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There are 50 major white grapes grown in the world today, 24 in California alone. The three most important grapes are Reisling, Sauvingnon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
Riesling grapes need cooler climates and they produce both refreshing light-bodied wines and full-bodied table wines to pair with the greatest cuisine. As with Chenin Blanc, Riesling has a very high natural acidity, which both balances the sugar (think of the way we have to sweeten lemonade) in sweeter wines and acts as a preservative for long ageing. The oldest, still-living wine ever tasted was not red--it was a German Riesling, a Steinwein, from the 1540 vintage. It was tasted in 1961, after 420 years, and had not yet perished. Rieslings are floral and fruity, and can be delicate, subtle, and low in alcohol, making for a very nice summer wine. But even sweet, low-alcohol wines from the Mosel in Germany balance the sugar with a steely, teeth-cleaning acidity. And though you might think of Rieslings as necessarily sweet, there are many dry Rieslings, the best being from Alsace. These show best with several years of bottle age--though they are certainly fun to drink young!--and pair magnificently with pork, foie gras, and other rich foods.
Crisp, high in acidity and light- to medium-bodied, Sauvignon Blanc is recognizable for its grassy, herbaceous flavor and aroma. When grown in warmer climates the flavors are more fruity, melon-like. The grape is important in California, New Zealand and Northeastern Italy, but it really shines in France's Loire Valley and Bordeaux regions. There it is used prodigiously as a blending grape and is responsible for the stand-alone varietals Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Though not as rich and complex as Chardonnay, this is a versatile grape, one that grows well in a number of places, responds well to oak or a lack thereof, and can be drunk young or aged several years. As well, it can make for some fabulous late-harvest offerings
Chardonnay is to white wine what Cabernet is to reds. It is used to produce France's magnificent white Burgundies and is the main grape in Champagne. But Chardonnay also has a populist bent - in the last decade or so, it has become the world's most often-purchased dry white wine. Indeed, because of its great adaptability, it grows in nearly every wine-producing area of the world; some California Chardonnays are stellar examples of the genre. When Chardonnay wines are made with care, they are bold, rich and complex and taste of ripe figs and peach, honey and butter, hazelnuts and spice. The best are medium-bodied, medium dry and high in acidity. Chardonnays, more than any other white wine, love to be aged in oak.
Pinot Gris is a darkly colored white wine grape that evolved from the Pinot Noir. Originally a popular wine from Alsace (where it was once labeled Tokay) and northeastern Italy (where it is called Pinot Grigio), Pinot Gris has become one of the most successful wines grown in Oregon. Most versions are quite dry, but Pinot Gris wines can range from light and delicate to fairly full-bodied. Rarely barrel-aged, Pinot Gris wines tend to be dry and crisp, the perfect accompaniment to salmon and seafood. It can be rather subtle in both flavor and aroma, though the best examples are reminiscent of almonds, minerals and peaches.