Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
The Ancient Story of Wine
Both France and Italy are renowned for their wine production; some of the finest wines come from the Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Sicily, and Emilia-Romagna regions. But these are not where the earth first brought forth wine grapes. Archeological evidence points to an area between the Caucasus and Zagros Mountains in Europe, an area that spans the countries we know today as Azerbaijan, Georgia, northern Iran, and Turkey.
Which Came First?
Some food historians have quibbled over which came first—wine or beer? When you consider the process, wine must have been the first. Wine production (I’m not specifying good wine) requires no human intervention. (Even apes in the wild seek out past-their-prime fruits.) Grape juice encounters wild yeast, and fermentation happens. Beer production is much more complicated. However, the deliberate domestication of wine-producing vines would not have been possible within a nomadic society. The care and production of wine-making grapes and the vinification process require an organized society.
Archeologists have found the ruins of a winery site in Armenia, estimating that it was created more than 6,000 years ago. The village, Areni, is still recognized for its wine production.
White Wine Was a Happy Accident
There are thousands of varieties of wine, but only one species of grapevine is the parent of them all, Vitis vinifera. Six-thousand years ago, they were red; how did we end up with white wine grapes?
Dr. Mandy Walker works for the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia’s national science research agency). She found the answer to this question and published her findings in a 2007 journal article. She and her colleagues mapped the DNA of white wine-producing vines and discovered that the red color of grapes is controlled by two separate genes, VvMYBA1 and VvMYBA2. In white wine grapes, both genes are mutated so that the ability to produce the color red is switched off.
Dr. Walker cannot confirm when this mutation occurred but noted that remnants of white wine have been found in flasks in the tomb of Tutankhamun. That means that the change occurred more than 3,000 years ago. Walker and her team examined 55 different white wine grapes, and all of them contained the dual mutation; it appears that they all have the same single ancestor.
The Most Popular White Wine Grapes
- Chardonnay: This is one of the most popular, from the Burgundy region of France.
- Sauvignon Blanc: Another French wine from the Bordeaux and Loire Valley. This grape is heavily influenced by local terroir (soil and climate).
- Riesling: One of the top three in terms of production (Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the other two). Riesling makes its home in the Rhine region of Germany.
- Pinot Gris (aka Pinot Grigio): The grapes of this variety have a rosy-colored skin that color the resulting wine deep yellow. There are two Pinots—the one from France is full-bodied and spicy; the one from Italy tends to be more acidic and light-bodied.
- Semillon: This variety can be found in the Bordeaux region of France, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Argentina.
- Gewurztraminer: This highly aromatic grape is spicy and rich with the aroma of lychee and passion fruits. It is named for a German-speaking area in Italy.
- Viognier: The wine from this variety is full-bodied, lush, and buttery soft. It originated in the Rhone region of France, but the Central Valley of California is fast becoming a major producer.
- Chenin Blanc: This grape originated in France, but South Africa is now the top producer.
- Sylvaner: This might be a new name to you, but I’m introducing it because of the next wine on our list. This variety grows in western Germany and the French wine Alsace. It’s used to make Liebfraumilch.
- Muller-Thurgau: Dr. Hermann Müller crossed the Riesling and the Sylvaner to create this varietal. He had hoped to take advantage of the quality of Riesling and the productivity of the Sylvaner, but unfortunately, the end result was a rather unremarkable German wine. The Muller-Thurgau is capable of being grown in a relatively wide range of climates and soil types; the grapes produced in northern Italy and New Zealand produce a pleasing, fruity, low-acid wine.
- Pinot Blanc: Grown in the Alsace region, this grape is commonly used in the production of sparkling and sweet dessert wines. It is medium- to full-bodied with good acidity with flavors of apple.
- Muscat: This is one of the oldest domesticated grape varieties; there are over 200 different muscats, but only four of them are used to make wine.
Recipes Using White Wine
Whip up these classic dishes using white wine.
- Mussels and Linguine With Garlic Butter and White Wine Pasta Sauce
- Mixed Mushroom Risotto
- Chicken Dijon in White Wine Sauce
- Pan-Seared Cod in White Wine Tomato Basil Sauce
- Linguine With Mushrooms and White Wine Butter Sauce
- Chardonnay Cake With Almond Sugar Crust
Mussels and Linguine With Garlic Butter and White Wine Pasta Sauce
If you are a seafood lover (insert swoon-emoji here), steamed mussels in garlic butter sauce are probably near the top of your list of favorite things. Pasta with fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, and Parmesan cheese (essentially pesto without the pine nuts) is also one of my favorite things.
