A Beginner’s Guide to White Wine

For many, the idea of exploring their taste in wine can be daunting. Anybody who has walked down the wine isle in their local supermarket can attest to being lost in a blur of red and white bottles everywhere.

To help, we have put together this little guide to give you a steer on where to start, particularly if you want to explore white wine further. As with our guide to red wine, we’ll make the assumption that you’re happy to start your exploration of white wines in the supermarket and let it develop from there. We’ll also assume that you’re happy to avoid the big-name brands as there are some great little gems just waiting to be discovered if you’re prepared to branch out.

As always, we will be enlisting the help of Ned Halley’s Best Wines in the Supermarkets 2020 edition to provide you with a couple of suggestions on where to start for each grape variety if you’re in the UK. Where possible, we have provided a vintage year but that may now be out of stock. If that is the case then you should be fine purchasing whatever vintage is available.

Whilst this guide is particularly tailored for UK market, the descriptions of the grapes are universal so it will be of some use to those outside of the UK. So, let’s get cracking!

#1 Chardonnay

Chardonnay is one of the most widely grown grape varietals and can literally be grown anywhere. Because of this, it is also one of the most popular grapes and it can come in a range of styles. It’s also the staple grape in Champagne so if you like Champagne then you’ll definitely be disposed to a bit of Chardonnay!

In cooler climes, such as Northern France, you should be able to taste:

  • Apple
  • Pear
  • Gooseberry

In more moderate climes, such as Southern France, expect to taste:

  • Peach
  • Citrus Fruits

In hotter climates, such as in Australia and South America, expect to taste:

  • Banana
  • Pineapple
  • Melon

As Chardonnay can be grown anywhere, it is worth knowing a little bit about where to find it and how it might appear on the wine label:

  1. France – Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, Mâcon, Champagne, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault (the last two are particularly expensive however)
  2. USA – Usually from Sonoma or Russian River though it may just state “California” on the label
  3. Australia – Adelaide Hills or Margaret River
  4. New Zealand – Marlborough
  5. Chile – Central Valley.

Where to Start:

Finest Yarra Valley Chardonnay, 12.5% ABV, Tesco, Approx. £11

An excellent, if a little pricy, Chardonnay from down under. Aromas of apple and cream blend well with lush minerality on the palate.

The Best Uco Valley Chardonnay 2017, 13% ABV, Morrisons, Approx. £9

I bleat on so much about how good Argentinian reds are that I forget that they make outstanding whites too. This oak-aged Chardonnay is no exception with peach/clementine flavours combining well with a creamy mouthfeel. Delicious and a great price.

#2 Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is another versatile grape that can come in a range of styles. It’s largely grown in South Africa though you’ll also find great examples of Chenin Blanc from France, particularly from Vouvray.

South African Chenin Blanc will typically have flavours of:

  • Yellow apple
  • Pear
  • Pineapple
  • Marzipan

It will also be high in acidity, dry and medium bodied. French Chenin Blanc will also have flavours of apple & pineapple and can be made in a range of styles from dry to sweet.

Chenin Blanc blends well with other grapes, particularly Chardonnay and even makes an appearance as a sparkling wine!

Labels to look out for:

  • France – Vouvray
  • South Africa – Stellenbosch, Paarl

Where to Start

Chateau de Montfort Vouvray 2017, 12% ABV, Waitrose, Approx. £12

This little beauty gets top marks from Ned and his succinct review is bristling with superlatives. A floral perfume combines with honey on the palate make it an excellent wine to pair food with. It even comes on offer every now and then too so keep an eye out!

Craft 3 Chenin Blanc 2018, 13.5% ABV, Marks and Spencer, Approx. £10

The South African’s aren’t messing around with this one. It’s bursting with Peaches and Apricots and may also have a hint of creaminess too.

#3 Riesling

Riesling is an aromatic gape variety that can be made in many styles varying from dry to very sweet. It is mainly grown in Germany though you’ll also be able to buy good priced Rieslings from France (Alsace) and Australia (Clare Valley).

You can typically expect to taste:

  • Floral notes such as jasmine
  • Green apples
  • Lime

On some older Rieslings, you may also get aromas of petrol coming from your glass too (Not a typo I promise). Rieslings will almost always be highly acidic and be light bodied.

Rieslings age very well so expect to gain nutty notes and notes of honey and toast if you keep it for a few years.

Choosing a German Riesling can be particularly tricky as you’ll often find descriptors on the label that indicate how sweet it is. There are a number of different levels of sweetness but the following should suffice for any budding Riesling enthusiast:

  • Kabinett – These Rieslings have the least sugar content and are typically dry.
  • Spätlese – “Late harvest” somewhat sweeter than Kabinett wines
  • Auslese – “select harvest” the sweetest of the three wines.

