White grapes are actually green in color. Grapes that don't have
red or purple pigmentation are called white, whereas 'green' grapes
in wine terminology actually refer to under-ripe grapes.
Among the white grapes and the wines made from them, the most
popular varietal worldwide is still Chardonnay; though looking at
American restaurant choices, Pinot Grigio must be coming in as a
close second. Chardonnay is grown worldwide with more than 400,000
acres under vine, only red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot and Grenache are planted more.
Chardonnay is indigenous to the Burgundy region of France, where it
is the basis for almost all white wines (the other two grown in
very small percentages are Sauvignon Blanc and Aligoté). It is also
an important crop in Champagne, France and grown in large amounts
in the US and Australia as well. In cooler climates it shows a
crisp acidity with medium body resulting in green apple, melon and
pear flavors; in the hotter regions it typically develops high
alcohol with relatively low acidity and tropical fruit flavors.
Often aged in new oak barrels, the oak aging will complement with
vanilla, butterscotch, caramel and toast flavors.
Worldwide the second most grown 'white' varietal is Sauvignon Blanc
with about half the acreage of Chardonnay. Most famously grown in
the Loire Valley of France (Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé) and
Bordeaux, it has found good homes in New Zealand, California, Chile
and South Africa.
Sauvignon Blanc characteristics range from grass, hay, grapefruit,
and green pepper in the cooler growing regions to melon and
asparagus in warmer climates to minerals and flint in the Loire
Valley and gooseberry in New Zealand, and sometimes toast and smoke
when oak aged. It can produce many different styles and is very
characteristic for certain soil types and locations.
In California it is often named 'Fumé Blanc', a term that is
legally synonymous, it was created to differentiate Sauvignon Blanc
that was oak-aged to soften some of the typically more aggressive
aromas and acidity.
The third most grown grape worldwide is Riesling, best known from
the Mosel and other regions of Germany, France (Alsace) and
Austria, but also widely grown in the US and Australia. With a high
to very high acidity and low alcohol it balances the often-dominant
fruitiness nicely, is very food-friendly, and ranges in flavors
from apple to peach, nectarine, honeysuckle, jasmine often paired
with a nice minerality and wet stone flavors. It is rarely aged in
oak, but it ages generally well in the bottle, due to its high
acidity and takes on flavors of baking spices or nuts.
Next in line with popularity among grape growers is Chenin Blanc a
variety that is capable of high yields, making it an ideal choice
for those that want to grow low quality table wines, mostly in the
US, Africa and Argentina. But when the yields are kept low it can
produce very high quality and food-friendly wines, mostly again in
the Loire Valley, but also in South Africa. It can be found in dry
or sweet, still or sparkling versions and can make superb dessert
wines. Characteristic aromas include apple, straw, melon, apricot,
almond, and citrus blossoms; and generally it has high acidity and
medium to high alcohol.
With only about 60,000 acres planted, Pinot Grigio is a far smaller
player on the world market than it's popularity in American
restaurants would suggest. Grown mostly in northern Italy and
Alsace, where it's called Pinot Gris, as well as in Oregon. It is a
mutation of Pinot Noir; hence the name, which means 'grey Pinot'
for its lightly pink, colored skin. It usually is rather light with
low acidity, medium alcohol, and aromas of apple, lemon, melon,
peach, and sometimes minerals.