White wine is a wine that is fermented without skin contact. The colour can be straw-yellow, yellow-green, or yellow-gold. It is produced by the alcoholic fermentation of the non-coloured pulp of grapes, which may have a skin of any colour. White wine has existed for at least 2500 years.
The wide variety of white wines comes from the large number of varieties, methods of winemaking, and ratios of residual sugar. White wine is mainly from “white” grapes, which are green or yellow in colour, such as the Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, and Riesling. Some white wine is also made from grapes with coloured skin, provided that the obtained wort is not stained. Pinot noir, for example, is commonly used to produce champagne.
Among the many types of white wine, dry white wine is the most common. More or less aromatic and tangy, it is derived from the complete fermentation of the wort. Sweet wines, on the other hand, are produced by interrupting the fermentation before all the grape sugars are converted into alcohol; this is called Mutage or fortification. The methods of enriching wort with sugar are multiple: on-ripening on the vine, passerillage (straining), or the use of noble rot. Sparkling wines, which are mostly white, are wines where the carbon dioxide from the fermentation is kept dissolved in the wine and becomes gas when the bottle is opened.
White wines are often used as an apéritif before a meal, with dessert, or as a refreshing drink between meals. White wines are often considered more refreshing, and lighter in both style and taste than the majority of their red wine counterparts. In addition, due to their acidity, aroma, and ability to soften meat and deglaze cooking juices, white wines are often used in cooking.
The first trace of wine that has been found dates to 7500 years ago, in present-day Iran but the results of archaeological excavations have not been able to determine from which time wine began to be produced. Epigraphy tells us about the presence of wine in the Middle East: it was produced in the “High Country” (the mountain borders between Anatolia and Armenia) and then imported into Mesopotamia especially from the 3rd millennium BC. The tablets of Hattusa describes wine with the term wiyana in the Hittite language, GEŠTIN in Sumerian,[N 1] and karânu in Akkadian.
In Ancient Greece wine had already been developed and used since Hippocrates, a physician born around 460 BC who commonly prescribed it to patients. “Vinous white wine” and “bitter white wine” were used[b 1] among his remedies – a sign of diversity in production at that time.
In Roman times the type of viticulture practiced by the Greeks was their model for a long time and production included white wine. Rich Roman patricians organized banquets where the cost of the food was a sign of prestige. In the range of expensive products wine played a predominant role. The richest citizens built sumptuous villas in the Bay of Naples where the vine had been cultivated since its introduction by the Greeks. The aminum or ancient grape produced a sweet white wine produced as mulled wine resembling modern-day Madeira.[b 2] The conquering of regions more and more to the north encouraged the Romans to cultivate the vine and to produce lighter and less sweet wines. It also encouraged them to seek new wild varieties adaptable to these distant areas where the Mediterranean varieties showed their limits. For example, vines were planted on the banks of the Rhine to provide the Legions with a healthy drink as opposed to water which was rarely drinkable. The wine was drunk cool in summer and warm in winter a practice which still continues in the 21st century.[b 3]
Wine merchants failed to survive the fall of the Western Roman Empire and viticulture declined dramatically. The Germanic tribes preferred to drink beer and did not see the value of the wine trade. The decline of viticulture was intensified when Vikings cut the sea lanes in the Atlantic. In the south the Saracens were making Ghazw or raids. These campaigns in southern Europe caused Languedoc, Provence, Southern Italy, and the Douro Valley to become depopulated – the people being taken into slavery or fleeing the threat.
Knowledge about the culture of grapevines was conserved by the Catholic Church: wine was necessary for the celebration of Mass and the monks planted vines at high latitudes and increased the monastic acreages. Difficult to transport and store, wine long remained a product for local consumption. The trade was re-established initially after the enrichment of the nobles and prelates because, as with the Romans, the art of the table reflected the reputation of the host.[b 4]
River trade was of great importance in the development of vineyards. The Germanic countries benefited from the navigability of the Rhine and the Danube so they could export their production. Charlemagne contributed to this growth by enacting his Capitulare de villis which included a set of rules on the cultivation of the vine in all areas. It was an era of great development of the culture of white wine in Germany and Austria. The Central European vineyards reached 100,000 hectares which was three and a half times the area in the 1990s.[a 1] From the 13th century traders distinguished vinum hunicum (wine of the Huns), which was drunk by the people, from vinum francium (Wine of the Franks) which was the wine for the wealthy aristocracy. There was recognition of varieties of Riesling[a 2] and Sylvaner[a 3] from the late Middle Ages.
Part of European trade was by sea along the Atlantic coast. The English, then the Dutch and Scandinavians from their demand for wine, created a craze for planting between Bordeaux and La Rochelle. Little dry white wine was produced for export from La Rochelle[b 5] while Bordeaux exported mainly wines from the hinterland received via the Garonne. When wine production was introduced on the banks of the Charente in the 17th century, Charente white wines were introduced as cognac. At the same time, the dry white wine popular with the Dutch was produced to the north, around the port of Nantes from the current areas of Muscadet AOC and Gros-plant AOVDQS in the Loire Valley. Vineyards in the Loire Valley and the South-west had their sales network thanks to the navigability of the Loire and the Garonne.
In the Mediterranean Basin the Crusades greatly enriched both rival republics of Venice and Genoa. To supply the troops of the rich Frankish lords these republics provided them with wine from Greece. The port of Monemvasia, which exported a lot of white wine, gave its name to the variety Malvasia.[b 6] The Crusaders also discovered Muscat wine. Once back home, the rulers and wealthy aristocrats looking to buy the sweet wines they enjoyed in the East. They came from grapes that dominated the vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon and Spain. Trade in these wines was facilitated by their high alcohol content which ensured preservation during the long journey to Northern Europe.
