What was that wine?

It took me a long time to begin to understand the different varietals.  Because of this, I thought it would be good to provide a simple explanation of  the most common varietals, what their main purpose is, and what basic flavor they bring.  We have segmented them into four basic categories: Reds, Whites, Rose, Sparkling and Desert wines. We acknowledge that there are other sub categories, we simply wanted to speak to four basic types.  Additionally, one of the best resources on making wine, that I have found, can be found here!  Here we go...


Barbera:  is a red wine grape found primarily in Italy’s Piedmont region. It produces bright, crisp wines with deep ruby colors, full body and low tannin levels. Although it is sometimes served as a stand alone wine, it is mostly blended with other varietals to depth and balance to a red wine.

Cabernet Franc: Although not as popular, Cabernet Franc is an ancestor of Cabernet Sauvignon, which came about as a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, and is one of the major red grape varieties in the world. Although the flavor of Cabernet Franc is sometimes described as fruitier or more herbal than Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s a bit softer and less bold than Cabernet Sauvignon. The French will often call the two grapes “the Cabernets” without distinguishing between the two.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Nicknamed 'Cab' is one of the most commonly planted grapes in the world, and is one of my favorites.  A strongly tannic flavor comes from the thick skin on the grape. Although mostly made as a 100% wine, this grape is also blended with softer varieties like Merlot or Shiraz.  Cabernet Sauvignon wines can vary greatly from tones of tobacco, cedar, blackcurrant and spices, to a peppery, chocolate, and earthy flavor to a down right fruity flavor of black cherry, currant and berries.

Malbec: Although Malbec has found a following as a stand alone varietal, it is mostly used as a blend grape in making red wine.  Since Malbec is an inky red wine, it is commonly blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, to create French Bordeaux-style red wine. Although it is the sun-drenched climate of Argentina that brought Malbec its well-deserved popularity, it has also made its way in California.

Merlot: Made famous by the movie 'Sideways', Merlot has lost some popularity in the past ten years. Merlot is a common red wine grape with a fruity flavor of berries and plums. Its generally sweet, mild flavors make it a good grape for blending. It is often used to soften stronger wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon.  Merlot is most often grown in California, Italy, and France.

Mourvèdre: is a variety of red wine grape that is grown around the world, and is mostly used as a blend in red wines. It produces tannic wines that can be high in alcohol, and is most successful in Rhone-style blends. Its taste varies greatly according to area, but often has a wild, gamey or earthy flavor, with soft red fruits.

Petite Sirah: Strange as it may seem, Petite Sirah has little to do with a Sirah (no, it's not a little Sirah!). Originally from France, Petite Sirah grows exceptionally well in California. It is deep in color (very inky and the worst to spill on carpet!) and was mostly used as a blending grape. For instance, it blends very well into Zinfandel which adds more complexity. However, as a single varietal wine, Petite Sirah has found its place as a stand alone wine. It is a rich red full-bodied wine with blackberry fruit character, including plum, raspberry, black pepper notes. It is inky dark, to purple in color and is considered 'chewey'.  Petite Sirah can also exceed 20 years on the shelf.

Pinot Noir: has been used to make wine for over two thousand years. It’s mostly associated with France’s Burgundy region, but it’s now also found throughout Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia.  Pinot Noir is a sensitive, delicate grape to grow, and grapes grown in different regions can have very different tastes.  In general, Pinot Noir is has a very distinctive taste, and is generally lighter in color. Pinot Noir will have fruity flavors of raspberries and cherries when it is young and will pick up more of an earthier, truffle flavor as it ages.

Sangiovese: ,   Sangiovese grapes are a red Italian wine grape variety that tends to be a medium to full-bodied wine with moderate to high tannin content. The grapes are light in color and although it is served as a stand alone varietal, it is mostly used as a blend grape in making red wine.. The Sangiovese’s aroma can have a strawberry, blueberry, floral, or violet character.

Syrah or Shiraz: are two names for the same grape, called Syrah in France and the United States, and  Shiraz in Australia. Syrah can vary wildly from a very light color to a very inky color. Taste also varies from an earthy, peppery, spicy, smoky flavor to a blackberry, black cherry flavor. Most usually have a finish with a fruity undertone. Syrah is generally served as a single varietal wine, but it is often used as a blend when the finish of a wine is weak, or a fruity undertone is desired.

Tempranillo:  As a stand alone red wine, Tempranillo is relatively high in tannin due to the thick skins of the grape. It has flavors of plum, cherry, and strawberry with a hint of spice and tobacco. Its aromas and flavors often combine elements of berries, fruit, herbs, vanilla, earth and leather. Tempranillo tends to produce wines of exceptionally dark color. It is mostly blended with other varietals to create a fine richly flavored wine.

