Do you enjoy wine, but want to become more knowledgeable about it? If you do, then this is the perfect place to start. The first piece of wisdom to gain about wine is to know that there are 16 core varieties that are ubiquitous throughout the world and can be found on sale almost anywhere. Here is the low-down on core wines:
The term Bordeaux wine is a vast generalization because there are thousands of wineries producing in that particular region of France. In essence, however, a red Bordeaux blend consists of a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes, with smaller portions of Malbec and Petit Verdot also added to the mix. On the other hand, a white Bordeaux blend is primarily made of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes. Sometimes, some Muscadelle is also added.
Burgundy wines usually consist of one of two grape varieties – red Burgundy wine is made with Pinot Noir grapes, whereas white Burgundy wine is made from Chardonnay grapes. The thing that distinguishes Burgundy wines from others using the same grapes is the lay of the land of the region that the grapes are grown in. They are characterized by elegance, a pungent aroma and a complex (but highly enjoyable) palate.
A Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied red wine that originated in France, but the grapes used to produce it are now grown all over the world. So-called “Old World” Cabernet Sauvignon varieties, such as those grown in France, have more herbal and floral flavors in comparison to the fruitier varieties grown in “New World” vineyards (such as California or Australia). They tend to have a subtle palate, but leave a lasting taste on the tongue due to a strong tannin presence and high acidity.
Chardonnay wines are white wines that are made from the Chardonnay grape, which just so happens to be the most diverse and most planted white wine grape in the world. They can vary greatly in palate, from rich on one side of the scale, to light and zesty on the other.
The key difference with Chardonnay wines is usually whether they’ve been oaked (aged in a barrel) or not. In addition, unoaked Chardonnays can range in flavor from lemon and green apple, to pineapple and figs depending on how ripe they are.
Furthermore, oaked Chardonnay varieties usually come from cooler climates such as California’s Sonoma Coast, Western Australia, or the Loire region in France. In contrast, oaked Chardonnay varieties come from warmer wine-growing regions, such as Puglia in Italy, or Mendoza in Argentina.
This red wine blend from Tuscany, Italy, is the most consumed Italian wine in human history. It is made primarily with Sangiovese grapes. This tart, spicy and herbaceous wine is as essential to Italian cuisine as tomatoes or extra virgin olive oil.
Its savory flavors and high acidity make it perfect for standing up to a thick tomato sauce, or complementing a beautiful piece of steak. It is a little coarse and tart on the palate, but these are hallmark characteristics of the Sangiovese grape rather than flaws.
The thick-skinned red Malbec grape is a natural cross of two French grapes that originated in Montpellier and Gaillac respectively. The majority of French Malbec is now found in the small town of Cahors. Most Malbec wine varieties available today originate from Mendoza, Argentina. They usually have a leathery palate, with flavors of currant, black plum, and a savory bitterness. It is best paired with dark poultry and lean red meat.
Although Merlot wines are usually deemed to be nothing more than second-rate Cabernet Sauvignons due to the proliferation of cheap, commercial varieties, make no mistake – it’s a first class grape that commands the greatest respect in the wine world.
A good Merlot normally has a soft finish, but varies in taste quite drastically depending on where it’s grown. Cool climate Merlots tend to be more structured and have earthy flavors of tobacco and tar, whereas warm climate Merlots tend to be fruitier.
8. Pinot Grigio / Gris
Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are wines made from the same gray-red grape. It is a mutation of the Pinot grape, and the resulting wines are famous for their refreshing citrus flavor and zesty acidity. Flavors include lime, lemon, pear, white nectarine and apple, and Pinots usually smell quite floral. Italian Pinot Grigios are dry and have lots of acidity, French Pinot Gris are normally fleshy with faint notes of honey, and American Pinot Grigios often have more discernible fruit flavors and less acidity.
9. Pinot Noir
This is the most highly-prized wine in the world. The Pinot Noir grape is notoriously difficult to cultivate, and this is because it suffers from a variety of diseases, as well as being highly susceptible to mutation. The wine produced from this variety is pale in color, translucent and has very subtle flavors.
