I think I will embark on a journey through wine styles. Not only will this help me learn more about winemaking techniques to express such styles, but I also hope to educate you on what is out there. My wish is that it will make it easier for you, the reader, to understand all those different types of wines and feel more confident when purchasing wine.
I have learned over the years that many consumers do not feel comfortable buying wines in many situations (i.e. at a restaurant, for a group of friends, at a wine store, at a winery, etc.). Maybe this is because the wine industry requires us, the consumers, to fully understand what we are buying. Had I not started this journey into the wine world 10 years ago, I would have to say, I'd be clueless. There are so many things that are marketed in a bottle and so many different selections that looking at a wine section in a grocery store, state store, etc. is in and of itself, overwhelming. However, with a little bit of knowledge, I can help make the experience a little less traumatic.
So let us start with "Light, Aromatic Whites," which is (I think), a very good place to start. This is often where many wine drinkers initiate their wine drinking experiences. It is the easiest style to adjust to, usually quite pleasant regardless of variety, easy drinking by itself or with food, and somewhat easy to find. (One should note that if you have sulfur dioxide allergies, white wines are probably not for you and will probably elicit sharp headaches when drinking.)
(Aromatic White - Photo taken by author)
The term "light" refers to the "body" or "mouthfeel" of the wine. What does this mean? "Mouthfeel" is essentially how the wine feels in the mouth. Is it full (viscous, have a syrupy texture) or light (watery, thin)? Surely the best way to understand this term is through an example. Water is, obviously, light bodied. In comparison, corn syrup, maple syrup, or chocolate syrup is very viscous and will feel heavy (full) in your mouth. This sensory sensation can often be felt mid-tongue and on the sides of one's mouth. For a better understanding, try sipping each one of these examples. Both foods have different textures, and these textures are reflected in wines.
In winemaking, some varieties can handle more "body" or "mouthfeel" than others. Sometimes this is represented by the variety itself (based on the grape genetics and composition) or the style of winemaking (i.e. using surli or barrel aging vs. not). However, both of these examples can often impart several different types of "mouthfeel" sensations and flavors... which just gets too complicated in this introductory lesson! However, a good general comparison for "body" or "mouthfeel" in wines is to taste a non-oaked (or stainless steel fermented) Chardonnay vs. an oaked Chardonnay. Many wineries will feature both, especially in the Eastern U.S. as the stainless steel Chardonnay has become quite popular. (If you are out wine tasting and you see Chardonnay on the list, I encourage you to ask for details!)
(And for the winos out there, I know Chardonnay is not usually classified as a "Light, Aromatic White" wine, but I think the comparison serves a purpose for mouthfeel understanding.)
So for a "light" wine, especially with whites, many have a texture that is more reminiscent of water than corn syrup (for generalization sake). Additionally, as many "light, aromatic whites" are not oaked, there tends to be a lack of additional "mouthfeel" or structure from oak components. And many "light aromatic whites" have a very crisp acidity (sourness) that makes that great for food pairing.
The term "aromatic" refers to the aroma and flavor profile of the wine. Aroma is in reference to what you smell before drinking any of the wine, although some people "smell" better when the wine is their mouth (this is essentially flavor) compared to smelling directly from the glass. "Aromatic" varieties often have very profound, distinctive smells emanating from the glass. Such varieties have unmistakable aromas and flavors, which originate in the grape. Again, generally speaking, although not always true, "aromatic" varieties are not usually oaked, and would, therefore, only contribute varietal fruit aromas and flavors.
Several "Light, Aromatic White" Varieties:
1) Non-oaked Chardonnay
2) Riesling (found in New York, Alsace, France, and Germany)
3) Gewurztraminer (cousin to Riesling; Pennsylvania is producing more Gewurz these days)
4) Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio (they are the same thing; can have some oak, but generally light bodied; found throughout the U.S. and Italy)
5) Chenin Blanc (I encourage everyone out there to buy a bottle of Vouvrey (which is a part of the Loire Valley in France that is famous for their Chenin Blanc: Thrifty Vouvray's (Chenin Blanc) at Total Wine)
6) Muscadet (aka Melon de Bourgogne)
7) Gruner Veltliner
Food Pairings with "Light Aromatic Whites":
1) salads (if one can pair a salad)
2) spicy Asian cuisine
4) Vegetarian meals
5) white sauce based pastas
6) fish (including things like shellfish, oysters, and octopus)
8) fruits (as these wines are very fruity... usually)
9) goat cheese, Feta cheese
10) or drink by itself on hot summer days