Wine is a big subject. There are so many varieties that you could drink a different kind for every day of the year and not run out. We’re going to present this handy short guide to the most popular wine varieties.
Introduction To Wine Terms
Before we get started, let’s save some time and define a few terms for wine characteristics. Look for these words wherever wine terms are bandied about:
- Acidity – A sharp taste resembling citrus fruit or sharp cheddar cheese.
- Balance – A wine with a good balance has a well-rounded taste and bouquet, without being too sweet, too acidic, too earthy, etc.
- Body – How strong a wine’s flavor is, or how whole it feels when you sip it. A weak-bodied wine feels like drinking lemonade.
- Broadness – A wide spectrum of flavors and aromas. A broad wine has a complex character with lots of notes to break down.
- Buttery – A rich, creamy taste without too much acid. Only rarely is this a goal in wine varieties, usually in the white wines.
- Clean – A refreshing, simple taste. A wine that has a character that’s too clean may be boring.
- Earthy – A dusty, woody taste, sometimes leathery. Full-bodied red wines go for an earthy, distinguished character.
- Extract – The residue of the grape skin and pulp left over in the wine-making process; it’s where the tannins come from. Red wines have a lot of extract. Too much extract makes a wine jammy.
- Finish – The aftertaste. The last note of flavor the wine leaves you with, making you close your eyes and savor it after the last gulp.
- Fruity – Grapes are a fruit, after all, so all wines have some fruity character. Sweet, jammy wines have a lot of fruit.
- Hard – A hard wine has a high alcohol content, high acid, and not much balance. Typical of dry wines. The opposite is mellow.
- Herby – Spicy and tasty, like pepper. A hint of herbs gives a wine great depth, but it should never overwhelm the flavor.
- Jammy – Sweet, dark, rich, and full-bodied. Few wines try for a jammy flavor, but a note of heavy fruit is desired in dark red wines.
- Nutty – A hint between earthy and herby, nutty flavors are usually mellow and satisfying. Characteristic of fortified wines.
- Mellow – Low alcohol content, low acid, and very amicable. Opposite of hard.
The Wine Family Tree
We’ll be categorizing the most popular, major varieties of wine in this list. While there’s endless variations and blends, as well as niche varieties, these are the most common wines you’ll encounter around the world.
Red wines are those which are colored by tannins, which come from the skin of grapes. The color is a result of a process called “maceration”, in which the skin of the grape is left in contact with the juice during fermentation.
Red wines might have a color anywhere from dark pink to burgundy red and deep purple. They encompass the spectrum of wine flavors from dry to sweet and fruity. Another distinguishing characteristic is that red wines tend to have more complex flavors, since the tannins add to the character.
- Pinot Noir – Pinot Noir is a red wine grape whose name comes from the French words for “black pine”, because the grape clusters grow in a pine-cone shape. Wine made from Pinot Noir is typically of a light to medium body, with a fruity taste, a light red color, a rich aroma, and a hint of under-tastes ranging from cherries to raspberries.
- Cabernet Sauvignon – The wide middle ground of red wines, dense, dark, and highly tannic. Often shortened to “cab” when ordering, it’s the one most consistent dinner wine choice. Flavor characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon include such quirks as a bell pepper taste in California regions, a taste of pepper, and a jammy taste in hotter regions. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes produce wines which are renowned for their ability to age very well in the bottle.
- Merlot – Merlot is a velvety-purple grape with a rich, complex taste, producing wine of a medium body, heavy tannins, and a broad, well-rounded range of flavors. It is also a hardy and predictable grape, easily cultivated all over the world. Wine made from the Merlot grape is capable of a surprising range of characteristics, including tones of berries, plum, and in warmer climates even flavors of chocolate or perhaps cheesecake.
- Shiraz – Australia’s little miracle grape, Shiraz is relatively new to the wine scene, but has asserted Australia’s place as a major wine player in the world market. It is a dark black grape, with a dull, leaden color, producing a dark red wine comparable to a Cabernet Sauvignon, with a strong flavor and full body. The range of flavors are vast, covering berries, plums, peppers, chocolate, espresso, and truffles. Some of this is due to varieties in winemakers’ practices, the rest is up to the grapes themselves, which tend to have very complex flavors that only come out in fermenting and aging.
- Chianti – The classic wine from Tuscany, Italy, easily recognizable in the bot-bellied bottle with the basket-woven carrier. Chianti is the driest of red wines, with medium acidity and tannins. It has a characteristic floral taste with fruit tones of cherry, plum and raspberry.
White wine is wine which is clear or palely colored. White wine can be made from any color of grapes, because the difference is that the juice from the grape is allowed no contact with the grape skins, and hence pick up no tannins. White wines are capable of the full spectrum of flavors from sweet to acidic to tangy.
The chief ways white wines differ from red wines is that white wines have more simplicity in taste, they are generally of a lighter body than red wines, and white wines are not suitable for aging as long as red wines. Given all other factors being common, a white wine will have a lighter, more delicate flavor than a comparable red.