Furthermore, Pinot Noir can be paired with many different kinds of food because it is light enough to complement fish such as salmon, but complex enough to complement a richer dish such as roast duck. Although Pinot Noir wines are produced around the world, they usually tend to be more expensive than different red wines of similar quality.
White Riesling grapes originated in Germany, but dry varieties are grown everywhere from New York State, Alsace in France and the Clare and Eden valleys in Australia. Most sweet Riesling wines available today come from Germany. All varieties tend to have intense aromas of fruits such as nectarine, apricot, and pear. They have a highly acidic palate and range in color from pale straw to deep yellow.
This wine is actually made from the red Tempranillo grape, which is a popular grape that grows all over the world. Nevertheless, its homeland is Spain, particularly the Rioja region. The region uses a classification system to qualify the various wines that it produces.
The highest-quality Rioja wines are determined by the amount of time that they’ve been left to oak-age before consumption. Palate and flavor vary greatly depending on how long a wine variety has been aged for.
12. Rosé Wine
Contrary to a popular misconception, Rose wine is made from a combination of white and red grapes. There are actually three ways in which it is made, namely the Maceration Method, the Bled Method and the Blending Method.
The Maceration Method involves leaving red wine grapes to rest in the white wine juice before finishing the batch and turning it into Rose. This is how most Roses that originate from Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon in France are made.
In contrast, the Bled Method involves bleeding off some of the juice used to make a red wine and placing it in a new vat together with the juice used to make a white wine. Wines made like this are quite rare, and are usually associated with regions that produce fine red wines, such as Napa and Sonoma in California, USA.
Last but not least, the Blending Method involves adding a little red wine to a vat of white wine. It doesn’t take much for the desired effect to be achieved, with only 5% of the total Rose wine’s volume consisting of red wine.
Rose wines usually taste of red fruit, citrus, and melon, but vary greatly in flavor as well as color. For example, an Italian Aglianico has cherry and orange zest flavors, whereas a pale-colored Grenache from France offers flavors of melon, lemon and celery.
13. Sauvignon Blanc
Owing much of its popularity to the Bordeaux and Loire Valley winemakers of old, the white Sauvignon Blanc grape is grown in both Old and New World wine-growing regions. Although varieties of the grape vary considerably in terms appearance and flavor depending on where they’re grown, Sauvignon Blanc wines are usually dry and range in flavor from zesty lime to peach.
14. Sparkling Wines
Sparkling wines can be red, white or rose, and are produced in various ways. In fact, there are no less than six different methods used to produce sparkling wine, beady, semi-sparkling or fully-sparkling wines.
The most famous sparkling wine in the world is, of course, Champagne. Real Champagne is only produced in the Champagne region of France, and the traditional method used to produce it is actually protected on the UNESCO World Heritage list. A bottle of very good Champagne can cost thousands of dollars in a restaurant.
15. Syrah & Shiraz
One of the darkest red wines you’ll find on the market is Shiraz, which was named as such when Australian wine producers brought the French Syrah grape to Australia. Shiraz and Syrah are essentially the same, and are full-bodied and feel heavy in your mouth.
They feature flavors such as berries, pepper, tobacco and even hints of smoked meat. As you can imagine, it’s an excellent pairing with a good meat dish, however, it goes well with most dishes.
16. Zinfandel, Both Red & White
The Zinfandel grape is usually associated with the West Coast of America, but it actually can trace its origins back to the imperial gardens of Austria’s Schonbrunn Palace. Cuttings from the gardens arrived in Boston in the 1820s, and the grape spread from there.
White Zinfandel is the most popular Zinfandel grape, accounting for some 85% of global production. Zinfandel wines have high acidity that is sometimes referred to as “spicy”, and feature prominent berry flavors ranging from strawberry to blackberry. If you like “spicier” flavors, try looking for an oak-aged Zinfandel wine.
Cover image by Deposit Photos.