A Brief and Inadequate Guide

to Wine Types


For a wine to be called by its grape (varietal) name by US Law it has to be made from no less than 85% of that type of grape. So, a Chardonnay wine is mostly or totally made from the Chardonnay grape and so on. Blending helps some wines and most famously, the French Bordeaux reds are all blends as are some of the most revered and expensive US made wines such as Opus One and Phelps Insignia. The names below are mostly grape names. Chianti, Meritage, Beaujolais and Champagne are exceptions as are GSM and CGS

Red Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon “The King of Red Wines”

Full-bodied Red Wine. Notable for blackberry flavors and tannins. One of the classic French Bordeaux red grapes. Typically needs some aging time both before bottling and in the bottle. Enjoy with red meats in particular.

Merlot

Another of the classic French Bordeaux red grapes and is considered medium bodied and usually with lower tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon. Flavors include more cherry and red fruit than CS. Made in many styles ranging from semi-sweet and light generic reds to complex and deep age-worthy wines.

Cabernet Franc

One of the Bordeaux “Six” Red grapes. Light in style and subject to “green flavors” if allowed to grow too vigorously. Cherry and berry flavors. Because it has a shorter growing season than CS, it has now found a home in some Northeastern US regions.

Malbec

Originally from France, this Bordeaux red was a minor player there but found its home in South America. Less light berry than its other French friends with some chocolate and coffee flavors. Sometimes made with lots of oak.

Petit Verdot

The least known of the Bordeaux reds. Mostly used in blending and its dark color and brooding flavors can add a lot of depth to a fine Cabernet Sauvignon. It tends to be tannic as well and is not widely bottled alone. In some top Cabernets, it is the secret “magic” part of the blend.

Carmenère

Last of the French Bordeaux Red Six, a small player there. Deep red flavors and spice along with earthy tobacco. Another export to South America where it is found in Chile.

Meritage

This is a made-up word and is the property of the Meritage Alliance. Created to promote French-style wines in America, wines labeled this way must be made from at least two of the five Bordeaux red grapes with no more than 90% of any of them Originally it required three and no more than 50%. So now, even if not labeled, most Cabernet Sauvignons are probably “Meritages.”

Sangiovese

The top grape from the Tuscany region of Italy. Sangiovese is the major component of Chianti wines (which is a specified region of Italy). A full bodied wine and usually is less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon with more red fruit.

Chianti

An Italian legal term for blended reds from specified areas of Central Italy. The primary component is Sangiovese, but by law, it must include other varieties specified by law such as like Canaiolo and Colorino. At one time white wine grapes were required in the blend as well. Not only a “red sauce” wine but in the top end wines, great with grilled steak from a smoky fire.

Syrah (or Shiraz)

Full-bodied red originally from France’s Rhone Valley. Intense fruit flavors with moderate tannins. Traditionally, blended with Mourvedre and Grenache as “Rhone Blends.” Great with grilled beef and lamb.

Carignan

A Rhone blending red. Light with fruit (sometimes) also some spice, savory and herbal notes. Made well, a terrific food wine. Made badly, a dark jug wine of little note. The most widely planted wine grape in the world and mostly terrible until recent years. A grape on the upswing.

Grenache

Another Rhone blender. Red fruit flavors with some of the Syrah flavors: peppery.

Zinfandel (Red)

California’s official wine grape. Big berry wine that can be full-bodied or less so. Typically fruit forward and spicy. Most styles tend towards higher alcohol levels. It is great with grilled lamb. The white stuff is made from the type of grape but has little to do with Zinfandel’s character.

Tempranillo

The big red grape from Spain. There they use the word Rioja. Dark cherry and fruit flavors in a middleweight wine. US versions tend to be a bit hard and tannic. Otherwise, a great grilled steak wine that also goes with artisan charcuterie and some pastas.

Rhone Wines GSM

Blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. These can be terrific bistro reds.

Mourvedre

A Rhone and Provence red grape. Soft and rich. Dark fruit, black pepper aromas. Sometimes the flavors can be a bit, well, gamey. Think grilled meats.

Languedoc Wines CGS

Carignan, Grenache and Syrah wines from France’s south. Tasty and perfect for grilled steak or sausages.

Pinot Noir

French Burgundy. A complex, gentle, layered wine. Always worth a taste. Pairs well with duck, chicken, pork and charcuterie and soft cheeses.

Petite Sirah (nothing to do with Syrah, so they now say. Stay tuned.)

Bold, dark wine. This one can be very tannic and hard as nails, or more nuanced. When made well, it makes great sangria and will punch back at grilled sausages. Some black pepper, berries, and licorice.

Beaujolais

Made from the Gamay grape. Sometimes it tastes like a fruitier Pinot Noir. Made in many styles, most of which are not widely available in the US. Sadly, most stores carry cheap and poor ones. If you are in France, another story and a good choice in a Paris café.

Major White Wines

Chardonnay

Burgundy France’s white grape. The top of the white wines. Made in many styles from oaked buttery and bone dry to unoaked and sweet. A lot of them have the “Burgundy Nose” which can produce a bouquet (smell) of a barnyard or wet cardboard. This is produced by the type yeast used in fermentation. Some more, some none, some less. It’s a choice made by the winemaker. Rich, full-bodied ones are great with cream sauced dishes. Flavors can include apple, pear, tropical, citrus and peach depending on the climate where the grapes are grown.

Sauvignon Blanc

A wine that can have many identities. Some are thin and austere. Some are heavier and fruity. A lot have the grassy aroma some do not. Made well, this is can be a terrific value in white wine. When it has a mineral nature, it pairs well with oysters. The grape originated in France’s Bordeaux region.

Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio?

Same grape. If you selling it in an Italian restaurant, you offer Pinot Grigio. In a French place, Pinot Gris. Light body wine with a wide range of flavors. Stone fruits, apple, lime. Usually bright with acidity which makes it a good wine with seafood. Avoid tomato sauce

Riesling

Germany’s famous white. Most US versions are sweet and simple. The imports have a wide range from medium dry to very sweet. Can be perfumed, aromatic and acidic. Mostly it’s going to pair best with spicy Asian and Indian foods.

Rose

A slightly pink wine. Made from red grapes, the brief contact from the grapes’ skins provides the color. Wine grape juice is almost always clear. Styles range from simple sweet drinks to very dry and elegant. Versatile, it’s really the only baked ham wine. Great for a picnic or with a turkey dinner, there is a style for everyone.

Moscato

Fizzy (or not) sweet wine from the Muscat grape. Aromatic with lots of flowers, mint and cinnamon. Some styles are so sweet, there are no flavors, others are more subtle. Spicy chicken and pork work well with this wine. The Muscat family has many versions and names and the flavors vary. Usually low alcohol.

Champagne (Sparkling Wine in the USA)

Fizzy and made in so many styles from sweet to bone dry. Outside of France the word, Brut means little but technically means the most “dry”. Prosecco is an Italian version that is lighter and with a smaller amount of fizz. Probably the most versatile wine that matches with about everything all day long from breakfast to a dessert. Word to the wise: Extra Dry is going to be sweet.

Wine barrel graphic from shutterstock.

Help Keep Our Content Free – Please Shop Our Sponsors