White wine for beginners
This guide is just the introduction you need to the magical world of white wine – how to select the right bottle, and how to serve and enjoy it.
White wine has long had the reputation of being just a refreshing summer fling, but beginner wine-drinkers will be surprised to discover that white wine has so many more styles, nuances and drinking occasions to offer – and there’s a quiet white wine revolution with the goal to prove it. Our basic guide is just the introduction you need to the magical world of white wine – how to select the right bottle for you, and how to serve and enjoy it.
When you put ice in your white wine, not only are you diluting it, you're also causing interesting flavours and aromas to ”shut down”. Rather add an ice block for a few seconds, then fish it out and try the wine again.
What is white wine?
All wine is made using wine grapes – not the table grapes you would snack on, but a specific species that produces small grapes with thick skins and small seeds. White wine is, as the name suggests, wine made from white grapes. Depending on the variety and style, white grape skins are removed earlier in the fermentation process than red-grape skins, lowering the tannin content (the element of wine that dries out your mouth) and making it lighter in colour than red wine. Colours can range from a pale straw to a golden yellow. Because white wine is generally lighter (doesn’t feel as full in the mouth) than red wine, it is easier to make food and white wine pairings.
White wine can be loosely divided into the following styles:
Light and zesty: These wines feel light and are easy to sip, with a dry, fresh and zesty taste. Some styles of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc fall under this category.
Bold and dry: Unlike what you’d expect from white wine, these wines are more intense in flavour and heavier in body, and often have creamy, vanilla notes that are developed over time, maturing in oak barrels. Chardonnay or Viognier will often get this treatment.
Light and sweet: Wines that have a touch of residual sugar (natural grape sugars that haven’t fermented yet) fall under this category. Locally, Riesling and Gewürtztraminer are often made in this style.
Bold and sweet: Fortified and dessert wines such as Late Harvest and Muscat are quintessential bold and sweet wines: they’re intensely sweet and rich.
How do I choose a good white wine?
There are so many types of white wines to choose from and, as we would say about any wine, the best white wine is the one you prefer. The only way you’re going to know what you like is by trying out all the different white wine varietals....
Chenin Blanc: One of the most widely planted grape varieties in South Africa, the Chenin Blanc is a versatile, easy-drinking wine and ranges from dry to semisweet.
Chardonnay: Wooded or unwooded, creamy or fruity on the tongue, this wine is almost always dry. Chardonnay makes for a great food wine.
Sauvignon Blanc: Thought to be ‘green’ (think fresh, grassy flavours) and herbaceous, this light and refreshing wine is almost always zesty and on the savoury side.
Pinot Grigio: This wine varies in colour from golden yellow and slightly green to copper and even light salmon. Quality versions of this varietal are characterised by a sort of zingy, spicy taste with a medium body, less acidity than heavier Sauvignon Blancs and a hint of sweetness.
Viognier: A bolder style white wine that can be compared to Chardonnay, Viognier is often found in white blends as the creamy component. Expect perfumed aromas of sweet summer fruit.
How do you tell between a dry white wine and a sweet white wine?
Although certain grape varieties are associated with certain wine styles, such as dry Sauvignon Blancs and sweet Rieslings, this has very little to do with the grape: whether a wine is dry or sweet has everything to do with the way it’s made. Here’s the difference in a nutshell:
Dry white wine: The winemaker allows fermentation to continue until all natural sugars in the grapes are eaten up and turned into alcohol.
Sweet white wine: The winemaker will stop the fermentation process when the wine has reached the desired level of sweetness.
What’s a good white wine temperature?
Whites are served chilled (7-13°C), as the flavours just taste better at that temperature. A white served straight out of the fridge, however, is often a little too cold and has less flavour. Try this experiment the next time your wine seems tasteless after drinking it straight from the fridge: cup the glass in your hand and allow it to warm a little for a few minutes. Then taste. Any better? You’ll probably find that the flavours have reappeared like magic.
On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than room-temperature white wine. If you’re taking your white wine out and about with you (on a picnic, perhaps?), invest in a good-quality wine chiller.
Can you store and age a white wine?
Although red wine gets all the credit for ageing gracefully, a few varieties of white wines can do so, too. Much like red wine, cheaper white wines probably aren’t going to keep well, while quality ones should age better (if kept in a temperature-controlled, light-free environment). Here’s a quick summary of whites with storage potential: Sauvignon Blanc (2-5 years); Chardonnay (2-10 years); Riesling (2-10 years) and Chenin Blanc (2-8 years).
What pairs well with white wine?
Often heard the rule that you can only serve white wine with chicken, and red wine with beef? Consider this myth busted: sauces and seasonings usually determine the wine pairing more than the meat. Though red meat pairs nicely with reds, a Cape Malay-style beef curry will go well with an aromatic white, like a Viognier, while beef enchiladas with sour cream will pair nicely with a Chenin Blanc.
Although Sauvignon Blanc has become the fail-safe wine with fish, a high-acid Chenin Blanc or dry rosé with a prominent acidity should also do the trick nicely (just avoid the sweeter ones). If your light pasta, chicken or fish dish is a bit on the fiery side, the dish should benefit from a robust Chardonnay blend that can take the heat.