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White Wine for a Wine Novice

I would like to develop a taste for good whites...can anyone recommend a few that are not prohibitively $$$$? Many thanks!

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  1. It would help if you define prohibitively expensive. A great place to start is with 2 of the world's most abundantly available, easy-to-understand, and food-friendly white wines... Chardonnay and Riesling.

    IMO you can sample a wide range of outstanding white wines from the world's great wine regions for under $30 a bottle. In some cases well under 20. Here are a few:

    RIESLING: See recent riesling discussion. German wines from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region are the place to start. These wines are tremendously palate-friendly. Look for 2004 or 2005's. Probably the "easiest to like" or "easiest to get to know" white wine in the world, IMO. Start with a kabinett and spatlese to develop a sense of the German ripeness scale.

    CHARDONNAY: For excellent quality and value, check out two of Australia's greatest chardonnay regions: Hunter Valley and Adelaide Hills. Hunter has had a great run of vintages over the past 10 years. 2000 and 2003 are especially great. In Adelaide look for 2002 and 2004.

    There are numerous other great white wines in the world... Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Garganega, Viognier... it's a long list. But great examples of these wines are somewhat less abundantly available than Chardonnay and Riesling, IMO....

    Couple things... ask your wine vendor for the best bottle(s) available in your price limits. You never get a 2nd chance to make a first impression, so don't start off with bottom-shelf stuff from an off-year. Also don't serve these wines too cold. A light chill somewhat below room temperature is fine. I'd also recommend starting off drinking them straight instead of with food unless you're certain that food is a good match for them. Otherwise you'll be sampling a bad food/wine match and that can make for an unecessarily negative impression.

    17 Replies
    1. re: Chicago Mike

      Thanks, Mike. Good start and great advice! My goal is to stay under $50 dollars - but under $30 would be fantastic.

      I tried a few Cloudy Bay chardonnays several days ago and did not fall in love with them. I believe they are from Australia and New Zealand.

      1. re: chocolada

        Choco... you really have to focus on the best regions for the varietal you're interested in, and particularly the best vintage years. Buying good vineyards in off years is just a waste.

        Also, for $50 a bottle you have no real limitations in white wine.... you can find fabulous Chenins and first-growth Gewurztraminers for less.

        The key for you might be to look for some great VENDORS in your area... walk their aisles and see how well-stocked they are, talk to them and get a sense of their experience, and also attend any tastings they might be hosting.

        1. re: Chicago Mike

          Hey, while we're on the topic, what *is* a good example of Garganega?

        2. re: chocolada

          <I tried a few Cloudy Bay chardonnays several days ago and did not fall in love with them. I believe they are from Australia and New Zealand.> Cloudy Bay Chards? Cloudy Bay makes arguably the best expression of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Their Chardonnay (imho) is average.

          I'd recommend New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs as a place to get into affordable, tasty, food friendly white wines. Cloudy Bay is pricy at around $30 a bottle in US, but there are quite a few similar if not better in quality at really great prices ($9 to $16)! Babich is my favorite. Villa Maria is also a well known name.

          1. re: ChefJune

            People pay $30 for Cloudy Bay? Yow. I prefer Giesen and it's half that.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I've yet have a Giesen, in which I found great pleasure, though it has now been some years. I hold the CB up as my favorite New World SB and just picked up a case at US$28 at Costco.

              On your rec., I'll grab some of the Giesen again, and see. Maybe things have really changed, since my last experiences. Dang, so many taste tests on my dance card, and I've got about two months of heavy travel ahead - gotta' go and get to tasting...

              Thanks,
              Hunt

              1. re: Bill Hunt

                The best Giesens I've tasted had a year or two of bottle age after initial release.

        3. re: Chicago Mike

          Chocolada,

          Chicago Mike had some good suggestions, and I added a comment, or two. Unfortunately, I had a pending tee-time, and could not linger on the laptop.

          Now, I’ve got a few questions, regarding your request. Are you new to wine, in general, and want to “start” with whites, or are you more of a red wine drinker, and want to expand to include whites? This will help lay a foundation, so comments are not condescending, or not on such an esoteric level, as to be unusale.

          Your budget, stated down the thread, goes up to $50/btl.. Is that US$? The reason that I ask is that there are a lot Canadian subscribers, and I also think that OZ uses $, but at a different exchange rate, as does CA. If US$, that covers a ton of prospects. Most of the main recs. should fall into the US$25-40 range. One can get some “special” whites in the US$50 range, and I’d not suggest starting there. You’ll work up to it soon enough. Also, when starting the exploration of, say white wine, it’s best to explore the broadest spectrum fairly soon, and to sample as much as is possible. If one blows the entire budget for the week on one bottle, and it turns out to not turn one on, there’s no $ for other wines that week. Better to get 4 btls., and explore them, than to go one/week.

