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The Best White Wines
- Leaders of the Pack
By Stuart Jay

"White wine with white meat" is still the mantra of the wine world but your personal preference should dictate. White wines, yellow, golden or straw-like in color, are derived from an assortment of grape varietals of green, gold or yellowish-colored grapes, or from just the juice (not the skin) of select red grapes. White wines tend to be more refreshing and lighter in character and taste than red wine vintages, making them ideal selections for spring and summer occasions. White wines are often preferred with lighter meals such as lunch, smaller lighter dinners, and appetizers, or as aperitifs, with optimum serving temperatures at 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit.

White wines are best served in narrower glasses that allow for better aroma concentration of more delicate varietals. A variety of taste descriptors apply to white wine, such as citrus, apple, pear, grapefruit, lemon, lime, pineapple, melon, butter, honey, flora, herb, earthy, along with light oak vanilla, sweet wood coconut, as well as heavier oak, smoke, toast.

Chardonnay is the most prominent of the white wine varietals, unmistakable in the mouth because of its excellent sugar/acid balance, its full body, and its easy smoothness. Chardonnay's intrinsic blank canvas quality allows its flavors to be dramatically affected by soil, climate, vineyard practices, and winemaking techniques that produce wide variances in the Chardonnay flavor profile. The Chardonnay aroma is distinct, yet delicate, often smells like apricots, apples, lemons, peaches, or tropical fruits such as pineapple, banana, mango, guava, kiwi. Chardonnay is the major varietal used in quality sparkling wines and French Champagne. Chardonnay is the only grape permitted in the Chablis region of France. Chablis is described as flinty, mineral or "steely", versus the Meursault appellation (one of the relatively few Burgundy villages that produces almost entirely white wine) where Chardonnay is described as having a lush, ripe, "fleshy", "buttery" quality. California Chardonnay is every bit as variable with exciting taste quality it develops there. Chardonnay has also been a successful grape in Australia, sometimes misnamed there "pinot chardonnay". Chardonnay is most commonly paired with roast chicken and other white meats such as turkey. Heavily oak influenced Chardonnays do not pair well with more delicate fish; they pair better with smoked fish, spicy Southeast Asian cuisine, garlic and guacamole. More mellow Chardonnays pair with earthy dishes like mushroom soup and aged cheese.

Sauvignon Blanc, one of the first fine wines to be bottled with a screwcap in commercial quantities, is usually consumed young, not particularly benefiting from aging. It's quite distinctive, often sharp, aggressive smell is described as grass, bell-pepper, grapefruit, lime, or melon in nature. Blending Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon is a common practice to add richness and an extra element of figs to the aroma, softening the Sauvignon Blanc's naturally high acidity character. Sauvignon Blanc is always crisp, tangy, tart, and zesty in character. This character pervades in even sweet and dessert versions, preventing them from being cloying and sticky-tasting. Sauvignon Blanc is thus able to accompany the greatest variety of foods. It pairs well with sushi, fish, and fresh goat cheese.

Riesling, cultivated since the 1400s or earlier, is usually included in the top three white wine varieties together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling is distinctively floral and exhibits apple, pear, peach, apricot-like aromas that frequently mix in mineral elements reflecting the individuality of its terroir (a group of vineyards or even vines from the same region). Riesling is often consumed when young. Riesling may have aromas of green or other apples, grapefruit, peach, honey, rose blossom or cut green grass. Riesling possesses a high natural level of tartaric acid enabling it to balance high levels of residual sugar. Riesling makes dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling white wines which pair well with white fish or pork. It is one of the few wines with taste that can stand up to Thai and Chinese cuisine.

Gewurztraminer is more pungent and full-bodied than most any other white wine with a heady, aromatic scent of roses, passion fruit, floral notes and exotic lychee-nut flavor with at times a heavy, oily texture and a slight tendency to bitterness that can be overwhelming and tiring to some. Gewьrztraminer grapes produce wines colored from light to dark golden yellow with a copper tone, depending on the fruit's ripeness. Gewьrztraminer can be made into an excellent dessert wine. Gewьrztraminer pairs well with Asian cuisine, and enjoys good company with Munster cheese, smoked salmon and fleshy, fatty (oily) wild game.

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio can be clear in color to a light gold and can be dry or attain a high level of sweetness and even age well. It is a medium bodied wine with fresh aromas and flavors suggestive of melon and apples, refreshed by cleansing acidity. It is a wine that is usually delicately fragrant and mildly floral along with hints of almond and smoke. Pair with pasta, chicken and fish.

Semillon is the majority white variety in Bordeaux regions of Graves, Entre de Mers and Sauternes, and makes up the majority of the blend in the most expensive and famous dessert wines in the world. Semillon wine can be produced both as a dry and a sweet. It is full of crisp citrus flavors with a touch of fresh herbs. It is full flavored, rich, aromatic, soft, subtle, and a rich counter balance to the Sauvignon Blanc, which can be aromatically aggressive and acidic. Semillon works well when blended with Chardonnay, providing weight and richness.

Viognier is full-bodied like an oaky Chardonnay, with a much more distinctive fruit character. Viognier possesses a rich and complex floral aroma that often conjures up reflections of overripe apricots mixed with orange blossoms, along with a distinctive and sweet aroma-flavor profile as Gewьrztraminer. Viognier is usually made in a dry style and seems to appeal more to the typical Chardonnay drinker since both share tropical fruit flavors and a creamy mouth feel. Aromatic and fruit forward by nature of the grape, Viognier pairs well with spicy foods such as Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, and with shellfish, such as Dungeness crab.

Chenin Blanc provides a fairly neutral palate for the expression of terroir, with typically a floral, honeyed character, along with zesty acidity, as sensory trademarks of well-made Chenin Blanc. Considered the most versatile of all wine grape varieties, fragrant and lightly sweet and crisp, it can be used to make everything -- light sparkling wines, dry table wines, nectar-like dessert wines (where the grapes can be left on the vines to develop noble rot, producing an intense, viscous dessert wine that will improve considerably with age), and even brandy are all produced in various areas of the wine world.

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