The kings of white wines

Ripe Sauvignon blanc grapes.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes

Riesling and Chardonnay are frequently credited as the ‘kings’ of white wine grapes. As well as  being capable of making superb wines, I imagine their status has much to do with the versatility of the grapes. Excellent wines are to be found in luscious dessert accompaniments through to razor-sharp dry wines for the Rieslings, and great wines come all across the oak spectrum for Chardonnays. With Sauvignon Blanc, these three wines are certainly the most well-known international white grapes. It could be argued that Sauvignon Blanc does not have the same versatility as the two ‘great’ whites, hence a lower status. Sauvignons certainly have their distinct styles – Marlborough, New Zealand and Loire, France being two benchmarks, from which there is some, but not a huge amount of divergence. Although the importance of the Sauvignon Blanc grape in making white Bordeaux, from the complex oaked dry styles, to the delicious sweet Sauternes should neither be forgotten nor underestimated.

This week we had a blind tasting focusing on these three grapes. The aim was to explore the styles available within a single grape, to illustrate how different wines can be made from the same grape, but also to get a feel for what the grape characteristics are in these wines, which will allow for identification.

I’ve spoken previously about the colour of white wines, so I’d like to spend a bit of time on the aromas here. Fruits are often the first aromas we notice with white wines. I find it can be helpful to think of a ‘fruit spectrum‘, which ranges from tart, green apples, through ripe red apples into stone fruit – peaches, apricots – before heading into tropical fruits – guava, papaya, passionfruit, pineapple. These fruit aromas can assist with grape identification (for example, I associate many Italian whites with pear drops) however, more importantly they give an idea of the climate the grapes were grown in, and the level of ripeness the grapes achieved.

Beyond fruits, look out for minerality in white wines – perhaps there’s a ‘stony’ characteristic – also flint, riverbed, soil. In the mineral category, you could also place more aromatic petrochemical aromas – kerosene, for instance. Floral and vegetal notes are also common – does the wine smell of flowers? or perhaps herbs, grass, raw or cooked vegetables? and are these notes subtle, dominant, the only aroma or part of a complex mix of others? Finally on the aroma side, treatment of aging or fermentation in oak will come through on the nose. Oak can be present as vanilla, butter, nuts, or even smoke and spiciness.

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We tasted two Sauvignon Blancs – one Chilean, one from the Loire in France. I think it is fair to say that these two wines had enough in common to identify them both as Sauvignon Blancs, yet were sufficiently different to distinguish. In common was the colour – Sauvignon Blanc generally is a pale green – along with an appley/gooseberry aroma. Both were aromatic wines; both expressed minerality on the palate, and had firm acidity. The alcohol levels of both were fairly similar (around 13%).

In contrast, I found the Loire wine had a delicate floral note, and the ‘appleyness’ was riper. It was less overtly fruity, and I think this is typical in distinguishing Loire Sauvignon from New World varieties. What gave away the Chilean’s identity for me, was a distinct minty note on the palate. This wine also had a ‘smoky’ characteristic, which I found unpleasant, and perhaps a result of lower quality winemaking.

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Riesling‘s spiritual home is Germany, where the Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz regions produce classic styles. Riesling can also be found in Austria, Alsace, France, Australia, and to a lesser extent, New Zealand. General characteristics of Riesling are that it is highly aromatic, often with a certain petrochemical note among apples and stone fruit. Honey and floral notes can also be present. Riesling will generally have high acidity, however the alcohol and residual sugar levels vary hugely between styles. Residual sugar is the objective measure of a wine’s sweetness; it refers to the level of sugar remaining in the wine after fermentation. Descriptors go from ‘dry’, to ‘off-dry’, ‘medium dry’, ‘medium sweet’, ‘sweet’ and ‘cloying’.

The two wines in this tasting were poles apart. The first was a fairly classic example from Pfalz, Germany. 10.5% alcohol, high (but not super-high) acidity, just off-dry with floral and apple notes. Fairly typical indicators for this sort of wine.

The second Riesling was from Victoria, Australia. It is said that you can identify an Australian Riesling by a note of ‘flyspray’ and lime blossom on the nose. Unfortunately, this wine only smelled of flyspray to me! Victoria is not the classic Australian Riesling location – that would go to Clare Valley, S.A. – and perhaps that is why this wine did not show well.

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I brought four Chardonnays to this tasting, primarily to indicate the huge variety in wine this grape can bring through climate and oak treatment. Chardonnay can be a hard wine to identify to begin with simply because of the huge variation in wines.

The Chardonnay grape will produce a wine that, at its core, will have apples and a degree of ‘flintyness’ on its flavour profile. This is, of course, a generalisation, and the fruit and mineral characteristics will either be brought out or subdued by the climate and winemaking. The ‘apple’ note can become riper and progress along the fruit spectrum mentioned above.

We tasted a Chablis, which is a classic unoaked example of Chardonnay, from Chablis, France.  Chablis will typically have a minerally, chalky note, and have crisp acidity.

Californian and Burgundian wines were both examples of classic oaking. Both used French oak and the oak was notable through butter and vanilla on the nose. The Californian example was distinguishable through notably low acidity – what you’d expect from a warm climate. Ripe peach – almost stewed – was the dominant fruit note. By comparison, the Burgundian wine had medium acidity (a warmer climate than Chablis) and apricots and cooked apple on the nose. This wine was also more complex and subtle compared to the Californian example.

The final Chardonnay of the night was from Tasmania. An unusual style, and difficult to identify blind. This wine had crisp acidity, but highish (unbalanced) alcohol – which might lead you to a New World wine, but from a coolish climate. Apples, grass and a chalky minerality (not unlike the Chablis) came through on the palate. This wine was lightly oaked, which was discernible through a subtle smokiness on the nose.

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As I mentioned, these three grape varieties produce such a huge array of wines that it is impossible to give a just treatment here. The principles, however, are simply to focus on what you can smell and taste, and to compare these notes to generic descriptions initially, eventually using your experience to draw upon for unknown wines.

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Wines mentioned (all wines from The Wine Society):
Concha y Toro Winemaker’s Lot, Casablanca, Chile, Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 £7.25
Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine Guénault, 2009 (Bougrier) Loire, France, £6.95
Ruppertsberger Hoheburg Riesling Kabinett, 2009 Pfalz, Germany £6.95
Mitchelton Blackwood Park Estate Riesling, 2008, Victoria, Australia £9.50
The Society’s Chablis, Chardonnay – Chablis, France £9.95
Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay, 2008, Monterey, California, USA £10.95
Mâcon-Vergisson, Domaine Joseph Burrier, 2008 Chardonnay – Burgundy, France £9.95
The Society’s Exhibition Tasmanian Chardonnay, 2008 Tasmania, Australia £12.95
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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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2 Responses to The kings of white wines

  1. Pingback: Classic Reds and Dujac 1990 | The Oxford Wine Blog

  2. Pingback: Primum Familiae Vini – Part 1 | The Oxford Wine Blog

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