Learning some basic differences in wine is incredibly helpful when it comes time to shop for wine at your grocery store. Soon you will be on your way to reading wine labels and having pretty good ideas about what’s inside the bottle. Now, you will always be faced with changing vintages which can alter the flavor but that’s ok. That is part of the beauty of the wide world of wines.
The subtle nuances that happen from that year’s growing conditions are part of what makes wine special. A lot of people are put off by this fact because it causes uncertainty and confusion to the novice. Just remember, wine is meant to be enjoyed and savored so stop overthinking it and just sip it. Leave the stress to the winemakers. Here is a beginner wine chart with quick descriptions to help you navigate the waters.
What is a Wine Varietal?
The varietal refers to the type of grape used to make the wine. Nearly all wines are produced by combining varietals. Many wine varietals are used exclusively for blending but starting to emerge as the primary grape. Cabernet Franc and Malbec are great examples of this for red wines.
In the south of France in the Rhone region, they produce an amazing white wine that is made with a blend of Rousanne & Marsanne grapes. Both of these are nearly impossible to find as the primary grape. There are a few Central California winemakers that have very limited releases of these and if you can find them then snatch them up.
Dry Wine vs. Sweet Wine
During the fermentation process, the yeast eats all the natural sugars that the grapes produce before dying off. When all the sugars have been consumed this is considered a dry wine. When the process is stopped leaving residual sugar then you have sweet white wines. Occasionally you will find that a dry wine will have sugar syrup added to make it a sweeter wine. This is usually the case for the less expensive wine options.
Styles that fall into the sweet wine category are Rieslings (more on these later) and Moscato. Very Sweet wines are not as common outside of finer restaurants. These dessert wines are Ice Wines and Sauternes.
Sweet Red Wines are jokingly called hummingbird water since they taste and resemble the sweet nectar in hummingbird feeders. You will find these with the label Sweet Red and not as a traditional varietal such as Zinfandel. Most reds on the market are dry red wines.
A rose can be both sweet and dry. Traditionally rose wines were produced to be a dry blush wine. It happens by letting the juice from red grapes sit on the grape skins for a short period. In the 1980s sweet rose become popular in the United States when producers Sutter Home and Berringer released blush wines. I love a dry provencal rose wine made from grenache on a hot summer day. It is crisp and refreshing and packed with character.
What Temperatures Should Wine be Served at?
For a sweet wine, it should be chilled and served right from the refrigerator. White wines should be colder than room temperature but not chilled, let the bottle of wine rest for about 30 minutes at room temperature before serving. Red wines should be served at room temperature. The reason you do not want to serve wine too cold is that the subtle nuances found in more complex wines will be lost. The only real exception to this is the world of Ports and Sherrys which should always be served at room temperature.
Glassware for different types of wine
The glass itself is designed to allow the aromas of certain wines to move through the glass and into your nose and mouth at certain points. Glassware for a big red wine has large bowls that allow the red wine to be exposed to as much oxygen as possible to help it breathe. And the opening is large enough that your nose fits into the glass when you take a sip. If you take your wine seriously then you will have a glass for each type of wine. For the rest of the world, we find a utility glass that works best for red wines and white wines.
A sparkling wine that comes from a specific region in France, called an AOC, is Champagne. If this style of wine is produced anywhere else it is called sparkling wine. Champagne styles are made primarily from a combination of chardonnay and pinot noir varietals. If the wine label says Blanc de Blanc then it is 100% white wine grape juice and will have a much crisper green apple tartness. Blanc de Noirs is 100% red wine grapes and will be a rose sparkling wine. To determine the sweetness level of the Champagne or sparkling wine look for the term Brut. The scale below will help you understand how sweet or dry the sparkling wine is.
I do not cover many French wines here for a few reasons. First is that learning to read a French wine label is a lesson and a half itself. French wines do not label by the grape varietal, they label the growing region or AOC. Each region has several protected areas called AOCs, Appellation d’Origine Controlee. Each AOC has very strict regulations for growing, blending, fermentation, aging, and labeling. Currently, there are over 360 AOCs in 11 growing regions. To do it justice it needs some devoted time to learn French wines. It is worth the effort as they produce stunning wines if you have the budget for it.
Popular White Wines
The following are the more popular varieties that you will find at your grocery store and local wine shop. If you have a local wine shop nearby I can not suggest strongly enough to visit them and talk with them about your want to learn more. Trust me, they will be excited to help you. Wine nerds will always jump at the chance to geek out on potential new wine enthusiasts and help you explore new wines.
I listed them with any sweeter wine varieties first and then by the body. Lighter body wines to heavier full-bodied wines at the end. This beginner wine pairing chart may not be a true chart but it will tell you more than pictures on a diagram.
