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Types of Wine: Guide to the Most Common Varieties

Bottles of different types of wine in a wine cellar.
There are countless types of wine for you to explore! Photo by Pier Demarten on Unsplash

If you’re a wine lover you probably know that there are thousands of different types of wine, which can make trying to learn about all of them seem daunting. Luckily, most wine generally fits into a few broad categories. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the following popular types of wine:

Sparkling Wine

For Example: Champagne, Prosecco

Sparkling wine is a wine with a lot of bubbles in it. It is most commonly a white or rose wine, although sparkling reds have been produced such as Bornada. Sparkling wine can come very dry, such as a Brut, or sweet.

You can identify the quality of sparkling wine from the mousse (the frothiness), and the size and consistency of the bubbles inside the glass. This can also be affected by the type of glass being used.

Champagne

Although this term is frequently used for all kinds of sparkling wine, champagne can only truly be referred to as champagne if it is grown in the Champagne region in France. Any other type of wine with bubbles is just referred to as sparkling wine. However, the appellation is not the only thing that sets champagne apart from sparkling wine.

Specific types of grapes are used (which is somewhat typical of naming practices for all types of wine- you wouldn’t be able to use the Pinot Grigio grape and call it a Sauvignon), and specific methods of pressing the grapes are also used, as well as a secondary process of fermentation in order to achieve the bubbles.

Typically, champagne is made with either Chardonnay grapes or the darker-skinned grapes of Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. If the darker-skinned grapes are used then the skin is removed, allowing the drink to maintain its signature pale color. Most champagnes are made from a mix of all three grapes. Blanc de Noir refers to champagne made from darker-skinned grapes, and blanc de blanc refers to champagne made exclusively from white grapes.

You can tell how sweet or dry a bottle of champagne will be based on the following categorizations (from dry to sweet) Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec, Doux.

Pair it with: soft cheeses such as Brie or Neufchatel, caviar, oysters, buttered popcorn, creamy soups, and fried chicken.

Prosecco

Prosecco is an Italian-made sparkling wine- created in its namesake village and then gradually created across the entire region of Italy, parts of Australia, Brazil, and more. It is made from the prosecco grape. Unlike champagne, the secondary fermentation process of Prosecco takes place in large tanks (as opposed to individual bottles). Typically, prosecco can come as ‘Brut’, ‘Extra Dry’ or ‘Dry’, with aromatic notes and crisp flavors.

Prosecco is served chilled and is commonly drunk as an aperitif. If you are browsing for a good prosecco, bear in mind that it is a common thought that a wine that should be consumed young- although this has been contested by some, it’s still a good idea to not buy vintage and don’t try and keep one as a vintage yourself.

Pair it with: seafood, savory cheeses, cured meats, fruits, Asian food.

Light-bodied White Wine

For Example: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio

When talking about the body of the wine what is being referred to is the texture and the feel of the wine in your mouth. A light-bodied wine will feel light in your mouth and have a lower alcohol content than its full-bodied counterpart. This is because the grapes used to make the wine have less natural sugar in them so the level of fermentation is lower.

Typically, light-bodied white wines are a little more citrusy and crisp.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is a crisp and refreshing white wine made from a grape that grows naturally in parts of France, although it is now widely cultivated across many countries in the world. Sauvignon Blanc flavors vary widely depending on where the grape was grown.

You can try to remember each region individually, but an easy way to remember is that in cooler climates, the wine will typically be much crisper with ‘green’, flavors to it- things such as apple, peppers, and so on, whereas grapes grown in a warmer climate are likely to have much more tropical and floral notes to them- such as passionfruit and elderflower.

Pair it with: Herbs and spices, goat’s milk, Creme Fraiche. Chicken, turkey, lean pork, fish, and sushi.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is often thought to be a mutation of the Pinot Noir variety, and it is also what is known as a ‘skin contact wine’, which means that the wine was brewed with the skin on. This means that this kind of wine has a more intense color, more intense tannins, and more phenols (this refers to natural compounds that can affect everything from the flavor to the feel of the wine in the mouth).