Zinfandel: Although Zinfandel can produce a wine that has very broad characteristics, it generally produces wines with a lush, fruity taste.  In the past, wine critics dismiss Zinfandel as a low quality wine and the blends to be a bit high in alcohol content, but recent Zinfandel red wines, especially those grown in California, have been made with startling complexity and flavor.


Chardonnay: This varietal has become the world’s most popular white wine. The grape is grown in nearly every wine producing areas of the world.  Usually aged in American or French oak barrels, the wine is rich in strong flavors and aromas. Although the wine is generally known for its fruity character with vanilla and buttery components, it can also appear crisp with a slight acidic taste.

Chenin Blanc: This varietal has many styles, dry, crisp and others with a touch of sweetness. All varieties usually have high acidity, along with the smell and flavors of melons, which make them a great wine to have and pair with food.

Gewürztraminer: This wine is popular in Germany.  It is pungent, smells of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, and is generally considered a sweet wine.  The wine is also known for its long stemmed bottle.

Muscat: Muscat is one of my personal favorite for a hot summer day as it is very fresh and light.  It is a light and airy wine and is a very agreeable wine that most people tend to enjoy. Because it tends to be so light, it's one of the types of white wines that pair well with many different types of food.

Pinot Blanc: Although not overly complex, Pinot Blanc is one of the most agreeable types of white wines you can serve.  If you're not sure what types of white wine to use or you will be serving a large variety of different foods, Pinot Blanc would be a good choice. Pinot Blancs are often clear to white, and can be intense with hints of fruit and honey.

Pinot Gris / Pinot Ris / Pinot Grigio: These are the same wine, with a different name.  They are light and fruity, and are mostly associated with cheaper wines (sometimes even box wine!).

Riesling: These grapes need cooler climates and thrive in places like Germany.  They generally have a high level of acidity and are very floral and fruity, and are considered a more sweet wine. It is also known for being a wine that is known to age well.

Sauvignon Blanc: This grape is also known as Fume Blanc, and produces a dry wine of many different styles. Some have the intensity of Chardonnay, light and refreshing, but also can have the smell of hay, fresh herbs, and smoke.


How many different types of rose wine are there?  Simply look at a list of red wines and there you have it!  Roses, at least the good ones, are made from red wine grapes.  The red color, in a red wine, comes from the skin. The difference with a Rose is the amount of time that the wine stays in contact with the grape skins. Longer will result in a darker Rose, shorter will result in a lighter Rose. For most roses, it is for a couple of hours to a couple of days.  Typically the colors will range from pink or light orange, to darker, fuller pinks and salmons.  They are for drinking within months, maybe a year of bottling. Trying to let a bottle sit, is asking for a bad experience when you pop the cork. There is another way to make a rose though. It is from bleeding, and it produces a blush wine, which gained popularity in California. This involves making a white wine and then bleeding in the juice off the top of a red wine. This condenses the red and causes the white to blush. This will result in a sweeter, less dry wines. 

Sparkling Wines:

Sparkling wines are effervescent wines. The most famous type of sparkling wine is Champagne, and for this we have the monk Dom Perignon to thank. He studied these wines for years trying to get rid of the bubbles until he realized that the bubbles were actually the treasure! Champagne though is grown in Champagne France, and no other wine can claim this name (la Methode Champenoise).  Champagnes and sparkling wines range in style from very dry (Natural), dry (Brut) and slightly sweet (Extra Dry) to sweet (Sec and Demi-Sec).  Go figure on why an Extra Dry label would be a sweet wine, but there you have it!  Many sparkling wines are also identified as Blanc de Blancs, wines made from white grapes, or Blanc de Noirs, wines produced from red grapes. Most champagnes are not from a single vintage, and are instead cuvees. This means that the winegrower blends grapes from different years in order to maintain consistency in the taste of the champagne. Sparkling wines are either Blanc de Blanc, made only from white grapes or Blanc de Noir, which are made with dark grapes without their skins. Some typical smells and tastes are heavy yeast (especially when first corked), stone fruit like peaches and apricot, and roasted nuts. In the U.S. wines are more likely to be considered Natural, Brut or Extra Dry. Natural is the driest and Extra Dry is the sweetest (again, a strange twist on the naming methodology).

Desert Wines:

Dessert wines are usually served with or in place of dessert, and can be sweet or dry, but generally are on sweetness of candy. Dessert wines are officially classified as having an alcohol content of between 17 and 21 percent. Some examples are sherry, wines made from the Muscat grape family, Tokay and Port. Port is available in a range of styles based on sweetness and time aged in wood.  Late-harvest varietals are not officially termed dessert wines, but will have similar tastes, and are becoming increasingly popular as a desert wine (especially in California).

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