A glass of white wine on a table with mountains for a backdrop

Wine: Do You Know Your Chardonnay from Your Pinot Grigio?

A while back, a friend and I were being lazy about dinner. Instead of cooking, we decided to buy gourmet pizza (from Mediterraneo in Westlands), along with a bottle of wine from On the Run, and head back home to relax and hang out.

We were set on having white wine with our pizza, but weren’t familiar with any of the wines that we found at On the Run. Still, we selected a wine based on the description printed on its label and were convinced that we were walking away with a semi-sweet light wine. Boy, were we wrong!

To quote my friend, the wine was “bitter as medicine”.

This was not the first time that this was happening to me. Often, when faced with choosing wine from unfamiliar ones, I ended up choosing something that I eventually didn’t like. I wondered: is there a way to foretell the character of a wine without ever having tasted it?

This is the question I sought to answer as I browsed the Internet a few days later. Apparently, there are a few things that can tip you off beforehand about the character of a wine. For brevity’s sake, in this post, I will only discuss the selection of white wine; red wine will be for another post.

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Bottles of wine

First Decide What Kind of Wine You Want

Once you’ve determined that you are in the mood for white wine (as opposed to red wine, rosé, champagne, or sparkling wine), you then need to decide whether you want your wine sweet or dry. Furthermore, are you looking for a light-bodied or full-bodied wine? If these choices sound like Greek to you, stick with me a little longer.

Sweet or Dry?

We all know what sweet tastes like, but what does it mean for a wine to be dry? In “wine-speak”, dry is not the opposite of wet, but rather the opposite of sweet. A dry wine is one that’s quite simply…not sweet.

There is no way to definitively tell whether a wine will be sweet or dry before tasting it. Still, you can take a hint from the type of grapes used to make the wine. Take, for instance, the list below of common types of white wine ordered according to increased dryness. From the list, we can see that a Riesling will generally be a sweet wine while a Brut will probably be very dry.

Sweet to Dry: Riesling, German Riesling, Chardonnay, White Burgundy, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blan, Fume Blanc, Brut

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Light-bodied, Medium-bodied, or Full-bodied?

To understand the concept of weight with regard to wine, let’s use the analogy of milk. Milk comes in different cream contents: skim milk, the lightest, has little or no cream; semi-skimmed milk has a little more cream than skimmed milk, and is therefore heavier; while full cream milk is the thickest milk available. Similarly, wines have varying body. In “wine-speak”, wines are said to be light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied.

To guess what body an unfamiliar white wine will have, take a look at its alcohol content. Full-bodied wines generally have a higher alcohol content than medium-bodied wines, which in turn have a higher alcohol content than light-bodied wines. Numerically, see the list below.

  • 7.5% – 10.5% Light Body
  • 10.5% – 12.5% Medium Body
  • 12.5%+ Full Body

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Chardonnay Grapes

Other than its alcohol content, the type of grapes used to make a wine can also point to the body you can expect it to have. Chardonnays are generally the fullest-bodied white wines while Bruts are generally the lightest-bodied. Below is a list of common types of white wines  in order of increasing body.

With this information, hopefully you can take some of the guesswork out of selecting a white wine. The key is, first and foremost, knowing what kind of wine you want and then looking for clues that will give you just that.

I hope you find this information useful the next time you are choosing white wine. Personally, I look forward to having fewer unpleasant surprises.

Until the next time,

Photo Credits: Merlin Bungart; Basheertome, It’s Holly, and michaelolivier.co.za.

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