Pinot Grigio grapes are typically grown and harvested in two different ways; the full-bodied Alsatian- a region from France- which produces lower acidity, higher alcohol, and a textured body, with fruity flavors. This drink is typically replicated across new world wine producers (anywhere that has been producing wines for less than 400 years, such as Chile, Australia, and the USA).

In contrast to this, Italian-grown Pinot Grigio is harvested much earlier to retain the acidity and to avoid many of the fruitier notes that can be found in the Alsatian style of wine. You will find that old-world wine typically follows this method- for example, German-produced wine.

Pair it with: Tart dressings and delicate fish, herby foods, oysters, grilled chicken. (Note- if your wine is a delicate flavor it is important that your food pairing is also delicate in flavor, as you don’t want a sauce to overpower your wine).

Full-bodied White Wine

For Example: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc

A full-bodied white wine is a great gateway for whisky or red wine drinkers to get into white wine, especially an oak-aged chardonnay. As mentioned above, the body of wine refers to the weight and the texture of the drink in your mouth, so a full-bodied wine has much more texture and feels heavier on the tongue. Depending on the wine and the way it’s been aged (eg, barrel or no barrel) then it could also be much smoother than a light-bodied.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is one of the most widely produced white wines in the world- it is grown almost everywhere that wine is produced. It will probably surprise you to know that in fact, the Chardonnay grape is quite neutral in flavor. It’s the way that each vineyard produces the wine that affects the flavor, as well as where the wine is produced.

Chardonnays produced in a cooler climate will have flavors of slightly acidic fruits, such as apples and plums, as well as being significantly lighter in body than wines produced in a warmer climate. Warmer climate Chardonnay, there will be more notes of citrus, with melon and peach hints. In the warmest climates that Chardonnay is grown in you can expect even richer fruit flavors like figs and mangos, accompanied by a buttery feel in the mouth.

Pair it with: Thanks to its huger versatility, there is a lot that you can pair Chardonnay with and still get it right. Try it with spicy Asian food, roast chicken and turkey, smoked fish. Older chardonnays go well with Umami flavors like mushrooms and aged cheese, and colder-climate chardonnay will pair well with tomato-based dishes.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is a naturally acidic wine, but can be produced to be fairly neutral. It’s commonly from either France- where it originated, or from new-world wineries. Typically, most of the flavors come from the terroir (the environmental factors that influence the grape), the way in which the wine is produced, and the vintage (the more vintage a bottle of wine is, the more ‘mellow’ the flavor).

Chenin Blanc too is influenced by the climate. Cooler climates will result in a higher acidity- but thanks to the characteristics of the wine it will still be accompanied by high sugar content, a full-body, and a fruity palette. There was previously a risk that grapes that did not ripen sufficiently will produce an extremely acidic wine- however, these days a Chenin that does not ripen sufficiently will be made instead into sparkling wine.

Pair it with: Meatier Seafoods, such as Lobster, salmon, swordfish, seasoned poultry, or pork.

Aromatic White Wine

For Example: Moscato (one of the oldest wines in the world!) Riesling

Aromatic white wines tend to be fairly dry, but the aromas may trick your brain into thinking it’s sweet. You can identify them as they are wines that have very dominant floral and fruity aromas. Like most wines, the variety of wines you choose will affect the sweetness and the intensity of the aromas.

Aromatic wines are usually served slightly chilled, but the higher the quality of the wine, the closer to room temperature it can be served, as the temperature change will release more aromas. The aromas in aromatic wine come from terpenes, a naturally occurring part of certain types of grape, and in things such as roses, oranges, and other flowers and herbs.

Moscato

Moscato wine is one of the oldest wines in the world and is known for its sweet fruity flavors. Typically the Moscato wine falls into one of five flavor profiles; lemon, pear, orange, orange blossom, and honeysuckle. It has a very low alcohol content (sitting at around 5.5%).

Moscato can come as many different varieties of wine- as a rosé, as a sparkling, as a dessert wine, or even as a red. However, they always maintain the signature aromas that identify an aromatic wine.

Pair it with: Spicy Asian food, Barbeque pork, duck. Aromatic spices like cinnamon and ginger will go great with a Moscato.

