White Wine Tasting Basics

Karen Frazier
white wine tasting

Tasting white wines is similar to tasting any other type of wine. In a general wine tasting, you taste white wines after sparkling wine and before rose, reds, and dessert wines. The best way to truly understand the basics of white wine tasting is by trying many white wines.

What You Need to Taste White Wine

To taste white wines, you'll need several bottles of wine and wine glasses. Other helpful things to have:

  • A spittoon or crock to dump excess wine
  • Plenty of water for rinsing glasses and cleansing the palate
  • Something neutrally flavored to use as a palate cleanser, such as wine crackers or bread
  • Wine chillers to keep the wine at the appropriate temperature
  • A note pad or score sheet

Wine Glasses

At minimum, you'll need one glass for each taster. If you're doing a side-by-side tasting, you'll need one glass per wine per taster.

  • Choose stemmed glasses, which allow tasters to hold them by the stem instead of the bowl, which keeps the wine at the proper temperature and also allows you to swirl the wine while holding the stem.
  • Glasses need to be clear glass without color or etching so the tasters can see the wine clearly.
  • For most whites, choose a white wine glass, which has a narrower bowl than a red wine glass to direct the aromas to your nose properly and deposit the wine on the right part of your tongue.
  • If pouring sparkling wine, you'll also need clear, stemmed Champagne flutes.
  • For dessert wine, choose Sherry or dessert wine glasses, which are smaller than traditional red and white wine glasses.
  • Use normal sized glasses even though tasting pours are smaller (about two ounces versus a normal five-ounce pour). Using a small glass for tastings can prevent tasters from properly experiencing the aromas and flavors of the wine.

Types of White Wine Tastings

There are many ways you can taste white wines depending on what your goals are.

Blind Tasting

This type of tasting is the best for wine education. You can do it with a single type of white wine, or you can taste a variety of white wines to get a sense of their flavors and aromas. Tasting wines blind is a good way to remove any preconceived notions so you focus on the characteristics of the wine in front of you. Why? Because of prejudices! For instance, if you saw a bottle of Charles Shaw (2-buck Chuck) you may already decide in your head that it's no good and can't possibly be something you would drink. This could go the other way too…perhaps you see a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay that happens to be your favorite. You will not judge that wine fairly since you have preconceived feelings about it. To do this at home, just get your partner, friend or neighbor to pour some wine in a glass and put the glass in front of you. That way you won't know what it is and thus evaluate it more objectively.

Side-by-Side Tasting

If you want to evaluate various white wines to see which you like best and would like to try more of, then a side-by-side tasting is a great idea. You can do a side-by-side tasting with different wines of the same varietal, or you may want to compare similar wines from different winemakers or two of the same varietal of wine from the same winemaker. For a side-by-side tasting, you'll need a glass for each wine you pour. It's best if you have someone hide the labels, number the wines, and pour a 2-ounce pour of each into a glass. Then, you can taste each glass, first trying each glass alone and making notes, and then go back and taste wines against one another to see which you like and why.

Side-by-side white wine tasting

Horizontal Tasting

A horizontal tasting allows you to taste similar wines from different winemakers. In a horizontal tasting, you will taste the same type or varietal of wine from the same vintage but from different winemakers. You can do this side by side with a glass for each wine, or you can taste them one after the other from the same glass, rinsing between pours.

Vertical Tasting

Vertical tastings allow you to taste how different vintages create different flavors and aromas in the same wine. With a vertical tasting, you taste the exact same white wine (winemaker, varietal, classification) but from successive vintages. Start with the earliest vintage and move ahead in the years. Vertical wine tastings are less common with whites than reds; however, some white wines with aging potential can have impressive verticals over years.

Order of Tasting White Wines

When you taste a variety of white wines (including sparkling wines or Champagne), there's an order to follow that optimizes the experience for tasters. If you're tasting white wines at a winery or professional tasting, they usually pour the wines for you in the correct order. However, if you're hosting a wine tasting, you'll need to understand this order. Tasting in this manner helps to build on the palate so you start with the lightest wines that are the least likely to linger on the palate first and finish with the more powerful or full-bodied wines that linger.

