Learning about wine can take some time – there is so much out there and the wine industry keeps growing and changing every year. I’ve broken it down by most of the grape types used in wine production, and that is typically the way Americans recognize a bottle of wine instead of looking for a region.
For example, you shop for a “Chardonnay” that could be from anywhere in the world, instead of a Rioja or a Châteauneuf de Pape that tells you the region where the wine was produced.
The simple explanations below cover most of the wines – based on the grape varietals used that you’ll encounter at standard no-frills wine shops.
Each wine ranges in price – depending on producer, year, and country of origin, and which grapes that are blended together. More expensive doesn’t always mean better and then of course, as your wine knowledge increases, there is your personal taste to take into account.
After all, wine is to to be enjoyed and savored, and compliment a delicious meal prepared with thought.
Gewürztraminer is a fragrant, sometimes sweet wine. The name means “Spice Traminer”, the traminer is the grape varietal. The aroma can range from lychees to flower blossoms and sometimes a ripe peach with cinnamon that I find so seductive! The most popular and well produced Gewürztraminers come from Germany and the Alsace area of France. They mellow out hot and spicy foods, like Indian and Mexican, but can also be paired with wild game. Enjoy the Gewürztraminer’s slight effervescence, tiny bubbles that cling to the inside of the glass, not nearly as pronounced as in champagne. Gewürztraminer can also be served as any aperitif or for a light dessert wine paired with fresh peaches or lychees over sorbet.
Riesling grapes are hearty and do well in cool weather so it’s no wonder they flourish in the Rhine region of Germany – but you’ll also find them in Alsace, France, Austria and sometimes Northern Italy where the temperatures drop in the Fall. With the scent of apples and flowers, the riesling is a great way to start out a meal or enjoy with buttery fish, or even salmon cooked with a sweet sauce. Riesling can also compliment BBQ pork with a sweet and spicy sauce.
This is a wine based on a grape grown in Austria and it happens to be one of my favorite whites that has really gained popularity on restaurant menus. The aromas of this medium-bodied wine are a touch of peach mixed with a hint of spice, most say resembling ground white pepper – but it reminds me of ground coriander seed. Considered to be an “easy sipping summer wine” in Austria and Germany, I think its balance and mineral flavors lends well to a pre-dinner drink or a good pairing for simple seafood preparations such as raw oysters or poached shrimp.
Pinot Blanc is known for its crisp flavors and aroma of apples and pears. I enjoy vintages that comes from the Alto Adige, Italy or Alsace that can be the perfect match for seafood dishes prepared with light creamy sauces. The bright, perky flavor of most Pinot Blancs contrasts nicely against the smooth texture of sour cream or goat cheese. The wine’s medium body and less complex flavors make it a great wine for summer parties and al fresco dinners.
Sauvignon Blanc, a grape variety that is grown all over the world, is blended to produce many white wines and has a wide range of flavors and aromas based on where it is cultivated. Sancerre, primarily produced with Sauvignon Blanc, is one of my favorite whites from France. I think of grass and minerals when it comes to a Sancerre. They make the perfect combo for seafood dishes sprinkled with fresh chopped herbs. Sauvignon Blanc – part of “new world wines” as they call them (wines from places like New Zealand, Australia, and South America) can have grapefruit, citrus and green bell pepper notes. They are typically inexpensive wines that are great for entertaining and easy for wine newbies to enjoy since they don’t have complex or strong flavors that can take some time to appreciate.
A very well-known popular grape, you can find it growing in most of the wine producing countries. I usually see mostly California and French-style Chardonnay lining the shelves of most stores and they tend to be very different in flavor depending on how they were produced, in oak or stainless steel barrels. Californian-style Chardonnays typical have a very oakey flavor meaning they pick up the woody taste of the barrel that you either enjoy or not. I prefer the French or steel-vat produced Californian which has a more austere, mineral, clean flavors, a better match for herb-based dishes. This is delightful with room-temperature dishes with chopped fresh herbs like pesto pasta for example.
Muscat is a very aromatic grape, I always think of ripe peaches and sometimes honey dew when I sniff its perfume. You can find style differences form sweet and syrupy, to sparkling, and even dry, depending on where your Muscat comes from. I serve it as a dessert wine along with ripe peaches or baked fruit desserts.
You usually don’t find this grape on its own in a single-grape wine, though Australia has produced it as a single varietal. Grown in France, Chili, and Australia, it is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay and lends the characteristic tastes of lemon and butter. Semillon is typically used in dry wine production but you can also find it in dessert wines, namely the most famous of the bunch, Château d’Yquem that uses a large percentage of it to blend with Sauvignon Blance.