          Andrea Immer (now Robinson) does a very interesting book, “Great Wines Made Simple,” that is a “taste along.” She covers reds & whites, but I’d recommend it, even if you are only interested in whites, at this point. A lot of the topics can apply to whites, as well as reds. Trust me, half of the book will not be lost - maybe just not put to use yet.

          Some many years ago, my wife dragged me from reds, and introduced me to some wonderful whites. I now probably do about 60/40, whites to red, but maybe that’s because I still take my reds a bit more seriously, and hence spend a bit more time with them in the glass.

          In very general terms, make sure you’ve got good glassware for the whites. In most cases, I opt for larger bowls, than do many. These do not have to be Riedel Sommelier series stems, but good glassware is a real step in the right direction. As Chicago Mike states, do not chill your whites too much. I have a cooling unit that runs just below the temp of my cellar, and most whites for immediate consumption go into it. Temp is ~ 50° F. For big whites, especially white Burgs, I bring them out of the cellar at 55° F. You might find that you like Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc a tad cooler, but please do not overdo it - you loose most of the taste and the nose.

          From your opening statements and your followup, this is probably moot, but do not taste test cheap wines. While I feel that there are more drinkable whites at the lowest end of the price scale, you will definitely do yourself a favor by tasting very good examples of what you do drink. Wine is rather similar to audio gear - cheap audio equipment sounds bad. Mid-range priced audio gear sounds good. Then you get into the esoterics, and a few extra $1,000 will yield barely measurable results. Is a pair of Krell amplifiers worth the big bucks? If you can hear the difference, have the money and are so inclined, then yes. Otherwise, no.

          Most of all, enjoy. Sorry that I did not have time to share my thoughts earlier.

          Hunt

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Florida has some superb wineshop chains, especially if he lives in Southeast Florida (Jupiter to Miami)... any of these varietals we've been discussing will be available.

              1. re: Chicago Mike

                There are also some excellent non-chains in SE Florida (indeed I'd say they're better than the chains).

                One small quibble as to this comment from Bill: "do not taste test cheap wines". Cheap is not necessarily bad by any means. There are plenty of well-made, varietally correct, "cheap" wines (depending on your definition of "cheap", I suppose - I'd say $10-15 is "cheap" particularly if you're budget is up to $50).

                Indeed, if what you're trying to do is to learn more about white wine, I would DEFINITELY suggest buying 3-4 different bottles with that $50 rather than blowing all that money on one bottle. You could choose several different varietals and compare them; or you could focus on one varietal and get some help from your friendly wine salesperson to compare different styles or regions (unoaked vs. oaked chardonnay for instance).

                One more reason, by the way, to seek out a good non-chain store. I find the level of knowledge often is in inverse proportion to the size of the store.

                1. re: Frodnesor

                  I took Bill's point to be, don't buy the cheapest of a particular kind of wine and expect it to be typical of the varietal / appellation.

                  But a good wine dealer won't recommend the cheapest wine unless it happens to be a good value.

                  1. re: Frodnesor

                    By "cheap," I was referring to the normal list of "jug wines." Yes, there are good, to very good, inexpensive wines. I should have listed the ones, that I'd recommend against wasting the time, and the $ on.

                    Were I just starting down the road to finding good wines now, I'd eschew the Franzias (regardless of what they are marketed under), all Gallo, below Gallo Sonoma, and that ilk. OTOH, maybe someone should taste the bad first, so they will appreciate the better, later on. I just cannot see wasting the wine budget on a dozen poorly made, mass produced wines. Sorry, if I was not clear on this point. There are too many good, relatively inexpensive (a personal definition) wines, to buy plonk.

                    Robert, you got it right. I should have written with far more clarity, than I obviously did. While I do not seek out "value" wines, I do not mind very good wines, that do not cost a bundle. The "very good" aspect dictates my "value" more than does the price. A "value" Bdx. can be something in the US$30/btl. range. A "value" Burg (red), can be something in the US$50 range. A "value" white Burg can be something in the US$30 range. It all depends on the wine. One "man's" "value wine" can be across the board. My first requirement is that it be very good. Then the price, coupled with that assessment, will finally dictate whether it's a real value.

