There’s nothing like a crisp glass of white wine on a hot summer afternoon…but if you’re more of a casual drinker than an aficionado, the choices can be overwhelming. So we tapped a beverage expert to give us the lowdown on the most popular types of white wine, the foods they pair best with and which ones are delicious to sip all on their own. (Note: The wine recommendations are our own, based on professional and consumer ratings, and the regions associated with each type of wine do not reflect all the production and growing areas, just the most prominent ones.)
5 Types of White Wine Everyone Should Know
Meet the Expert
Rick Margaritov is a certified sake sommelier and hospitality veteran with an extensive beverage background that includes leading the opening of acclaimed Chef Thomas Keller’s first concept wine bar, Bar Bouchon, and collaborating on service programs for James Beard Award-winning chefs Tom Collichio, Jonathan Waxman and Suzanne Goin & Caroline Styne. He’s also the co-owner of Present Tense and Hippo, a Nashville restaurant and bodega duo that boasts a stand-out selection of sake and natural (aka “natty”) wines that are organically or biodynamically farmed and made with no interventions or manipulation, including added sulfites, preservatives and sugars.
What Are the Most Popular Types of White Wine?
The white wine options available are vast and labels can get pretty confusing. (Is cuvee French for yummy?) Fortunately, you won’t be led astray by the following most popular and easy to identify types of white wine. Read on for everything you need to know about what makes them special.
1. Sauvignon Blanc
- Tends to Taste: Herbaceous, grassy, citrusy and crisp
- Ideal Food Pairings: cheese, charcuterie, salads and veggie sides, chicken, seafood (especially shellfish)
- Region(s) It’s From: Marlborough, New Zealand; Bordeaux and Loire Valley, France
Sauvignon blanc tends to have pronounced citrus fruit, resulting in a wine that Margaritov describes as “light, crisp, balanced and with higher acid that makes your mouth salivate for more.” That said, some sauv blancs feature herbal, vegetal notes alongside the citrus, in which case the expert says you can expect a wine that’s “crisp like steel.” Either way, if you’re looking for something dry, refreshing and approachable, sauv blanc is a safe bet—just be warned, you’ll likely want more than one glass. (Psst: This one is also a good choice if you’re looking for a budget-friendly bottle, though we still recommend treating yourself to a glass of Sancerre on special occasions.)
2. Chenin Blanc
- Tends to Taste: light, fruity and honeyed with crisp acidity
- Ideal Food Pairings: oysters and other shellfish, pork chops, turkey, spicy food
- Region(s): South Africa; Loire Valley, France
This light-bodied white hails from France’s Loire Valley and has since expanded its frontier as far as South Africa, which is now the wine’s largest producer. Margaritov tells us that chenin blanc stands out for having “more white fruit, like apple and pear, as compared to the herbal notes of sauv blanc”—a distinction that makes it slightly sweeter. Still, just like sauv blanc, chenin pairs beautifully with seafood and is mighty tasty on its own, to boot. In other words, choosing between the two really just comes down to what kind of fruit (and how much of it) you fancy. It’s also worth noting that, despite being a somewhat lesser-known wine, chenin blanc is widely loved among sommeliers and wine professionals.
3. Pinot Grigio
- Tends to Taste: fruity, citrusy, light and crisp
- Ideal Food Pairings: mild cheeses, salads, chicken dishes (especially lemony ones) and salmon
- Region(s): Northern Italy and Eastern Europe; Alsace, France; Oregon, Washington and California (New World)
One of the most popular and well-known white grape varieties, pinot grigio is widely considered to be Italy’s flagship white wine—namely because that’s where it’s produced in bulk. Interestingly enough, this much-loved white grape actually originated in the Burgundy region of France, where it’s known as pinot gris, and some of its most remarkable expressions come from Alsace and, believe it or not, Oregon.
Depending on where and how it’s produced, pinot grigio can be an uncomplicated, gulpable and surprisingly affordable white—along the lines of a sauv blanc, but more neutral—or something beautifully complex and worthy of aging. In fact, tasty, everyday pinot grigios make fine breakfast and brunch wines, since they’re “zesty, light and super crushable, citrusy pick-me-ups, especially when handmade naturally and not in a massive factory with added sugars and sulfites,” says Margaritov. That last part is pretty key, though, which is why the expert suggests asking for store recommendations here, “as chances are good that the ones you select may be sweeter and brighter ‘headache wines.’” Roger that.
- Tends to Taste: buttery, creamy, smooth and full-bodied
- Ideal Food Pairings: anything creamy or buttery, dishes with mushrooms (think: wild mushroom risotto), shellfish
- Region(s): Burgundy, France; California
A green-skinned grape variety from Burgundy, France, chardonnay is now grown far and wide and is the world’s most popular grape, hence its reputation as an easy-drinking wine. It’s fair to say this is something of a misconception, though, as chardonnay is often deeply expressive and a lot bolder than people think. Per Margaritov, oak-aged chardonnay (the kind that prevails stateside and in most regions outside of France) are “toasty butter bombs”—rich, vibrant and complex, but notably lacking the citrus minerality that many casual white wine drinkers prefer.
In other words, if you’re looking for a sip of something bright and zippy, chardonnay might fall flat. Nevertheless, the expert says chablis—a chardonnay produced in the grape’s birthplace of Burgundy, where the winemaking tradition favors unoaked wines—delivers plenty of “purity, crispness and acidity.” Plus, Margaritov tells us that chardonnay accounts for over one-third of the grapes grown in Champagne, so it’s always a fine choice for a (sparkling) celebration.
- Tends to Taste: floral, juicy, acidic and sometimes sweet
- Ideal Food Pairings: spicy (or heavily spiced) food, particularly Southeast Asian curries and noodle dishes
- Region(s): Rhine River countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France); United States (Washington, Michigan and the Finger Lakes)
If your palate prefers a more perfumed wine, riesling—a grape variety native to the Rhine River region of Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland—is an excellent choice. Margaritov notes that the best of the bunch boast “floral aromatics, jasmine perfume notes and mouth watering high acidity” and are a perfect match for pad thai, spicy curry or any number of dishes you might find on a Southeast Asian menu. However, we’d be remiss not to mention that some (not all!) riesling features quite a bit of sweetness to offset that naturally high acidity, so if you prefer a leaner white, be sure to ask for riesling recommendations accordingly.
Which White Wine Is Easy to Drink?
So you’ve received a basic education but are still unsure as to what you should actually pour yourself a glass of? When in doubt, the first two from the above list will have your back. Margaritov explains: “Both sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc are incredibly easy to drink—they’re clean and crisp but very provocative, sexy and highly thirst-quenching. They are also very approachable styles of white wine for folks who don’t regularly drink wine.”
Of course, when it comes to really answering the easiest-to-drink question, it’s all about context and personal preference. (Pairings are important when food is on the table and subjectivity reigns supreme when it comes to what pleases the palate.) Still, if you find yourself staring at a wine list and feeling totally lost at sea, you likely fall into a category of wine drinker who’d benefit from taking Margaritov’s straightforward advice as a starting point and branching out from there. Cheers!