I’ve always been attracted to this wine that is full of tropical fruit odors like pineapple and a touch of coconut in some vintages. Though I taste a lot of heavy ripened fruit in the beginning, the taste drops off dramatically to reveal the dry nature of this wine. Chardonnay drinkers will notice the bold beginning flavors and rich weight on the tongue, and also appreciate the rich caramel colors that comes from the greenish golden grapes.
Normally blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc is used in the production of high quality, delectable French wines from Pomerol and St Emillion. On occasion when you find this grape produced as a single varietal, in the case of new wines from upstate New York, they tend to be a bit fierce upon first sip. I suggest you give them ample time to breathe and decant before enjoying as they can be quite drinkable with aromas and flavor such as violets, raspberry, cedar, green bell pepper.
If there is one grape out there you should get to know, this one is a super star responsible for hundreds of award-winning wines around the world, including the prized wines of Bordeaux, France, Sonoma, and Napa Valley. The adaptable Cabernet Sauvignon is also resistant to disease and gives off a good juice to grape ratio, making it very desirable for winemakers. I’m partial to the flavor of black currant that most “big cabs” have – along with notes of leather, black cherry, tobacco, and earth. Pair Californian cabs, rich and full with meats and thick stews.
Difficult to grow, the pinot noir is the prissy lady of many vineyards, successfully grown in Burgundy, France, California, Oregon and New Zealand. I always think of the scent of violets and strawberries, it’s no surprise that this little lady is used in Champagne production. Some Pinots, especially from the New World, are not that ladylike as they can have a sexy aroma of spice, crushed roses, and sweat. This medium body wine pairs well with grilled duck, lamb, and salmon.
This brute of a grape is responsible for Beaujolais – when enjoyed young, it can be delightful, for example slightly chilled at a spring or summer picnic. Its aroma and flavors are comprised oftentimes of flowers and strawberries, which are pleasant enough – although Beaujolais can be rather harsh without much complexity in body or flavor.
I think most Americans are familiar with this grape. It became popular when Americans started drinking more wine in the 1970’s and is still “a greatest hit” at many parties and gatherings. Primarily grown in Bordeaux, France and California, Merlot’s flavors include dark fruit like plum and currants, as well as green bell pepper, and sometimes can have a hint of vanilla or warm top soil. I think the fruity soft flavors of Merlot makes it easy to drink, making it very popular for the occasional wine drinker.
This bad boy grape is bold and strong, certainly prized amongst the Italian winemakers since it goes into production of some heavy hitters in the wine world, namely Barolo and Barbaresco, and other costly wines. Its flavor profile includes cherry, smoke, and sometimes fennel or licorice. Its strong lingering aroma and body pair nicely with strong wild game and hearty stews. Quality wines made from nebbiolo can be a bit rough on the wallet, but when I want to splurge, I certainly enjoy the flavors and elegant craftsmanship of the delectable, bond yet suave Barolo.
The primary grape used to produce Chianti, once enjoyed as an inexpensive, rustic wine to sip with pizza and other Italian peasant dishes. Chianti, grown in the Tuscany region of Italy, is another wine that most Americans feel comfortable ordering at any restaurant. In my experience, a good Chianti can be quite expensive. I recommend plunking down a few extra dollars to go up on the quality scale if you choose Chianti or shoot for less costly Spanish wine.
Syrrah, also known as Shiraz, gains its fame from fine wines like Hermitage and Cote Rotie produced in the Rhone Valley, France. Other less expensive, very drinkable wines, from the same region, like the Cote de Rhones can provide excellent quality for the price. Flavors and aroma differ immensely based on where the grape is grown, but the major notes are black pepper, blackberry, and smoke. Inexpensive Shiraz produced outside of France, for example South Africa, South American, and Australia can be a bit harsh and overpowering, though wine drinkers with bold tastes certainly enjoy them all the same.
Widely planted throughout the world, Grenache is used as a base for blends of great wines like the Châteauneuf de Pape. Since Grenache has a high sugar content it is also used in sweet wine productions, and can lend aromas of berries, spice, and vanilla to wine. The Spanish version of this grape, called “granacha”, is widely used in wine production of Rioja and Priorat. Wines from these areas found in your local wine shop can range in price, but tend to be affordable and and very drinkable, a good pick for a dinner party.
Tempranillo is primarily grown in Northern Spain and is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Grenache to produce drinkable wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Flavor elements include herbs and leather, strawberries, and cherries. Price point compared to quality of the blends make these wines from Spain perfect for table wine or an inexpensive party gift. The leathery notes of most Rioja couples nicely with dried ground chilies used to flavor most tapas dishes.