                    Hunt

              2. re: Bill Hunt

                > make sure you’ve got good glassware for the whites

                On this note, Cost Plus has a very nice series of stems (their 'Connoisseur' series) that retails for $7, but they frequently have sales where they are $30 for any 6 at a time.

                I particularly like the Port, Burgundy, and all-purpose white glasses. The Riesling design seems nice too, and if they'd had it when I was looking for decent stems, maybe we would have those instead of the all-purpose whites. The rims are nice and thin, but the glasses do not self-destruct in the dishwasher. (I have broken one of the Burgundy glasses washing it by hand, but that's because I am a clod.)

                My parents purchased a couple of Riedel port glasses and it's very difficult to tell the difference between the Cost Plus stems and the Riedels. (other than the price tag)

                If I were going to suggest just one glass it would be an all-purpose Bordeaux ISO tasting glass, but if the OP has room in his cupboard, it's nice to have a little 6oz. glass for dessert wines, and some fishbowls in which for delicate reds to collect their vapors. I think we ended up with some $2 flutes as well, although my folks brought back some lovely little hexagonal glasses from Murano and we always use those instead for Champagne.

                So the moral of the story is, the Cost Plus glasses with the thin rims are good value.

                1. re: ttriche

                  Independent tests that found people can't taste any difference between Riedel's expensive varietal glasses and cheap generics. See "Shattered Myths" by Daniel Zwerdling in the August 2004 Gourmet.

                2. re: Bill Hunt

                  "Wine is rather similar to audio gear - cheap audio equipment sounds bad. Mid-range priced audio gear sounds good. Then you get into the esoterics, and a few extra $1,000 will yield barely measurable results. Is a pair of Krell amplifiers worth the big bucks? If you can hear the difference, have the money and are so inclined, then yes. Otherwise, no."

                  That may be one of the best quotes about wine I've ever heard. Nicely put.

              3. I am liking a lot of Spanish whites and Spain is always good for a value. Check out the Albarinos and the Godellos from the Galicia region. They compare in taste to Chablis (which is made of Chardonnay). Also, you can get good Petit Chablis, and plenty of good Italian whites (Terre di Tufi, for example) in the under $20 range. And for Cali, try producers like Au Bon Climat. They have a great Chard and a great Pinot Blanc/Gris blend that's super-yummy. I would recommend trying a varietal from many different regions...then move on to another varietal and explore many regions of said varietal if you're trying to be methodical. OR, just do a 101 and have a little bit of this, a little bit of that...

                8 Replies
                1. re: domaine547

                  > Terre di Tufi

                  is overpriced for what it is. Greco di Tufa, or the Lazio Blanco IGT blends from the Marches, are soooooo much more interesting (IMHO) if you are going down that road...

                  1. re: ttriche

                    Teruzzi & Puthod's Terre di Tufi began life as a specific bottling of the Italian DOCG, Vernaccia de San Gimignano from Tuscany. Indeed, the name used to be "Terre di Tufo" until Teruzzi was sued by Mastroberardino -- makers of the best-known Greco di Tufo, and Teruzzi changed the name to "Tufi" (the plural of "tufo"). It is now a Tuscan IGT, produced from a blend of four grape varieties: Vernaccia de San Gimignano, Chardonnay, Malvasia, and Vermentino; the wine is fermented and aged in stainless sur lie, then transferred to barrique for 4-6 months prior to bottling.

                    Greco di Tufo is a DOCG wine produced in Avellino (in southern Italy, just above the "toe" of the boot), from 100% Greco grapes.

                    The two wines -- aside from a similarity in name -- have NOTHING in common. (Well, OK, they are both white.)

                    * * * * *

                    Depending upon the producer, a Lazio Bianco that bears the IGT designation can contain alost anything. Some are Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blends (e.g.: Selve Vecchie Bianco); others may be blends of different grapes (e.g.: Campo Vecchio Bianco is a blend of Malvasia, Bellone, Romanesca, Bonvino, Passerina & Grechetto). And Falesco's Ferentano, another Lazio Bianco IGT, is produced from 100% Roscetto!

                    * * * * *

                    I'm not sure what the basis of comparison is between Teruzzi & Puthod's Terre di Tufi (Tuscan IGT), any producer's Greco di Tufo (DOCG), and any producer's white IGT from Lazio . . .

                    1. re: zin1953

                      wow, you are a WEALTH of information! thanks!

                      1. re: zin1953

                        > I'm not sure what the basis of comparison is between Teruzzi & Puthod's Terre di Tufi (Tuscan IGT), any producer's Greco di Tufo (DOCG), and any producer's white IGT from Lazio . . .