Riesling

Riesling boasts an impressive array of flowery perfumed aromas, while still holding firm to its high levels of acidity. Riesling, much like a Chenin Blanc, is influenced heavily by its terroir- meaning the environment that it was grown in.

In cooler climates, expect notes of tree fruits such as apple, and a higher level of acidity. In warmer climates, it’s very characteristic of the wine to express its acidity through a lime flavor, while still maintaining a nice balance of sweetness.

Thanks to the high levels of acidity, Riesling is perfect for aging and a great option if you are looking for a vintage wine to enjoy.

Pair it with: Asian food, and spicy food. It’s also great with dessert and a range of cheeses. Certain Rieslings pair very well with sushi too. It’s a very versatile wine, and goes well with many foods, from delicate fish to pork.

Rosé Wine

For Example: Macari Rosé, Triennes Rosé

Many people think that Rosé wine is a mix of red and white. This is false, it is in fact wine brewed using the skins of red grapes. It can come either sweet or dry but is commonly dry. Rosé is a fairly popular summer wine, but bear in mind it is a wine that is not supposed to be aged, so if you are choosing a rosé, don’t go for one that is older than five years- the younger the better.

You can often find Rosé with the names of the red grape used for it, such as a Pinot Noir Rosé. This will probably help you to identify which Rosé will work for you.

Macari Rosé

This wine is a blended wine, featuring some of the more popular varieties available, from Malbec to Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a delicate blend boasting a crisp acidity and a palette of strawberries, raspberries, and other red fruits.

Pair it with: a light pasta dish, creamy kinds of pasta, risotto, rice dishes, seafood dishes.

Triennes Rosé

A french rose that is produced with delicate summer flavors. It offers a harmonious balance between strawberry, vanilla, and white flowers. This is a light, dry, and easy drinking rosé, perfect for a summer afternoon.

Pair it with: light pasta dishes, rice dishes, and raw seafood. Hard cheeses, and goats cheese.

Light Bodied Reds

For Example: Pinot Noir, Zinfandel

In comparison to many red wines, a light-bodied red is so light in density that you can almost see through it. It’s very light in tannins and is an easy drink, going down smoothly. A light-bodied red, particularly a Pinot Noir, is a brilliant stepping stone for white wine drinkers who want to start out on red wines. This is because of both the body of the wine and the low tannin levels.

Pinot Noir

Typically grown in cooler climates all around the world, this wine originates from French regions. The grape variety is very low in phenolic content- which as we mentioned above are naturally chemical compounds that affect the body, the taste, and the color of the wine. It’s thanks to a lack of these compounds that make Pinot Noir so appealing to white wine drinkers who want to begin a journey into red wines.

While it is a relatively temperamental grape, having a reputation of being very difficult to grow as well as being very sensitive to wind and frost, it is also highly terroir, and different regions produce very different flavors of wine.

Pair it with: Fatty fishes such as salmon, roast chicken, pasta dishes.

Zinfandel

Zinfandel flavors can vary greatly, depending on how ripe the fruit was when it was picked. Cooler areas produce flavors like red berries- particularly prominent is the raspberry flavor. In contrast to this, warmer areas will garner a blackberry, pepper, and anise flavors. Warmer areas will have grapes that ripen faster, and so will be sweeter with it.

Pair it with: Goat cheese and other creamy cheeses, tenderloin, red meat with little fat on it, non-fatty pork.

Medium Body Red

For Example: Merlot, Carménère, Tempranillo

Medium body reds are probably the most popular red wine for people who don’t really drink wine. They go great with a lot of different kinds of food and are really the perfect option if you’re out for dinner and everyone has ordered something different but you still want to split a bottle of wine.

Merlot

Merlot is an extremely popular grape, both for varietal (one variety of wine is used to make it) and blended wines (several varieties of wine are used to make it). There are two basic styles to Merlot: ‘International Style’, which will predominantly be created by the New-World wineries. This means that the grapes are harvested slightly later than is ‘normal’, producing a high alcohol content, high tannins, and a strong fruity flavor (very typically of darker berries such as blackberries and plums).