1. Sparkling Whites

Because of their effervescence, start any tasting with sparkling wines, such as Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, or a frizzante wine such as a frizzante Pinot Grigio. With sparkling whites, taste dry to sweet and light to full-bodied. So, for example, you might offer sparkling wines in this order:

  • Non-vintage (NV) Champagne, Blanc de Blanc, or sparkling wine
  • Cava
  • Extra Brut and Brut Champagne, sparkling wine, or Crémant
  • Extra-Brut or Brut (dry) Prosecco
  • Moscato d'Asti and similar frizzante wines
  • Asti Spumante
  • Vintage Champagne

2. Light-Bodied Very Dry to Dry White Wines

Next, taste very dry to dry white wines with a lighter body. These include wines such as:

  • Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc
  • Soave
  • Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
  • Chenin Blanc

3. Full-Bodied and Rich Dry Whites

Next, it's time to move on to the fuller-bodied, rich whites. Always go dry to sweet, and unoaked before oaked. So you would taste an unoaked Chardonnay before an oaked Chardonnay, for instance.

  • Viognier
  • Chardonnay/White Burgundy/Montrachet

4. Aromatic Whites

Next, move on to fragrant and sweeter whites.

  • Gewürztraminer
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Müller-Thurgau
  • Dry Riesling
  • Albariño
  • Muscat
  • Moscato

5. Semi-Sweet to Sweet Whites

After the aromatics, it's time to move up in sweetness. Move upward in sweetness and body, starting with a semi-sweet wine with a residual sugar of about 35 to 120 (5 ounces contains 20 to 70g of carbohydrate) such as a Muscat Canelli, and work your way to sweet wines with residual sugar of 120 or higher with 70g of carbs or more per 5-ounce serving such as a German Spätlese or Auslese Riesling.

closeup of sweet white wine

6. Very Sweet, Fortified Sweet, or Botrytized White Wine

Very sweet white wines are often classified as dessert wines or ice wines (eiswein). The last white wines you taste should be sweet whites in which the grapes have had botrytis, or noble rot, which adds complexity to the finished wine. Some names for wines in this category include:

  • Late harvest
  • Ice wine/eiswein
  • Dessert wine
  • Vin doux
  • Beerenauslese
  • Trockenbeerenauslese
  • Sauternes
  • Barsac
  • Tokaji (drink lower number puttonyos before higher puttonyos - which is a measure of residual sugar)
  • Vino Santo
  • Straw wine/Strohwein/Schilfwein/Vin de Paille
  • Cream Sherry

  • Moscatel Sherry

  • Pedro Ximénez Sherry

  • White Port

Evaluating White Wines in a Tasting

There are many types of grapes used to make white wines in varying styles, although a few dozen are among the most widely used in wines from around the world. The more you taste different wines, the more experience you gain about some commonalities and differences between the varietals. By tasting different white wines, you learn more about your likes and dislikes. There are a few basic steps to evaluating a wine.

Look

Look at the wine. The way a wine looks can tell you many things! The best way to get the most out of a visual evaluation is to use a white tablecloth or a piece of white paper to hold the glass up to. Take the glass, angle it, and take a look at the color. Is it dark yellow, straw-colored, or more clear? Does it have a tinge of green? The color of the wine may help you identify it.

  • Pale to dark straw color indicates a very youthful white, an unoaked white, or some varieties of wine, such as Muscadet, Moscato, or Albariño.
  • Wines with a yellow to greenish tint may indicate wine such as Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc or Sémillon.
  • Golden wines include Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, or Viognier.
  • Darker golds tend to indicate more oak used in the winemaking process or a more golden-colored wine, such as a Chardonnay.
  • Amber and nutty brown colors indicate deeply aged wines, dessert whites, and fortified wines.

Now, gently swirl the wine around the glass. Notice the lines that form as the wine travels back down the glass. Those are called "legs". The longer the legs, the higher the alcohol or sugar content in the wine.

Smell

Stick your nose deep in the bowl of the glass and take a big sniff. Smelling wine can tell you as much about the wine as tasting it can. Note any aromas, swirl the wine, and sniff again. Notice how the aromas adapt as swirling aerates the wine. Write down what you smell (remember the rules-no "good, yummy or pretty"). Some aromas you may notice in your wines are in the chart below.