                        They're all white... and none of them crushingly expensive... and (this would be what suckered me) the whole Tufa disambiguation, which I didn't really understand until you explained what was going on.

                        (edit: by the way, Latium borders on Campania! It's not like a Lazio Bianco blend vs. Greco di Tufa is from another country or some such, it's more like Carolina BBQ sauce wars, really... I knew I'd learned something from when I lived in Italy. Too bad I went and forgot it all in the interim.)

                        Although now that I think of it, it does seem like anything coming from Tuscany gets its price doubled on exit from Italy. Which would explain what I see as a crappy value proposition for the TdT as compared to the blends from less well known appellations.

                        Thank you, as usual, for a compactly worded education... on a subject that I thought I was coming to grips with. Note to self: never underestimate Italian chaos.

                      2. re: ttriche

                        how much are you paying for the terre di tufi? I think at $15 it's quite nice. I do agree there are many interesting wines out there but terre di tufi is a big step up from Santa Margherita et al. Gavis are interesting too. But for somebody new to wine, TdT seems like a reasonable starting point.

                        1. re: domaine547

                          TdT: $15. Same price as a Trimbach Riesling, or a Saarburg Kabinett from someone who is not Egon Muller, or... for $5 more I can get a perfectly good Alsatian gewurz ...or for $5 less I could buy a nice bottles of Torrontes, or assorted other whites which I, personally, find to be better values. It's not that the TdT was *bad*, it was more that I found it to be indifferent, and I really don't like that, especially when there are so many other white wines out there that leave more of an impression.

                          Basically, I went on a tear earlier this summer trying out various obscure Italian grapes, and discovered that

                          1) Vernaccia di San Gimigniano was tastier to me than the more expensive TdT,
                          2) Greco, Grechetto, Vernaccia, Vermentino, Falanghina, and even Cortese were all more interesting white grapes than any Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio I'd tried.

                          I didn't realize there were so many different grapes that went into popular white IGT blends from Lazio; in fact I didn't realize that very many of them made it to the States! The one I particularly liked and which stood out in my mind was Pallavicini Il Pagello Lazio Blanco. It is 50% Greco, 25% Grechetto, and 25% Falanghina. I picked up a 2004 (fading!) for $8 and I would love to have stumbled upon it fresher. I thought it was at least twice as interesting as the TdT and it only cost half as much.

                          I think either the Grechetto or the Falanghina grapes gave it an aniseed aroma that, combined the the pineapple nose of the other grape (again not sure which smelled like what), was extraordinarily unusual.

                          It's entirely possible that I picked up a bottle of TdT that was indifferent and managed to try blends of the other grapes that happened to all be to my liking, but the greco/grechetto/falanghina blend was really something else. Maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but I found it to be a real change of pace, even compared to Alsatian gewurztraminers, Argentine torrontes, and other aromatic standouts.

                          YMMV! I still think TdT is overpriced for a Chardonnay-centric blend. But I haven't found a Chardonnay yet that I liked. So maybe I'm just weird.

                          1. re: ttriche

                            There's a wide range of quality among Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

                            Note that Vernaccia di Oristano and Vernaccia di Serrapetrona are completely different wines made from unrelated grape varieties.

                            1. re: ttriche

                              Yes yes! All those Italian whites are really fun, and so inexpensive. I just had my first Falanghina this week (06 Cantina del Taburno Taburno DOCG), $12, awesome. Vermentino di Sardegna (Argiolas has a nice one, easy to find) is great, and you didn't mention Arneis...lavender, minerals...

                              Off topic but the young red wines from the north of Italy are also really fun to explore...ruche, schiava, piculit-neri...there is an endless supply of interesting local varieties in Italy, unfamous and therefore inexpensive!

                              The last chardonnay I really liked was a crisp young unoaked wine from Virginia. So maybe I am weird too. But then again, I am also not rich enough to drink my way through meursault and chablis...

                      3. There is SOOOOO much good white wine out there for under $50!!! And quite a bit under $30, as well.

                        That said, I would strongly urge you to seek out German Riesling at the Spatlese level. Most of the best ones hover around $30 in price, while my very favorite producers, Willi Schaefer, Donnhoff, and Muller-Catoir, can be a bit more. Other producers to keep an eye out for are JJ Prum, JJ Christoffel, AJ Adam, Leitz, and Dr. Losen. Also, if all else fails, look for wines imported by Terry Theise. Not all of the best Germans are imported by him, but a feakishly high percentage are, and almost all of his wines are quality, especially for their prices.

