To all but the most season sommeliers, the sheer variety of wines on the market can feel a bit overwhelming. Whether you’re new to wine altogether, or have a long standing relationship with a particular favorite and are starting to branch out, here’s an introductory guide to understanding the different types of wine.
Let’s begin with varietals, the wines made typically made (largely) from a single grape. While a multitude of factors impact the nuanced differences from one bottle to the next, the grapes themselves play the biggest role in the wine’s defining characteristics, so vintners and consumers alike typically categorize and identify varietals by the grape in question.
Cabernet Sauvignon: we begin with perhaps the most widely-known grape of all. Grown all over the world, the differences are largely imparted by their climate and terroir, the environmental factors that affect a given crop. Exposure to sunlight breaks down compounds in the grape slowing or speeding their ripening, helping determine whether the flavor profile is more aligned with the vegetal California or Australia’s mint and eucalyptus.
Chardonnay: the “mother grape” of white wines, these are fairly easily grown anywhere wine is made. Climate affects the wine just like any other and these hearty grapes typically produce fruity notes with flavors of apple, pear, and melon that are high in acidity, while tropical climates produce tropical flavors. The great divide in Chardonnay exists in the fermentation process, where some wines are imparted with an oak flavor, while others are exposed to lactic acid which leaves them more buttery.
Merlot: most Merlots are known for falling into one of three major groups, ranging from a low to a high tannic makeup. Merlots tend to be soft wines noted for berry flavors that are as smooth as velvet. “Bigger” Merlots more in line with the Cabs mentioned above pair well with hearty meats and veggies on the grill, while the softer, fruitier ones high in acidity are a nice match for many white fish.
Malbec: considered by many to be the most earthy and rustic of the reds, Malbecs tend to pack a spicy punch. While available from many parts of South America, the cooler climates of the Pacific Northwest in the US produce acidity more on par with the robust leather or tobacco flavors.
Blended wines, or those made from different grapes, are commonly comprised of roughly one third to one half of one grape to anchor the flavor, and are mixed with others allowing the vintner to create flavors that are more complex, or otherwise unobtainable.
Champagne: the first rule of champagne is that to be labeled as such it must come from the Champagne region of France. Beyond that, wine-making techniques vary with preferences toward a base of white Chardonnay or skinless Pinot Noir grapes. The sweetness, or lack thereof with “dryer” wines, is the product of the ripeness of the grapes and quantity of sugar added later in the fermentation process. But most of all, these effervescent wines are known for the infamous bubbles that follow after popping the cork.
Port: a fortified wine from Portugal, port is sometimes found in white blends, but their red cousins are far more prominent. Traditionally made from only five varietals, most ports are rich and sweet, commonly consumed after dinner. Due to the higher than normal alcohol content, many ports are balanced with robust flavors ranging from berries to chocolate and caramel.
Bordeaux: the epitome of “big” French wines, they’re officially permitted to be made from only six types of grapes. Heavy in robust fruit flavors, many lean heavily on robust varietals like the Cabernet Sauvignon above for body. Younger Bordeauxs skew to spicy with notes of licorice, while those that have had more time to mature and mellow develop complex flavors and aromas that are impossible to achieve without time. Because good Bordeauxs age better than nearly anything else, they can be highly sought after collectibles to be enjoyed when the time is right. Long term storage is best in a cool dry place like a cellar or closet, but wine coolers are great for short term storage to ensure that bottles are kept in the ideal environment and ready to serve.