Man sniffing white wine
Aromas Types of White Wine
Floral
Rose
  • Gewürztraminer
Geranium
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Moscato
Orange blossom
  • Viognier
  • Riesling
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Chardonnay
  • Muscat
Lily
  • Muscadet
  • Sémillon
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Gewürztraminer
Jasmine
  • Torrontés
Acacia
  • Sparkling wine
  • Champagne
  • Prosecco
Apple Blossom
  • Champagne
  • Riesling
Fruit
Citrus
  • Riesling
  • Marsala
  • Unoaked Chardonnay
  • Sémillon
  • Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc
  • Albariño
Dried Fruit (raisin, prune, fig)
  • Port
  • Sauternes
  • Sherry
Stone Fruits (apricot, peaches, nectarine)
  • Chardonnay
  • Sémillon
  • Viognier
  • Marsanne
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Moscato
  • Torrontés
Tropical Fruit (pineapple, papaya, banana, mango, lychee)
  • Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc
  • Viognier
  • Chardonnay (unoaked)
  • Moscato
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Torrontés
  • Sauternes
  • Sweet whites
  • Botrytized sweet whites
Tree Fruit (apple, pear)
  • Riesling
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio
  • Champagne (Blanc de Blanc)
  • Prosecco
Other

Herbal/Vegetal/Green/Grassy

  • Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Vermentino
Yeast/Biscuit/Bready
  • Sparkling wine
  • Champagne
  • Prosecco
Spice
  • White Port
  • Aged whites
Almond/Marzipan
  • Viognier
  • Marsanne
Licorice/Anise
  • Riesling
  • Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc
Caramel
  • Oaked wines

Taste

Only after looking and smelling are you ready to taste. It's time to sip the wine. When you put the wine into your mouth, swirl it around so it covers the entire tongue and then suck in some air while you have the wine in your mouth. This oxygenates the wine so you can taste it better. Once you've done this a few times, either spit the wine out (if you have many others to taste) or swallow it. Remember to write down everything you taste such as fruit, earth, mineral, floral, and other types of aromas you find in the wine. Write down anything else you found such as viscosity (called mouth-feel) or acid levels (a zingy character). Many of the aromas above are also found in the flavors of the wine, or you may notice some of the following additional flavors.

Tasting white wine
Flavors Type of White Wine
Honey
  • Viognier
  • Marsanne
  • Riesling
  • Moscato
  • Dessert wines
  • Sauternes
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Torrontés
Mineral
  • Riesling
  • Chardonnay
  • Sémillon
  • Marsanne
  • Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Albariño
  • Muscadet
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Torrontés
Buttery/Toasty/Creamy
  • Oaked Chardonnay
  • Sémillon
  • Champagne and sparkling wines
  • Viognier
  • Marsanne
  • Port
Bitter
  • Sémillon
  • Marsanne
  • Viognier
  • Muscadet
  • Vermentino
  • Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Torrontés
Nutty
  • Port
  • Sherry
  • Aged whites

Finish

The last step is the finish. Finish is defined as how the wine tastes right after you swallow or spit it out. How does it change? Does the taste go sour? Perhaps it just trails off and it tastes like your just sipped a glass of water? Or, maybe the finish was smooth and lengthy with the flavor lasting on and on. Note any of these things.

The Final Step

At the end, you can make subjective statements such as do you like it or not, would you drink it or would you rather clean your drain with it? The important thing to do when evaluating is keep the subjectivity out of the process until the very end. That way you can back up your opinion with your notes. As always, practice makes perfect. It's more fun to do this with a group of friends and have every person bring a bottle of wine or even set up a wine tasting group that meets regularly to do this. There are many themes and tastings you can do-the sky is the limit. The more you do this, the faster you will be at the evaluation process, and better yet-the better you will be at identifying aspects in wine that you like.

More Tools for Better Wine Education

If your primary goal is wine education, you may also want to use the following tools.

Wine Tasting Journal

If your goal is to use white wine tasting as an educational tool, a wine tasting journal is a good idea. Here, you'll keep notes about the wines you taste.

Man writing in a wine journal

For each, you might note:

  • The winery, vintage, and type or varietal
  • The wine's aromas
  • The color of the wine
  • Any of the technical aspects of the wines, such as its tannins
  • Any flavors you notice
  • How the wine "finishes" or lingers on your palate
  • Whether you enjoy the wine

Consider Using a Wine Tasting Wheel

If you're tasting casually, you won't need additional tools. However, if you are tasting wines for further education, a wine tasting wheel is a great tool. It can help you identify scents in a wine.

Taste a World of White Wine to Taste

There are thousands of white wines from wine regions all around the world. If you love white wine, then take the opportunity to taste as often as you can. Try to enter each tasting without preconceived notions and keep an open mind. You may just discover a gem from some place unexpected that becomes your new favorite.

White Wine Tasting Basics