This is a fun white wine to drink. It is made by leaving the grapes on the vine in cooler climates until they begin to freeze. The sugars do not freeze but the water does so the extracted juice is incredibly sweet. A little bit of this will go a long way and I only recommend drinking this after a big meal and you need a little something sweet to sip on. The dessert wine you will love.
This rare wine is only produced in certain years and comes from the Graves region of Bordeaux. To make this white wine natural conditions must result in what is called the noble rot. Botrytis begins to consume the water in the grapes causing them to partially raisin. The resulting wine is sweet with a unique character of complex characters of dried stone fruit and honey. This wine, although sweet, should be served at room temperature to enjoy.
Coming from the grape varietal Muscat, a Moscato wine can be both dry and sweet. The American versions are almost entirely sweet fruity white wines while those that come from Piedmont Italy are dry white wines. They are fantastic wines to enjoy with turkey dinners during the holidays. If you look hard enough you can find a true Red Moscato from Piedmont that is made from black grapes rather than the white grapes that are much more common and easier to grow.
Hailing primarily from the Alsace region of France and Southern Germany. This grape is used to make dry, semi-sweet, and sweet white wines. The most common version sold in grocery stores is late harvest rieslings. Late harvest can also be labeled as Spätlese.
Sometimes called Pinot Gris, this is a very light, crisp, and refreshing white wine.
Normally used as a blending grape, Chenin Blanc is starting to make an appearance as the primary grape with some white wine makers. This acidic wine will be lighter than Chardonnay but slightly heavier than a Pinot Grigio.
Some of the best examples of this white wine come from New Zealand. They are lightly grassy with tropical fruit notes and have a balanced acidity that makes them great food wines. Sauvignon Blancs flavor profile will change from region to region. Once you find the style you like, remember where it was produced.
An Argentinian white wine with distinctive peach and apricot aromas. This wine from South America is medium to light body with lots of citrus on the palate.
An Italian white wine from Sardinia and Tuscany. Vermentino will be fairly high in acidity and a medium body and has lots of green apple and lime on the nose and tongue.
This dry white wine will vary from region to region. They will all be a medium body and medium acidity wines though. California likes to over oak their chardonnays and finishes the fermentation with malolactic acid which gives the wine a richer buttery flavor. France on the other hand produces Chardonnay’s that rarely see an oak barrel and are crisp full-bodied whites with more of a mineral undertone to them.
Popular Red Wine Varieties
This light red wines to full-bodied red wine chart can be deceiving. Depending on where the red wine was produced and who the wine maker is they can change places. Malbec, for example, can be as light as a pinot noir or bigger than a cabernet. But you will not find a malbec red wine to be a sweet wine.
So take the categories of wine as nothing more than general guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. I know this complicates things for you but it will also help explain why the same style of red wine you fell in love with you also can’t stand from a different maker.
Known as the world’s sexiest grape, the pinot noir produces a light-bodied red wine. Unfortunately, you will not find quality version of this red wine for cheap either. They can be simple and flabby or complex beautiful wines full of dark cherry and clove flavors. This is one of the few red wines that you get what you pay for.
Zins can be some of the most fruit-forward wines on the market. They are all dry red wines but can have big fresh blackberry jam flavors up front with some baking spices on the finish. Look for Old Vine zinfandels for the biggest flavors. The old vine red wines are known to have lots of depth and character.
A medium to full-bodied Italian red wine with lots of dark fruit, coffee, and balsamic notes. It is the red wine to enjoy at any Italian feast. I enjoy this red wine with red meats and tomato based pasta dishes. If you are fortunate enough you will also find this varietal in the form of a Super Tuscan. These bold red wines are a blend of sangiovese with cabernet, merlot and syrah.
Mainly used in the Rhone Valley blends this is a full-bodied red. Loaded with plum, chocolate, and peppercorn notes, this is one of my favorite wines to enjoy with meals. It is very well balanced between its tannins and acid. Central California is also a big producer of Syrah and has been making fantastic versions similar to the full bodied Rhone blends.
In Australia this wine is produced under the name of Shiraz. Same red wine just a different name in a different region.
Quickly gaining traction is the Argentinian Malbec varietal. Originally this grape started in France as a blending grape in Bordeaux wines. Now it is also grown in the high plains of Argentina. This red wine is a full-bodied medium tannin wine that is slightly higher in alcohol than other reds. Expect flavors of red fruits, vanilla, and dark chocolate.
For some reason, Merlot picked up a bad name somewhere. Not sure why either. If you are looking for a solid Merlot then look for one from Washington state. The growing conditions are optimal for this grape and their red wines drink more like Cabernets. Most California merlots can be on the weak side unless they are heavily blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
The king of full-bodied red wines is the Cabernet Sauvignon. These are best when they have time to age as younger cabernets will be fairly high in tannins. With age, they mellow out and become some of the most complex wines you will experience. Some of the most expensive and highly coveted bottles of red wine are Cabernet Sauvignon.