Wine Styles – Which Wine is Which?
That sea of labels or full of bottles needn’t be as confusing as it seems. Here’s a simple “road map” to help you navigate the world of wine. For drinking with a meal or sipping anytime, we choose a red, white, or pink table wine. Don’t forget to pick proper wine glasses and accessories in your endeavour.
To enjoy something with bubbles for a special celebration or with a special meal, we go for sparkling wines.
To sip after dinner, with a cigar, or while lounging in front of the fireplace, the beverage of choice is a dessert or fortified wine.
Table Wines : Red, White, or Pink
These wines are easy to identify – they’re color coded to make it simple. And while it may be a coincidence, most American wine drinkers work their way through the three “colors” in similar ways. Many of us start our wine experience with pink wines: you know, the white zinfandel (that’s not white but pink) that we see all over the grocery store. These wines (technically called blush wines), aren’t a bad place to start, because they’re usually delicately flavored, reminding you of fruits such as strawberries or raspberries, and a little bit sweet. They can be very pleasant to sip without food or accompanying light appetizers, and they can make nice summer picnic wines.
Once you’ve mastered the American white zinfandels and white merlot (a little less sweet than the zins), try a European blush wine. They have no sweetness at all, but still offer that nice berry flavor. There are enough names to confuse you – just look for anything pink from Spain or France and give it a try.
The next step along the wine road is usually to white wines. While the whites cover the waterfront from sweet to dry and light to full-bodied, you’ll probably want to start with the kind of sweet, easy-drinking varieties.
Whites With Some Sweetness
The wine world’s best-kept secret is the Moscato grape. This white is made by leaving some of the grape’s natural sweetness in the wine, along with the rich, peachy fruit flavors. If you think all wines are “bitter,” this one will knock your socks off. You can find Moscato made in California, but the best buys are from Italy. These also have a slight natural spritziness that make them very fun to drink.
The world’s most popular “not too dry” white is Riesling. The originals are from Germany, but you’ll find good ones now from almost all the world’s wine regions. The flavor of Riesling is more delicate than Moscato, and the fruit is more similar to green apples or pears. It’s a great accompaniment to many foods, and a favorite at family dinners. The American Riesling you’ll see in most stores comes from California and Oregon, and is usually semi-sweet and quite “soft” (not much acid on the finish). You’ll find a snappier style from Germany and Alsace (northern France). The higher acid levels give you a crisp finish to balance the sweetness. While Alsatian whites are usually dry (no perceived sweetness at all), the Germans give us a range of Rieslings from dry to quite sweet. Check the store for one to match your palate and budget.
Whites With No Sweetness
Heading further down the wine road you’ll want to stop and try pinot grigio, whose popularity has grown by leaps and bounds recently. (Just a few letters different is a white called pinot gris, which is basically the same grape but in French instead of Italian). Pinot grigio is a great all-around white because while it has no sweetness, it doesn’t taste “dry.” It’s light-bodied and crisp, with citrus flavors such as lemon and lime. Unlike chardonnay, there is no oak used in the aging process, so the finish is clean and delicate. Pinot grigio is a great thirst-quencher, perfect on your deck or patio in the summertime. Pinot grigio is traditionally from Italy, but is a fast-growing California variety. The stateside version tends to be softer than the Italian, and sometimes has a touch of sweetness that might please some wine drinkers.
One of the classic white grapes, sauvignon blanc (and fume blanc) is another dry white. The flavor is more distinctive than pinot grigio, often showing very bold herbal or grassy notes. The most traditional sauv blanc is from France and called white bordeaux, sancerre, or pouilly-fume (among others). These usually see no oak aging and are quite crisp and clean. New Zealand is becoming a major sauv blanc producer, and its style tends to be very citrusy, like pink grapefruit and lime. This is a VERY snappy white. California calls it sauv blanc or fume blanc, although the Fume style usually sees some oak aging and is slightly more full-bodied.
The Big Kahuna of the white wine world has always been chardonnay. This is the grape used to produce France’s white burgundy, is probably the world’s most costly white, and now makes great wine in almost every wine-producing region of the globe. The fruit flavors are rich and full-bodied, and can range from tropical flavors such as kiwi and pineapple to pear, melon, or even tangerine. The styles vary widely too, depending on how much oak and secondary fermentation is used in the wine’s production. Without getting technical about it, chards tend to be either oaky and buttery, or crisp and fruity. California is know for the oaky/buttery style, and the rest of the wine world is more fruit-driven.