- Pinot Grigio – The lower-tannin complement to Pinot Noir. It can have a color range from deep amber to rose-blush pink. The wine has a wide range of flavors depending on where it was cultivated, ranging through spicy and herby flavors, balancing acidity, or light-bodied and crisp.
- Sauvignon Blanc – As opposed to its red cousin, this wine is crisp, dry, and refreshing. It’s become more popular lately as a white wine contender to the other more conventional whites. One finicky aspect of this wine is that it does not benefit from aging, so it’s likely to be mellow and not have as broad a flavor as its counterparts.
- Chardonnay – The great common denominator among white wines, it’s the wine most people mean when they ask for a white. Chardonnay grapes are the world’s most widely planted grape variety. Stable and predictable, it produces lean and crisp wine with high acidity. Flavors range from buttery to honey, with New World regions taking on hints of tropical fruit.
- Riesling – Sweet, light, and fruity, this is the most popular sweet white wine. The grapes themselves have a floral aroma, passing to the wine an almost perfumed sense. It ages well, making for a well-preserved, stable wine. Its range of flavors is not very complex, just sticking to the sweet side with sometimes a hint of spice or fruit.
- Gewurztraminer – Its German name is saying a mouthful, and the wine lives up to its bold name. It produces a sweet, almost sappy wine that’s nevertheless very hard; one must be careful with this wine lest the buzz catch you by surprise. It’s best described as a rosy aroma with a flavor like passion fruit.
There’s only one variety of rose wine worth mentioning as most popular, and that’s…
- Zinfandel – The wine that put the US state of California on the world wine map, this upstart wine is made from grapes a dusty shade of pale gray, producing a blush wine that can best be described as jammy candy. It’s had the most damaged reputation since virtually every “bum wine” / “box wine” maker slaps the word “Zinfandel” on the label regardless of what’s in the bottle… or plastic bag.
Sparkling Wine is the wine produced with significant amounts of carbonation, producing the bubbly effect. Sparkling wine is typically either white or rose-style, but even red varieties exist.
The “brut” style is drier, while the “doux” style is sweeter. Sparkling wines are typically mistaken for Champagne, but actually they can come from all over the world. They are the default “party wines,” popping the festive cork in celebration being an iconic cultural fixture.
- Champagne – True Champagne is made from grapes including Chardonnay and Pinot, always producing a dry, white wine that takes well to its fizz and also happens to be an excellent way to a quick buzz. Flavors range from tart and acidic to a hint of herbs and butter, but the great majority of exported Champagne is famously Chardonnay-like in character.
- Moscato d’Asti – When you take the popular white dessert wine and inject some carbonation in it, you have the closest thing to soda-pop that can start with a grape. It’s typically light, syrupy, and devoid of any subtle flavors beyond butter, while also being so low on alcohol that it’s considered a kid’s wine.
- Asti Spumante – Almost identical to Moscato d’Asti, made from the same grapes, but slightly drier and with a slightly higher alcohol content.
- Sparkling Shiraz – Most of the red sparkling wine in the world is Shiraz or some variety of it. This is the one red wine capable of maintaining its character against carbonation, producing the dense, bold character of red wines while maintaining a fruity appeal. It benefits well from aging.
Dessert wines, as their name implies, are invariably sweet, flavorful, and meant to be served stand-alone after dinner or served with a light dessert like fruit or pastry. Most are also produced as cooking wines, a key ingredient in many classic dishes.
Typically they’re fortified wines, meaning they’re blended with distilled spirits such as brandy, and have a much higher alcohol content than other wines. These are an intriguing category to explore, where some of the most expensive bottles in the wine world can be found.
- Port – A distilled wine from Portugal, this is usually a sweet red wine and the most popular variety is “tawny port.” It is fortified with brandy and has a heavy body with a cozy, warming character and a nutty flavor. Like many fortified wines, it may come aged in oak casks.
- Sherry – The Spanish version of dessert wines, this is the classic fortified wine whose higher-end market typically gets auctioned by the bottle, after a decades-long distillation process. It’s made with distilled brandy. It has a wide range of styles, from the drier varieties to the darker and sweeter ones, but all have a rich, sweet flavor.
- Marsala – One of the two true “cooking wines,” it can be sipped on its own as an apertif, but is more typically used as a dessert ingredient. Marsala is divided into sub-varieties depending on age, which ranges from one to ten years. Some varieties have an amber or golden color and have a sweetener added.
- Madeira – Another Portuguese fortified wine, it has characteristics ranging from dry to sweet and is typically either an apertif or used in cooking.
Quick Wine Questions
Which wine do I pick with which food?
Is it true that some wine varieties are controlled by regional laws?
Yes, very much so! For instance, Chianti is required to be made from 80% Sangiovese grapes, or it’s not qualified to carry the name. Bordeaux must be produced in the Bordeaux region of France. Champagne also has to come from the region of Champagne, France; some people may call any sparkling wine “Champagne,” but that’s not correct. Check the Wikipedia listing of wine laws.