                        I would also reccomend investigating Alsatian wines. Albert Mann makes terrific Gewurztraminers that are relative bargains. Dirler makes terrific (Tokay) Pinot Gris. The best Alsatian producer for Gewurztraminer and (Tokay) Pinot Gris is Zind-Humbrecht, while the best Alsatian Riesling producer is Weinbach. In the $40s you can find some amazing wines from these two producers, especially Zind-Humbrecht.

                        There are incredible values in Sauvignon Blanc coming out of New Zealand. Wines in the upper teens and lower twenties such as Nobilo Icon, Isabel, Nautilus, and Cloudy Bay (that is uppe 20's) are great and a lot of fun. At $15, Kim Crawford is a nice wine.

                        I love Austrian wines, particularly their Rielsings (I actually think that the best dry Rieslings of the world cme from Austria). There are many great producers, but the two really to keep an eye out for are Prager and FX Pichler.

                        There are nice wines coming out of the Loire. Fotr a different style of Sauvignon Blanc, look to Sancerre and Puilly-Fume. The best dry Loires are Puilly-Fumes from a producer called Dagueneau, but those are overpriced for what they are, imo. PERSONALLY, I am not as versed in this area of wine because I choose to spend my money elsewhere -- but lots of people love the stuff and they could probably guide you better as to which wineries you should look to.

                        Burgundy is a minefield. BUT, I am consistently impressed with Vincent Girardin's Meursault Les Charmes. It should be just around $50 and it is always impressive to me. It is a little more expressive than other White Burgundies, but it still deffinitely retains its Burgundian characteristics. I feel comfortable reccomending the specific bottling only because Girardin should be very easy to find.

                        Sheesh... there really is soooo much, but that is at least the tip of the iceberg.

                        For what it is worth, 80+% of my still white wine money gets invested in Willi Schaefer, Muller-Catoir, and Donnhoff. It isn't that I *prefer* German Rieslings to other white wines. It is that I see them as SUCH a value compared to other white wines that it is hard for me to put my money elsewhere.

                        1. As I ask ALL my retail customers . . .

                          a) What are the names (or at least types) of some of the white wines you have had in the past that you've liked? or disliked?

                          b) Do you like dry wines, or sweet wines?

                          c) Do you want to drink these wines WITH a meal, or by themselves?

                          d) Where do you live? (After all, it's pointless to recommend a wine that is not available in your area.)

                          OK, I generally don't need to ask people that if they are standing in front of me.

                          The more specific your answers are, the more specific my recommendations will be.

                          * * * * *

                          That said: YES, there are white wines that cost hundreds of dollars per bottle. NO, there is no reason whatsoever that you would need to spend more than $30 to enjoy some truly magnificent bottles of wines, and as some have already said, many are under $20!

                          Cheers,
                          Jason

                          1. First rule for learning about wine: find a wine store that gives you advice you can trust, or where you can trust the advice of at least one employee.

                            Second rule for learning about wine: find that wine store.

                            Without that, most of the following can get you in trouble, but:

                            Chardonnay: most California and Australian Chardonnays use Burgundy as their models, so you might as well start with the original and work your way down (or not). For lighter, fruitier wines, try those from Italy's Veneto, Collio, and Friuli regions.

                            Sauvignon blanc: New Zealand esp. Marlborough region makes inexpensive, reliably good wines from this grape. For more character and finesse, try Bordeaux (where it's usually blended with a percentage of Semillon), Macon, Sancerre, Italy's Collio.

                            Riesling: (1) at its best (German spatlese or auslese from a good vintage with some bottle age), makes the greatest white wines, but they may be an acquired taste. (2) Less fancy German young ones can be very pleasant. (3) Alsace makes great aromatic Riesling that's always bone-dry (except for dessert wines). Northern Italy (Trentino / Alto Adige) makes similar but lighter ones.

                            Gewurtztraminer: same as (2) and (3) for Riesling. In California it's mostly flabby and boring, but Lazy Creek's and Thomas Fogarty's are worth trying.

                            Chenin Blanc: Savennieres, Vouvray.

                            Viognier: makes great aromatic wines at Château-Grillet and in the Condrieu region. Elsewhere it has been unsuccessful.

                            Lesser-known whites worth seeking out: Falanghina from Sicily and Campania, Vermentino from Sardinia, Albariño from Spain's Rias Baixas region, Pinot Blanc from Alsace

                            Above all regards dry wines only. Dessert wines are another story.