Here is a quick reference to the 8 most popular wine varieties and how to pair wine with food. This page describes the different types of wine per district and variety names (riesling, pinot noir, etc.). It does not describe the styles of wines by colour, sweetness, or fizz. Please find herebelow basic varietal descriptions and pronunciations, suggestions on pairing the wines with food, and tasting terms.
A variety is the type of grape. It is written here with a lower-case initial. If only one variety is mentioned on the bottle label, then the wine is called varietal and is named after the grape with a capital initial (Riesling, Pinot Noir, etc.). A varietal wine primarily shows the fruit: the grape variety dominates the wine flavour.
Types of white wine grapes
Food-wine pairing: dry versions go well with fish, chicken and pork dishes.
Districts: the classic German grape of the Rhine and Mosel, riesling grows in all wine districts. Germany’s great Rieslings are usually made slightly sweet, with steely acidity for balance. Riesling from Alsace and the Eastern USA is also excellent, though usually made in a different style, equally aromatic but typically drier (not sweet). California Rieslings are much less successful, usually sweet and lacking in acidity for balance.
Typical taste in varietal wine: Riesling wines are much lighter than Chardonnay wines. The aromas generally include fresh apples. The riesling variety expresses itself very differently depending on the district and the winemaking. Rieslings should taste fresh. If they do, then they might also prove tastier and tastier as they age.
(Gah-vurtz-tra-meener) A very aromatic variety.
Food-wine pairing: ideal for sipping and with Asian food, pork and grilled sausages.
Districts: best-known in Alsace, Germany, the USA West Coast, and New York.
Typical taste in varietal wine: fruity flavours with aromas of rose petal, peach, lychee, and allspice. A Gewürztraminer often appears not as refreshing as other kinds of dry whites.
(Shar-doe-nay) Chardonnay is the most popular white grape since the 1990’s. It can be made sparkling or still.
Food-wine pairing: it is a good choice for fish and chicken dishes.
Districts: chardonnay makes the principle white wine of Burgundy (France), where it originated. Chardonnay is grown with success in most viticultural areas under a variety of climatic conditions.
Typical taste in varietal wine: often wider-bodied (and more velvety) than other types of dry whites, with rich citrus (lemon, grapefruit) flavours. Fermenting in new oak barrels adds a buttery tone (vanilla, toast, coconut, toffee). Tasting a USD 15 Californian Chardonnay should give citrus fruit flavours, hints of melon, vanilla, some toasty character and some creaminess. Burgundy whites can taste very different.
Food-wine pairing: a versatile food wine for seafood, poultry, and salads.
Districts: New Zealand produces some excellent Sauvignon Blancs. Some Australian Sauvignon Blancs, grown in warmer areas, tends to be flat and lack fruit qualities. Of French origin, sauvignon blanc is grown in the Bordeaux district where it is blended with semillon. It is also grown extensively in the upper Loire valley where it is made as a varietal wine.
Typical taste in varietal wine: generally lighter than Chardonnay — Sauvignon blanc normally shows a herbal character suggesting bell pepper or freshly mown grass. The dominating flavours range from sour green fruits of apple, pear and gooseberry through to tropical fruits of melon, mango and blackcurrant. Quality unoaked Sauvignon Blancs will display smokey qualities; they require bright aromas and a strong acid finish; they are best grown in cool climates.
I have written a deeper list of white varietals with food pairing.
Types of red wine grapes
(Sah-ra or Shi-raz) Shiraz or syrah are two names for the same variety. Europe vine growers and winemakers only use the name syrah.
Food-wine pairing: meat (steak, beef, wild game, stews, etc.)
Districts: syrah excels in France’s Rhône Valley, California and Australia.
Typical taste in varietal wine: aromas and flavours of wild black-fruit (such as blackcurrant), with overtones of black pepper spice and roasting meat. The abundance of fruit sensations is often complemented by warm alcohol and gripping tannins.
Toffee notes if present come not from the fruit but from the wine having rested in oak barrels.
The shiraz variety gives hearty, spicy reds. While shiraz is used to produce many average wines it can produce some of the world’s finest, deepest, and darkest reds with intense flavours and excellent longevity.
(Mer-lo) Easy to drink. Its softness has made it an "introducing" wine for new red-wine drinkers.
Food-wine pairing: any will do.
Districts: a key player in the Bordeaux blend, merlot is now also grown on the US West Coast, Australia, and other countries.
(Ka-ber-nay So-vee-nyon) Widely accepted as one of the world’s best varieties. Cabernet sauvignon is often blended with cabernet franc and merlot. It usually undergoes oak treatment.
Food-wine pairing: best with simply prepared red meat.
Districts: cabernet sauvignon is planted wherever red wine grapes grow except in the Northern fringes such as Germany. It is part of the great red Médoc wines of France, and among the finest reds in Australia, California and Chile.
Typical taste in varietal wine: full-bodied, but firm and gripping when young. With age, rich currant qualities change to that of pencil box. Bell pepper notes remain.
(Pee-no Nwar) One of the noblest red wine grapes — difficult to grow, rarely blended, without roughness.
Food-wine pairing: excellent with grilled salmon, chicken, lamb and Japanese dishes.
Districts: makes extraordinary reds in Burgundy, France, and great wines from Austria, Oregon, and New Zealand.
Typical taste in varietal wine: very unlike Cabernet Sauvignon. The structure is delicate and fresh. The tannins are very soft; this is related to the low level of polyphenols. The aromatics are very fruity (cherry, strawberry, plum), often with notes of tea-leaf, damp earth, or worn leather.
Yet pinot noir is very transparent to the place where it is grown. The staggering range of wines produced makes it pointless to define which personality is the best expression of the variety.
I have written a deeper list of red varietals with food pairing.
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