape itself.
The French call it Pinot Gris. The Italians call it Pinot Grigio. Americans produce both and drink a lot of it. The Pinot Gris grape exhibits a range of colors from grayish blue to brownish pink. It's in the same family as Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc but has a character all its own. Pinot Gris (meaning "gray") has been known to produce wines that range from white to light-tinged pink.
Pinot Gris is thought by many to reach its pinnacle in Alsace, where it's called Tokay Pinot Gris or Tokay d'Alsace. The grapes are harvested from thirty-year-old vines and turned into a full-bodied, fruity, and creamy wine with a rich gold color.
That's a far cry from what most people know as Italy's Pinot Grigio often a light (some might say thin), pale, and herbal wine for easy quaffing. Some of the best Pinot Grigios come from the Friuli region of Italy, where leading producers show full, rounded versions.
The current hot spot for Pinot Gris is Oregon. It was introduced there in 1966 and has become the state's premier white grape. Oregon producers prefer the name Pinot Gris to Pinot Grigio, although there's no single style of wine made. Some winemakers use oak. Others use only stainless steel. Most produce a completely dry wine. Some leave a little residual sugar.
Before Chardonnay came to be the belle of the ball, it was Riesling. In the nineteenth century, Riesling was considered the best white grape variety because it produced wine of such "elegance." The physical and spiritual home of Riesling is Germany, where it's been grown for at least 500 years and possibly as long as 2,000 years. It thrives in the coldest vine growing climates and has found excellent homes in Alsace, Austria, Canada, and in the northern United States, in areas of New York, Washington, Oregon, and Michigan.
Riesling is rarely blended with other grapes. It doesn't need to be. It produces wines that run the gamut from bone dry and crisp to ultra-sweet and complex. Riesling is one of the few whites that have a long aging capacity. Some will last for twenty years or more. Unlike Chardonnay, which relies on winemaker interventions for its style, Riesling relies on nature for its diversity. The winemaker really has only two decisions to make: when to pick the grapes and how long to ferment the juice.
Riesling grapes take a long time to ripen and are picked at various times throughout the harvest. The stage of ripeness of the grapes roughly corresponds to the sweetness and alcohol levels of the wines. The earliest harvested grapes produce the lightest, driest wines, which are categorized as Kabinett. The next category up the sweetness chain is known as Spatlese (late picked), followed by Auslese (hand-picked bunches).
Riesling is the favored grape for the sweet and acclaimed late harvest wines and ice wines. However, for table wines the preference in recent years has been for dry wines. Producers have been deliberately making Rieslings in a dry style. Rieslings are typically crisp and low in alcohol. To lower the sugar levels, winemakers extend fermentation, which also raises the alcohol content. For the resulting German wines, the labels will say trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (off-dry).
In Alsace, the French wine region across the Rhine from Germany, Rieslings are usually fermented bone dry. Compared to a German Kabinett Riesling with between 7.5 percent and 8.5 percent alcohol, an Alsatian Riesling will have at least 12 percent alcohol.
Sauvignon Blanc is widely cultivated in France and California. The Loire Valley produces wines that are 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc-most notably from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. You'll find them crisp and tart. In Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc is usually blended with Semillon that's been aged in oak. While not the primary grape, Sauvignon Blanc plays an important part in the sweet and revered dessert wines of Sauternes.
Sauvignon Blanc came to North America in 1878 when winemaker (and California's first agricultural commissioner) Charles Wetmore acquired cuttings from the famed Chateau d'Yquem vineyards in Sauternes and planted them at his Cresta Blanca Winery in Livermore, California. He propagated some of the vines in his 300 acres of nursery vineyards and sold others to California winemakers, including Carl Wente. The vines thrived, and Sauvignon Blanc became an early California favorite. A postscript to the story is that Wente Bros. (as the winery was then known) produced California's first Sauvignon Blanc-labeled varietal wine in 1933 and in 1981 purchased Cresta Blanca-making the original Wetmore vineyards part of the current Wente Vineyards property.
Sauvignon Blanc is also produced successfully in Italy, Australia, South America, and-met with much recent acclaim-in New Zealand.
Viognier is no easy grape to grow. Until the vines are about fifteen, they don't give their best fruit. The plants are susceptible to all kinds of diseases and pests. Their yields are sparse. And the grapes ripen irregularly.
Maybe that's why the grape was headed toward extinction. In 1965 only a few acres of Viognier remained under cultivation in Condrieu, in the grape's Rhone Valley homeland. Since then, Viognier has been making a comeback-first in Condrieu and then in the south of France in Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. Later, the plantings spread to California and Australia. To give you an idea of the escalation: In 1993 California crushed 231 tons of Viognier grapes. Ten years later that increased to 9,800 tons.
Austria has jumped onto the American scene with its dry, crisp Gruner Veltliner. It's the most extensively grown grape variety in Austria, accounting for 37 percent of all vine plantings. The wine has different expressions depending on how the grapes are grown and how they're treated by the winemaker.
Gruner Veltliner used to be treated as a high-production commercial grape. The high-yield grapes produced light and refreshing sippers that were popular in Austria's heurigen (wine taverns). In the I980s Austria's wine industry made a conscious step toward higher quality. With lower yields and higher ripeness, the resulting wines are more complex and fuller-flavored. The wines have a peppery quality and naturally high acidity. The best bottles of Gruner Veltliner have potential for some aging.
Italy's Campania wine region, the area around Naples and Mount Vesuvius, is the current rage. And Piano is the trendy grape. Hardly "new," Piano's history-and popularity-s-date back to ancient Rome. While the origin of the word is the subject of conjecture, Fiano may have come from "apiano' because the ripe grapes attracted bees (apis in Latin).
The towns of Avellino and Lapio and their surrounding areas are the primary growing centers. Hence, the wines are called Piano di Avellino and Piano di Lapio. They can be fairly light and dry with a creamy texture or (when the grapes are harvested late and fully fermented) full-bodied and ripe.
The wine has a creamy texture with complex flavor of apricots, peaches, and citrus. Albarino is rarely barrel fermented-so the flavors are clean and vibrant. In spite of its high acidity, Albarino doesn't age well and should be consumed within the first two years.