Now, imagine combining those two marvelous dishes into one amazing meal. Mussels and linguine give you that perfectly creamy, garlicky white wine sauce, tender strands of pasta, and sweet, succulent mussels all in one.
Mixed Mushroom Risotto
The perfect rice for risotto is short, round, plump, and a little bit sassy (just like me). Arborio is the most common short-grain rice used, but Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma, and Vialone Nano are also good choices. What makes them “risotto rice”? They all have a high percentage of the starch amylopectin.
If you have ever cooked homemade jam or jelly, you will recognize the word "pectin." Pectin is the natural thickener in apple juice, and the "amylopectin" in short-grain rice serves as a thickener as well. It makes the cooked grain starchy and creamy while still holding its shape.
Short-grain rice is not cooked like its long- or medium-grain cousins. First, it is gently sautéed in butter or olive oil so that each grain is coated. Next, a splash of wine is added to the pan; at this point, the rice is stirred constantly until the wine has all but evaporated. Then the fun begins. Hot broth is added to the pan, one ladle full at a time, and allowed to simmer and be absorbed into the rice. This process is repeated until the rice is rich and creamy but still holds its shape (test a grain with your teeth to see if it is done). You want al dente "Goldilocks rice"—not too hard, not too soft, but just right.
The rice simmers to a creamy richness, and as the dish is completed, Parmesan cheese is deftly folded in, its nutty, salty flavor providing a perfect contrast to sweet, silky mascarpone.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup minced onion
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced (a combination of white, cremini, shiitake, or oyster)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup Arborio rice
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 3-4 cups chicken, vegetable, or mushroom broth, heated to a simmer
- 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
- 1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
- In a large sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter with olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook for about 2 minutes or until onion is soft. Stir in mushrooms and cook until lightly browned (3 to 4 minutes). Stir in thyme. Add 1/4 cup of the wine and cook until the wine is absorbed. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
- Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add rice, pepper, and remaining 1/2 cup white wine. Stir to ensure that rice does not clump together, and cook until wine is absorbed. Add 1 cup broth; reduce heat to low, and stir until broth is almost absorbed. Continue to add broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and stir until rice is creamy and tender but still firm in the center. This should take about 15 to 18 minutes.
- Stir in mushrooms. Remove from heat and stir in Parmigiano-Reggiano and mascarpone.
Chicken Dijon in White Wine Sauce
This chicken Dijon with white wine sauce is an easy one-pan meal. Served over pasta, rice, or with warm slices of rustic bread, it's an easy, flavorful dish that's quick enough for the family but worthy of a dinner party.
Pan-Seared Cod in White Wine Tomato Basil Sauce
Cod (also known as Alaska pollack) is a mild-flavored, flaky white fish that many people like because it doesn't taste "fishy." This recipe for pan-seared cod is colorful (roasted cherry tomatoes), piquant (lemon juice, white wine), herby (basil), and even has a pop of heat from a dash of red pepper flakes. Wonderful clean flavors in less than 30 minutes. Serve it with a side of brown rice, crusty bread, or a refreshing green salad.
If you can't find cod, you can substitute sea bass, striped bass, whiting, grouper, haddock, hake, monkfish, pollock, or mahi mahi.
Linguine With Mushrooms and White Wine Butter Sauce
Linguine with mushrooms in a light (yet decadent) white wine butter sauce is an easy vegetarian meal full of umami flavor with meaty shiitake mushrooms. If you can't find shiitake's baby portabellos or criminis can be substituted. The author of this recipe recommends using fresh pasta.
Chardonnay Cake With Almond Sugar Crust
Yes, you can even bake with white wine. Wine makes an incredibly moist cake; it's sophisticated and adult without tasting boozy. Most recipes that you'll find on the internet rely on a boxed cake mix. This chardonnay cake is made from scratch. Just before going into the oven, you top the batter with a generous sprinkle of turbinado sugar and sliced almonds. In the oven, the topping toasts and caramelizes into a crisp shell.
© 2020 Linda Lum