A Red Wine to Suit (Almost) Every Palate
Wines made from red grapes are usually fermented until all the sweetness is gone, but we have a few good suggestions for those who want the health benefits of red wine without the usual dry “bitter” taste. Both Germany and Italy make reds with some natural sweetness – you’ll find them in the store. But just because most reds are dry doesn’t mean they’re bitter.
Pinot noir has become hugely popular in the United States, thanks to a movie that put this little-known grape in thousands of theatres. It’s the grape used to produce French burgundy, which some claim is the world’s finest (and one of the most expensive) wines. It’s current popularity is due to the way it combines delicate fruit flavors (think black cherry) with a soft, velvety finish. It’s dry without tasting “dry,” and has become a favorite of those new to red wine. It’s also a fabulous accompaniment to some foods – it’s the red that breaks the “white wine with fish” rule, and it’s also versatile enough to fit well at our holiday tables. California Pinots are selling out, but you can also find good labels from Oregon, and, of course, France.
Going further along the red wine road you’ll find shiraz. This is the Australian name for another French grape, but the Aussies have given it a distinct style. The less expensive bottles have very fruity characteristics (taste of raspberries) and a soft, easy-drinking finish. The $10 and under shiraz is a great easy-drinking red. As they go up in price, however, they show a structure and body worthy of the “big” reds, with a rich, jammy-mouth feel that’ll make you go, “Wow!”
Another “wow wine” is zinfandel – the dry red kind, not the pink stuff. “Real” zinfandel is indigenous to California, and it makes a rich, very fruity wine (think blueberry) that doesn’t taste dry or bitter. It’s great to drink by itself or with food, and is a very pleasant surprise for those who don’t know it’s true nature. It’s definitely a MUST TRY! (White zinfandel is produced by drawing off some of the juice during fermentation, so it’s basically a diluted red wine).
Probably the best-selling red in America is merlot (recently maligned in the same movie that put pinot noir on the map). Its fruit flavors are less distinctive than shiraz or zinfandel, and the finish is more noticeably “dry.” The popularity in this country of what was originally a blending grape seems to be declining as more wine drinkers discover these other reds. Some more expensive merlots, however, can be almost as full-bodied as the big reds and be a very satisfying dinner wine.
At the risk of confusing the issue, we should mention that syrah is a red grape native to France that’s also produced in California. It’s really just a different clone of shiraz, but has a different style. Syrah is usually more earthy and full-bodied than shiraz, and more suitable for those who like drier, bolder reds.
And to muddy the waters even further, petite sirah is a totally unrelated grape produced in California that’s bolder, jammier, and more tannic than any of the above. It can be a taste treat, though, as long as you’re prepared for big flavors.
We’re just about at the end of the road, and it’s marked with a sign that says “Cabernet Sauvignon Next Exit.” Long known as the king of reds, cabernet is grown in almost every wine region. In France it’s called bordeaux (and is blended with merlot and some other goodies), and in California winemakers blend it with the same grapes and call it meritage. Its claim to fame is that no other grape has the age-ability or backbone of cab. The tannin in the skins and seeds gives the wine that dry (some call it bitter) taste in a young cab, but it also allows to wine to improve with age and eventually develop its full potential. The inexpensive cabernets are designed to be the most “user-friendly,” offering a softer style and more fruity character, so you may want to begin experimenting in the $10 and under price range. When you’re ready for the bolder style, you’ll really appreciate the experience.
A Detour to Famous Regional Wines
We’ve explored the varieties you’ll see most often, but we haven’t talked about some regional wines that you’re probably curious about.
First, here’s a note on wine names: Europeans call their wines by the region they’re from, and not the grape they contain. If you know that France’s red bordeaux is made from a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend and red burgundy from pinot noir, you’ll have some clue about how they taste.
Ditto white burgundy, chablis and pouilly-fuisse, which are French wines made from chardonnay. The wines of the Rhone region are some blend of grenache, syrah, and other grapes, and vouvray is a slightly sweet white you may have heard of that’s from the chenin blanc grape.
The most famous Italian wine is chianti, which is made from the sangiovese grape that you see occasionally in California. The wine that put Spain on the map is rioja, which uses the tempranillo grape.