Research for 2016 reveals the three bestselling white wine varietals in America are chardonnay, pinot grigio/pinot gris, and sauvignon blanc.
Chardonnay remains, by a very slim margin, the top-selling varietal wine — but next to merlot, it is probably the most maligned.
I find millennials especially disdainful of chardonnay, preferring instead — if they’re drinking white wine at all — pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc.
In fact, millennials (those aged between 21 and 38 years old) are largely responsible for the increase in popularity of pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.
Millennials now make up the largest percentage of wine consumers, overtaking baby boomers, whose, let’s face it, sell-by date is drawing nigh.
Stylistically, the top three white varietals cover a range of styles, determined by how the winemaking process is handled and where grapes are grown. I often hear tasters say they do not care for chardonnay because it tastes like butter and vanilla.
Three things make a chardonnay taste buttery or creamy. The first is malolactic fermentation.
At the risk of sounding overly scientific, malolactic fermentation occurs when wine undergoes a secondary fermentation that turns malic acid, a naturally occurring substance in wine, into a softer lactic acid, the same acid found in milk and butter.
A naturally occurring byproduct of malolactic fermentation is a chemical compound called diacetyl. FYI, this is the same chemical compound added to faux butters like "I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter!" (I can.)
Buttery vanilla flavors can also be imparted from oak barrel aging, depending on the age of the barrel. The more times a barrel is used, the more neutral it becomes.
Finally, aging wine on lees — the dead yeast cells that fall out in a barrel — and stirring those dead yeast cells several times through the aging process can produce a creamy mouthfeel not unlike that provided by malolactic fermentation.
Chardonnay is made by using all three of the above processes, or by using only one or two of the processes, or none at all.
When none of the above processes are used, the wine ferments only once in stainless steel tanks with no lees stirring. It is still chardonnay, but the taste is more austere and clean — not unlike sauvignon blanc.
The epitome of the creamy buttery style of chardonnay is Butter, a personal favorite, available locally both at Publix in Oxford and Tyson’s Fine Wine and Things in Anniston.
The antitheses of Butter are French chardonnays from Burgundy, such as Louis Jadot Chablis, found on most grocery shelves. These wines most often are aged in stainless steel. They may see time in oak, but their style is most influenced by cool climatic conditions, in which grapes struggle to reach ripeness.
Pinot grigio/pinot gris, the second most popular white wine varietal, is the source of some confusion. Pinot grigio and pinot gris are the same grape — always called pinot grigio in Italy, pinot gris in France and Oregon, and by both names in California.
Like chardonnay, the style of the wine depends on how the producers handle it. These wines rarely undergo malolactic fermentation. They are almost exclusively aged in stainless steel tanks and are rarely aged on their lees.
In Italy, they are generally bracingly tart with lemon and green apple flavors, like those found in America’s bestselling pinot grigio, the Italian Santa Margherita.
In Alsace and Oregon, these wines are ephemeral and less tart in style, with honeysuckle aromas and flavors of ripe pear and melon — like those produced by King Estate in Oregon, generally found locally on grocery and wine store shelves.
The third runner up in the most popular white wine category, sauvignon blanc, comes in a range of styles. Robert Mondovi’s Fume Blanc (found in most grocery outlets) is aged in oak barrels and stirred on lees to integrate flavors, giving it a creamy texture. At the other end of the spectrum, the austere French Sancerre Domain Franck Millet (found at Tyson’s) is aged in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation.
So before becoming a white wine hater, consider that it might be the wine style that is disliked, rather than the varietal.
Contact Pat Kettles at pkettlesatannistonstar.com.