If all that sounds a little too confusing then don’t worry because this classification system doesn’t appear on Rieslings from France or Australia!

Where to Start

Willi Haag BraunebergerJuffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 2016, 7.5% ABV, Waitrose Cellar, Approx. £20

Golden in the glass with citrus and lime flavours. Low in alcohol but high in sweetness. Also high in price. We’ve been assured, however, that the price is entirely warranted. You may struggle to find this in your local Waitrose so try Waitrose cellar instead. You’ll also get extra points from us if you can say the title of this wine very quickly too!

#4 Pinot Gris/Grigio

Closely related to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape just grown in different countries. Pinot Gris is largely grown in Alsace, France whilst Pinot Grigio is much more widely grown throughout Italy in places such as Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige.

When buying a Pinot Gris/Grigio then you should be looking to taste:

  • Peach
  • Lemon
  • Banana
  • Melon

The wines range from dry to sweet (Pinot Gris can be dry or sweet whilst Pinot Grigio is usually dry), have a higher alcohol content than most white wines, are light bodied and fairly acidic.

Pinot Grigio in particular gets a bad rep as it is often associated with bland, tasteless wine which is perhaps a little unfair. We say give it a go, as it especially comes into its own during the summer months.

Where to Start

Finca Las Moras Pinot Grigio Trebbiano 2018, 13% ABV, Co-op, Approx. £7

This is actually a blend of Pinot Grigio with the much lesser well known Trebbiano but it seems to work. Apples and pears dominate with a touch of creaminess on the palate too. Worth a shot at around £7.

Taste the Difference Pinot Grigio Trentino 2018, 12.5% ABV, Sainsburys, Approx. £6

85% Pinot Grigio and 15% Chardonnay give this white a hint of smoke and cream as it goes down. Another blend but a good example of what Pinot Grigio can do, even if it gets a little helping hand.

#5 Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon is another very popular white grape variety that is grown across the world. It’s not as hardy as Chardonnay and you’ll find the best examples in cooler climates such as France, New Zealand and Chile.

Flavours typically associated with Sauvignon Blanc are:

  • Gooseberry
  • Peppers
  • Asparagus
  • Elderflower

Sauvignon Blanc will usually be acidic, have a light body and be bone dry.

What to look for on the label:

  1. France – Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Pouilly Fumé
  2. New Zealand – Marlborough, Hawkes Bay
  3. Chile – Casablanca Valley, Central Valley

Sauvignon Blanc is also growing in popularity in the US where it is known as Fumé Blanc. The taste characteristics for Fumé Blanc is generally the same though the wines may go through some oak ageing giving it a creamy taste and a fuller body. California and Washington are good places to start if you want to try a good Fumé Blanc.

Where to Start:

Taste the Difference Pouilly Fumé 2018, 13% ABV, Sainsburys, Approx. £13

Described as” …excitingly ripe and expressive of lush pebble-fresh Sauvignon fruit very much in the best traditions of the appellation”. We’re not going to argue with Ned on this one!

Val de Loire Sauvignon Blanc 2018, 11.5% ABV, Marks & Spencer, Approx. £7

Expect lime and grapefruit from this very well priced Sauvignon Blanc. You may even get notes of freshly gut grass too. Refreshingly crisp as well.

#6 Viognier

Viognier is a relatively uncommon grape that originates from the Northern Rhône though that shouldn’t dissuade you from trying this little blinder. The best examples of Viognier can be found in the US, Chile, Australia and South Africa though if you want something a little more upmarket then you can find premium examples coming out of the Rhône Valley, France.

High in alcohol content, Viognier can also range from dry to medium sweetness, will have low acidity and have a fuller body than most white wines. Viognier often gives off floral aromas so expect to get notes of white flowers and Jasmine emanating from the glass.

You should also expect to taste:

  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Tangerine
  • Apricots

Labels to look out for:

  • France – Rhône Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon
  • Australia – Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley
  • United States – Paso Robles, Sonoma
  • South Africa – Paarl, Stellenbosch, Swartland
  • Chile - Swartland

Where to Start:

Pintao Viognier 2018, 13.5% ABV, Marks & Spencer, Approx. £9

Dry and plump apricot-nectarine fruit is balanced well with high alcohol content. A nice refreshing bottle for a warm summer’s day.

Taste the Difference Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2018, 13% ABV, Sainsbury’s, Approx. £8

We’re cheating a little bit on this one as it’s a blend but what a blend it is. Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc combine to give floral aromas with hints of nectarine on the palate. It’s been oak aged so there’s a fuller body and a touch of cream too. A steal at around £8.

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Best Wines in the Supermarket 2020

We regularly look at wines recommended by Ned Halley in our category "Ned Said", so here's how you can get a copy of his book for 2020.