Alternatively, the ‘Bordeaux Style’ means an earlier harvest which results in a more medium body of wine, with a higher acidity and notes of red berries (such as raspberries and strawberries). While it is called the Bordeaux Style, there are plenty of winemakers in Bordeaux who will still prefer the ‘International Style’ of harvest.

A cooler climate means a higher acidity, in contrast to a warmer climate which will likely be fruitier, with a concentration on tannins as opposed to acidity.

Pair it with: If it’s from a warmer climate, a merlot will pair very well with things such as charred meats, and grilled, fatty foods. If a wine is from a cooler climate then it will pair better with things such as mushrooms, tuna steaks, and pasta dishes.

Tempranillo

Grown widely in Spain, Tempranillo is quite an aromatic grape, but can have a neutral profile, meaning that it is often blended with other grapes- or it is aged over an extended period of time, typically in oak. This is done because the wine takes on notes and flavors from the wood.

Pair it with: zesty salad, cheesy pasta, lasagne, red meat, pizza, burgers

Full Body Red Wine

For Example: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz

Full-bodied reds are the heaviest of wines commonly available. They are typically the highest in alcohol content and can be very high in tannins, which may make the wine taste fairly bitter. This makes them great for pairing with fatty foods, such as steak.

Full-bodied reds can be difficult for beginner wine drinkers to properly enjoy owing to the high levels of tannin, however, once you start to enjoy them a whole new world will open up in front of you. As you begin, try pairing them with fatty food, as the fat and the tannin bind together and mellow out both flavors (which is why they pair so well together).

You should avoid pairing a full-bodied red with anything spicy, as the spice and the tannins react badly, and will make the spicy food you’re eating much spicier.

Malbec

Malbec is a grape mostly grown in France, but growing in popularity all over the world- in particular in Argentina. It has previously been described as a rustic Merlot, despite its robust tannins. It grows well with warmer weather and struggles in the cold, so it is not as affected by the differences in warmer and cooler weather as other wines can be, holding aromas of fruit juices and florals.

Pair it with: Beef heavy dishes, smoked meats, tomato and beef dishes such as spaghetti bolognese and meatballs.

Cabernet Sauvignon

One of the most widely recognised grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon is a full bodied wine, high in both tannins and acidity. This high level of acidity makes it perfect for aging and a great choice if you are looking for a vintage wine (wines that have been aged are generally much more mellow, losing their acidity through time).

A Cabernet Sauvignon grown in a cooler climate will produce a wine with notes of blackberries and greener notes, like green peppers, mint, and so on. If you choose to age the wine then each of these aromas will become more pronounced as time goes on.

A Cabernet Sauvignon grown in a warmer climate will become much fruitier with a higher sugar content- ering on the side of jammy.

Pair it with: gorgonzola, lamb steaks, red meat, fatty steaks, fillet, pepper sauces.

Dessert Wine

For Example: Port, Sherry

A dessert wine is probably the least mainstream of all the wines on this list. They have fallen a little out of fashion in recent years, but they remain an important part of the wine family. Typically, dessert wines are extremely sweet and enjoyed in a smaller quantity than another wine might be.

Port

Port wine is made exclusively in Portugal, and is most commonly served as a sweet red dessert wine (although it can come in other varieties). It is very commonly aged in cellars after being fortified to ensure the high sugar levels of the wine do not continue to ferment the wine. The wine itself is sweeter, heavier, richer in flavor, and higher in alcohol content than any other type of unfortified wine- usually around 20% in alcohol.

While it is labeled as a dessert wine, it is increasingly common throughout Europe for port to be consumed as an aperitif.

Sherry

Sherry is a fortified wine that is made from white grapes near the Southern Coast of Spain. There are many types of Sherry, but all are produced in the same region of Spain. Much like Port, Sherry is traditionally a dessert wine but is being served increasingly as an aperitif as well.

Pair it with: Chocolate, cheeses (particularly blue cheese), a variety of nuts

Happy Tasting!

Now that you’ve taken the time to learn about the different popular types of wine, what differentiates each type, and what to pair each type with, you’re ready to start exploring the thousands of different unique wine varieties that fall into these broader categories. Enjoy exploring the world of wine!

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