Wine 101: Four Benchmark White Wines

Jill Bernheimer, owner of boutique wine shop Domaine LA, shows us how to tackle white wine

Do you know your Grenache from your Gewurztraminer? Neither do we. So we’re talking to the pros—master sommeliers, wine shop owners, vintners—to get a better basic understanding of the vine, grape, and that delicious liquid in our glasses. Welcome to Wine 101.

They say the best way to learn is by doing. So if you want to become an expert wino you gotta taste them. A LOT of them. But first try these benchmark white wine picks (last Wine 101 post we learned about benchmark red wines) as suggested by Jill Bernheimer, owner of boutique wine shop Domaine LA. I had actually sought Jill out to stock a little wine tasting party I was throwing. My request  to her was the best (and affordable) examples of the basic Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Note: I had asked for both a California and Burgundy Chardonnay so we could make direct comparisons.

Here are Jill’s picks (in the $12 to $15 range) and why she picked them. “Each of the wines I selected were intentionally meant to be typical of their regions. They are not flashy or manipulated wines, and all the growers involved are philosophically of the more minimal interventionist mindset, aiming for the character of the grape variety and terroir to come through more than, say, winemaking style…. I think if you really want an education in tasting wines that are great representatives of the place from which they come, and the grapes from which they’re made, you can’t do better than to focus on smaller vignerons who see the process through from the grape growing through the bottling.  

2012 Selbach “Incline” Riesling: “The Riesling I chose has some residual sugar that is de rigueur from the Mosel region within Germany. And it also has the high acid typical of Germany (and more difficult to achieve in warmer climates like California). It’s a very clean wine, and that combination of cleanness, a touch of sweetness, minerality, and freshness (i.e., crisp acidity) is something that is emblematic of the grape in this region. Again, this wine is all stainless steel fermentation and aged, so nothing to distract a taster from the true character of the grape variety.”

Un Saumon Dans La Loire Touraine Sauvignon 2012: “I think there’s classic herbaceousness that you find in Loire Valley Sauvignon, and fruit that’s just shy of new world ripeness. You won’t get tropical notes as you might in a California or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, so I think tasting blind this would lead you firmly to the old world, and to the region that is known more than any other for Sauvignon Blanc, the Loire Valley. Again, there isn’t any hint of oak on this so the variety in question is front and center stage, which I think is key to starting to understand and to be able to identify grape varieties. You don’t want them dressed up with bells and whistles. You want them naked and unadorned.”

2011 Foxglove Chardonnay Central Coast and 2012 La Soeur Cadette Bourgogne Blanc: “The California tendency is toward a little bit richer fruit and perhaps more use of oak, so if you compare the Foxglove Chardonnay to the Cadette Bourgogne Blanc, you’ll see a contrast that reflects both terroir, as well as geographic stylistic tendencies. For instance, the Foxglove is definitely riper (warmer climate in California, though the Central Coast vineyards the Varner selects are of the cooler end of that spectrum) and rounder (malolactic fermentation is likely encouraged), with the oak evident but not overwhelming. The Cadette is leaner, less ripe, more apple-y, and has no oak on it whatsoever. They are both typical Chardonnays and correct in terms of varietal character, but they also display regional tendencies from both the perspectives of terroir and cellar practices.”

This Sunday, check out Domaine LA’s Sicilian wine tasting. Domaine LA, 6801 Melrose Ave., Mid-City, 323-932-0280 or