The Complete White Wine Guide for Beginners

Learn to pick white wines like a sommelier with some helpful notes from our Test Kitchen’s resident wine writer.

white wine glasses close up
Photo: Brent Hofacker / Adobe Stock

You need not be a master sommelier to make your way through this white wine guide. We've tapped our Test Kitchen and our resident wine writer to explain the four major types of white wines so you can pinpoint and taste the difference.

Some are dry white wines, and some are sweet white wines. All have their place as general sippers or food-pairing wines. If you're searching for answers to "what's a good white wine to cook with?" and "what's the best white wine?" we'll cut to the chase and remind you that the best choice from this white wine list is the one you enjoy sipping.

The ultimate rule for wine pairing and drinking: Pour what you enjoy regardless of what others deem as the popular or classy choice. (More on this below.)

The Common Qualities of All Types of White Wine

While most red wines are made with red grapes, and whites are made with white grapes, some winemakers use different parts of the same grape varieties for both red and white wines; they just treat them differently along the way.

Red wines are known for their bolder and stronger flavors and their higher alcohol content. On the flip side, white wines tend to be lighter and often citrusy or floral and are usually slightly lower in alcohol than red wine (although that's not always the case—some chardonnays clock in at 14 percent ABV or more).

Red wine is fermented with the skins and seeds of the grapes. This yields a deeper flavor and hue and adds tannins, that mouth-drying bitter quality that you'll notice in some red wines. Red wine is also often aged in barrels to allow for oxygen exposure, which amps up the bold, strong notes you experience with each sip.

White wine is almost always made without the grape skins and seeds and is often aged in stainless-steel vats rather than oak barrels.

How White Wine Is Made

It's no wonder a bottle of wine is more expensive than plain ol' grape juice. Here are all the steps involved in turning fruit into a bottle you can buy:

  1. Grow and harvest the grapes.
  2. Press the fruit to separate the seeds and skins from the grape flesh.
  3. Allow the juice to settle. "Settling" lets the skins, seeds, and any other sediment settle to the bottom so that winemakers can skim them away before the aging process.
  4. Ferment the juice. Here, the liquid becomes wine thanks to yeast that transforms the grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
  5. Age the wine. This is an important step to achieve the depth of flavor.
  6. Add preservatives, such as sulfur dioxide (an additive generally recognized as safe by the FDA), to reduce the risk of wine spoilage. The new trendy "natural wines" don't include preservatives.
  7. Filter the wine to catch any remaining sediment pieces. The result is a clear and transparent, rather than cloudy, wine.
  8. Bottle the wine—or transfer it to boxes or cans—before shipping it to store shelves or consumers.

How to Serve White Wine

Make any white wine variety even better by serving it in a way that allows the aromas and flavors to shine. It helps to know what makes the best white wine glasses and white wine serving temperature.

The Best White Wine Serving Temperature and Storage Temperature

Serve white wines chilled, ideally between 45°F and 55°F. Sure, you could splurge on a temperature-controlled wine refrigerator, stock it full of your faves from this white wine list, and set it in this temperature range. However, you can achieve this sweet spot without any extra appliances. To do so, place a bottle of your chosen white wine type on its side on a refrigerator shelf for about three hours, or place the bottle in a wine chiller bucket filled with ice and water for about 30 minutes.

Once you open the wine, keep the bottle cold in the same bucket. If you've chilled it in the fridge and don't have a bucket, wrap the bottle in a clean dish towel to act as makeshift insulation.

Test Kitchen Tip: Aim to keep any of the varieties on this white wine list above 44°F; a too-cold white wine serving temperature may alter your ability to experience the full flavor and aroma of the wine.

The Best White Wine Glasses

A classic white wine glass should work for any of the types of white wine below. For optimal temperature control, opt for white wine glasses with stems and hold the glass by the stem when you drink from the glass. Stemless wine glasses are sturdy and great for parties, but since our hands are close to body temperature (97°F to 99°F ), it's challenging not to warm up your drink between sips.

Your Essential White Wine List

Check out our guide to sparkling white wines, if bubbly whites are what you're craving. Read on for the rest of our white wine guide for beginners, broken down by food pairing category.

White Wine Type: Bold and Dry

Best classic food pairings for this type of white wine: Cozy main dishes like roast turkey or chicken, creamy pastas and other starchy mains (ahem, risotto), higher-fat seafoods, and hard cheeses.

If you're not craving the heft of a red but want a wine with some weight and body, turn to one of these rich and dry white wines:

  • Chardonnay
  • Viognier
  • Trebbiano
  • Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris

White Wine Type: Light and Dry

Best classic food pairings for this type of white wine: Lighter fish and poultry entrées, grilled seafood, healthy pasta recipes, appetizers, and citrus-scented dishes.

These dry white wines are crowd-pleasing and can be slightly lighter on the palate than the bold and dry white wines listed above.

  • Chablis
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Grenache Blanc
  • Albariño

White Wine Type: Herbaceous

Best classic food pairings for this type of white wine: Salads, tangy cheeses and yogurts, sushi, grilled vegetables and seafood.

Often grassy, vegetal, or mineral-strong, these crisp and dry white wines are the ultimate summer refresher.

  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Vinho Verde
  • Vermentino
  • Verdicchio

White Wine Type: Sweet and Semi-Sweet

Best classic food pairings for this type of white wine: Spicy appetizers and entrées (like many Thai, Chinese, Cajun and Indian cuisine recipes, for example), fresh fruit, and bakery treats, such as cookies, cakes and pies.

Think you're not a fan of sweet white wines? Well-made Riesling is a sommelier darling due to its adaptability as a food pairing wine and its sometimes complex, slightly petrol qualities. These aren't your mom's White Zinfandel; try at least a couple of bottles of all three of these semi-sweet wines before writing them off.

  • Riesling
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Moscato (Muscat Blanc)

Test Kitchen Tip: Wondering what's a good white wine to cook with? The answer is any white wine you enjoy drinking! Cooking with wine concentrates the flavor. Skip anything labeled "cooking wine," as these bottles are often supplemented with additives to help them last longer and cost less. A quality dry white wine for cooking can be found between $12 to $25, and it's worth the reasonable investment.

Now that you've made it through this white wine guide for beginners, you're ready to up the ante with our best food and wine pairings for date night. Cheers!

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