In 1453 the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople and the situation of the Venetians and Genovese deteriorated. The wine trade between the eastern Mediterranean and northern Europe fell sharply.[b 7] At the same time, the Spanish had just completed their Reconquista and replaced the Mediterranean wine with its own, especially for English and Dutch consumers. The port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda began to export large quantities of white wine which was the ancestor of today’s sherry. This wine was called sack and caused a sensation in England. Even at the height of animosity between the two countries (as in the episode of the Spanish Armada in 1588) the trade continued – sometimes provided by pirates who stole what they could not buy. Between 40 and 60 thousand barrels each of 500 litres left the Spanish coast annually for England and the Netherlands[b 8] (this volume of some 300,000 hectolitres represented two thirds of today’s production).
From the 16th century the first European vines were planted in America: in Mexico, then Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. These were in addition to the native vines which grew in Mexico but this pre-Columbian production was not for the production of wine as the grapes were too acidic. It was used to produce acachul a drink sweetened with fruit and honey.
The Little Ice Age spelt the death knell of northern viticulture. The vine disappeared from northern Germany and Baden, and the maximum altitude for viticulture descended to 220 metres. Hans-Jürgen Otto noted that: “all the vineyards suffered and decreased in area”. In England the vine also disappeared. The less early vineyards preferred to select white varieties of grapes because, even if unripe, white grapes allowed wine that was a little sour to still be consumable, while red grapes do not give enough colour and green tannins make the wine bitter. The interruption of the fermentation by a cold winter led to the discovery of the process of secondary fermentation of champagne.
The enrichment of some of the population created a craze for rare wines. This phenomenon, which was already responsible for the development of sherry in England, was reproduced in Central Europe. The discovery of the benefits of the noble rot on white grapes took place around 1650[b 9] in Hungary for the development of Tokaji wine. Hugh Johnson declared that: “the Tokay of three centuries ago was the best sweet wine in the world, it was inherited from a long-standing winemaking tradition”.[b 10] Developed with a grape whose exceptional maturity is due to a trade secret, this wine is also developed its qualities through a process which long remained a secret in underground cellars of the winery. Prized by the House of Habsburg, Tokay experienced profitable trading. Attempted imitation came to nought and the use of noble rot remained a secret. It was not until 120 years later that a method of very late harvest was experimented with on the steep banks of the Rhine. Its use in Sauternes was attested in 1836 in the Château La Tour Blanche but at that time very late harvest gave a very rich wine that required several years to age in barrels.[b 11]
Other regions were discovering secrets which would make them rich. So it was that Dom Perignon was the legendary creator of champagne.[b 12] In a northern vineyard he developed a special wine that would give rise to an exceptional passion for wine produced in a climate where it could not be expected for wine to reach maturity nor sufficient colour.
The fashion of drinking cheap dry white wine started in Paris in the 18th century: to evade the excise duty the Parisians took the habit of going to drink their wine at the producers premises outside the walls of the city. Cabarets opened their doors by the river, becoming Guinguettes (similar to taverns): so the wine that was drunk there was also called “guinguet”. This is a wine from the hills of the Seine or the Marne, sour, but the conditions of transport of the time did not allow it to be used prematurely.
Champagne was created in the 18th century but it was in the next century that its global expansion would occur. The crowned heads of Europe quickly made the wine stylish in their courts although its production, necessarily in bottles, made a very expensive product. Hugh Johnson[b 13] assigns an important diplomatic role to champagne: Talleyrand would have offered this wine at the negotiating table of the Congress of Vienna, using it to relax his partners in the discussions. The occupation of Champagne by Russian troops in 1815 publicized the sparkling wine to the Russian aristocracy. The Veuve Clicquot (Widow Clicquot) booked her wine to her occupants saying “they drink today, tomorrow they will pay…”[b 14]
The progress of the glass industry (especially from the use of coal) helped to democratize the use of the glass bottle. The production of sparkling wine increased dramatically and spread to the American continent. The technique of manufacturing was industrialized and other regions were inspired but the reputation of champagne suffered. The commercial flight of champagne was a product of the industrial revolution that allowed it to be within the financial reach of the booking middle classes.[b 15]
The period of the 19th century before the arrival of phylloxera was a golden age of wine. The industrial revolution enriched a bourgeoisie clientele for the best wines and the rural exodus to the factories created a large market for mass-produced wines. A prominent example for white wines was the viticulture in Germany. The feeling of freedom infused into the German winemakers under French occupation during the First Empire prevented the aristocracy and the clergy from recovering all the vineyards from which they were dispossessed.[b 16] The practice of late harvest was widespread and the more or less sweet wines gained balance against their always lively acidity. In 1872 the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute was created and it was the source of a great amount of interbreeding giving new varieties – the best known of these is the Müller-Thurgau.[b 17] During the same period, Switzerland adopted, along the shores of Lake Geneva, vineyards predominantly producing white wine.
During the 20th century planting vines in countries where it was unknown was booming. However, it was shaky in places with higher temperatures during fermentation.[b 18] The use of larger containers creates problems of fermentation: the yeasts produce heat which cannot escape and beyond 35 °C the micro-organisms begin to suffer and fermentation slows then stops. After cooling the wine a new addition of yeast is needed to resume fermentation (not to mention the adverse effects on the wine’s aromas and the risk of lactic bite). In California the search for temperature control of fermentation matured. Applied to white wine they revolutionized this type of wine. European wines, marked by their processes of crushing the grapes[b 19] are diametrically opposed to those very fruity wines marked by a refreshing liveliness. During the years 1960–1990, these methods of wine-making moved to Europe and the use of refrigeration equipment is now widely used in almost all regions producing white wine.
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