Choosing a White Wine: Tips for Finding the Right Bottle at the Right Place

You’ve been invited to a summer dinner party. When you volunteer to bring a contribution, the host suggests a bottle of white. Despite knowing little about wine, you agree – what now??

Lighter in body and flavor than a red wine, more interesting and “sippable” than beer, a chilled white wine is an essential beverage at any summer occasion. To the inexperienced wine buyer, however, the prospect of choosing from potentially hundreds of bottles at a local wine merchant can be daunting. All too often this results in the purchase of a large, cheap, familiar bottle from the limited selection at the corner grocery store. What inexperienced wine buyers miss out on is an unprecedented and growing selection of high-quality wines in the United States, many at surprisingly affordable prices.

Step 1: Where to Buy

The explosion of the wine market in the United States is evident in the appearance of wine on the shelves of Wal-Mart and the expansion of supermarket wine aisles. Although these stores are sources of the affordable, mega-mass-produced labels familiar to many Americans, their selection is limited, and their controls on wine storage are uncertain at best. You’re likely to have a more interesting experience shopping in a store with a dedicated wine salesperson who is knowledgeable about the inventory.

Liquor stores vary in their emphasis on wine sales. Some liquor stores have a large proportion of their floor space dedicated to wine, while in others the hard stuff clearly takes center stage. Call a liquor store ahead of time to find out whether you will be able to speak with a wine specialist when you visit the store – if you are directed elsewhere, take the advice!

An alternative to the liquor store is an upscale specialty market such as Whole Foods. Many specialty or gourmet markets cater to wine buyers by offering their customers dedicated wine sales staff, periodic tastings, and advice on food pairings. Although the cost of customer pampering may show up on the price tag, you’re unlikely to get ripped off if there is other competition in the area.

If you’re ready to bite the bullet and go all the way, you can head straight for your local wine merchant’s. Many wine shops offer tastings, personalized services, and special incentives for regular customers. A good relationship with a wine merchant can be an invaluable resource. However, depending on where you live, you may need to do a bit of searching to locate a wine seller. In smaller cities you may not be able to find one at all.

Step 2: What to Buy

What do you want in a white wine? If you haven’t sampled many white wines, you may not know where to begin. You might have tried white wines in the past that didn’t live up to the “explosive bouquet of peaches, honeysuckle, vanilla, and tropical fruits” that their labels promised. More than likely, you simply haven’t had enough different wine experiences to know what’s available. Although it’s generally advisable that you select wines with their food accompaniments in mind, food and wine pairing isn’t an exact science. Instead of trying to follow a set of fussy rules, ask yourself a few key questions: do you want a rich, bold flavor from your wine, or something lighter and more delicate on the palate? Do you want a wine that is fruity and sweet, or more zesty and spicy? Prepared with a budget ($8-10 is reasonable for an inexpensive wine) and a few ideas about what you’d like your wine to taste like, you can easily work with a wine salesperson to find a good match for your preferences.

The qualities of a white wine are the result of many factors, including the soil and climate in which the grapes were grown, the techniques used by the winemaker, and the type of grape used to produce the wine. Often the wine label will indicate the type(s) of grape used to produce the wine. Wines made primarily from a single type of grape are known as “varietals” and are very common in the white wine market. However, blends of wine made from multiple types of grapes are also available.

When many Americans consider buying a white wine, they immediately think of the Chardonnay varietal. Indeed, Chardonnay grapes are grown in nearly every major wine-producing region in the world, and Chardonnay is the perennial leader in domestic wine sales. Affordable bottles of Chardonnay are available almost everywhere that wines are sold, and many of them are very good. The flavors of fresh fruit, vanilla, and butter seem well suited to the American palate, making Chardonnay a natural choice for those who are new to white wine. However, low-priced American Chardonnays have a reputation for being overly sweet, cloying, syrupy, or just plain uninteresting – a perception you will no doubt encounter if you speak to a hardcore wine aficionado. If you simply must bring a Chardonnay, consider looking across the Atlantic and go with a French wine made in Bourgogne (Burgundy) region – prepare to pay a little more than for a California Chardonnay, but you will be rewarded.

Sauvignon Blanc might as well be called “the other American white wine,” as it is also in wide domestic production. Compared to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc is often lighter in body and flavor. Compared to the rich, ripe fruity notes typical of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc is more likely to have crisper flavors of green grass, citrus, and even minerals, making it a great summertime pick. Affordably priced domestic Sauvignon Blanc is widely available, but don’t overlook the many excellent imports from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and (of course!) the Bordeaux region of France.

Although it’s possible to find a bargain among the more common varietals, going beyond the boundaries of the familiar can also be rewarding. Viognier is an increasingly popular varietal that is likely to satisfy those with an affinity for slightly fruitier flavors. On the drier side, try an light, effervescent Vihno Verde – a summer wine if ever there was one! Other white varietals worth exploring include Gerwurtzraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris. Experiment and enjoy!

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