What is a wine varietal?
In case you are wondering, a wine “varietal” is a wine made primarily from one variety of grape like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay. Many people don’t realize that wine can be made out of many kinds of fruit – blueberries, peaches, strawberries- anything that ferments. However, grapes are the most traditional base for wine. Since there are literally thousands of varietal wines, here is a helpful list from wineanswers.com of the most common:
Chardonnay – Chardonnay is one of the most popular white grape varieties in America, as well as the white grape of the Burgundy region of France. This wine is very easy to enjoy thanks to its full, round body and buttery, apple-y flavors which are often laced with toastiness (the latter comes from the oak barrels used in making most Chardonnays).
Chenin Blanc tends to taste of apples, pears, tropical fruits. It tends to be dry to semi-dry, and goes well with chicken, seafood, and fish. The wine ends up a golden color, or a deep, rich amber. It has a very fruity (sometimes sweet) taste. The flavor is a combination of apricot, peach, mango, melon or other sweet fruits. There is often a nutty smell to it as well.
Pinot Gris/Grigio –Like Pinot Blanc, one of the white grapes of the Pinot family, and like Riesling, Pinot Grigio loves cold climates. The most renowned Pinot Grigios come from the northernmost regions of Italy, especially those regions that border the Alps, as well as Alsace, where it is known as Pinot Gris. In the U.S., Oregon is emerging as the top state for producing delicious, lively Pinot Gris with light almond, lemon and vanilla flavors.
Sauvignon Blanc – The famous white grape of the Sancerre region of France as well as New Zealand. Sauvignon Blanc also grows in Bordeaux (where it is usually blended with Semillon), South Africa, and in California and Washington state. Its wonderfully wild, untamed flavors are often reminiscent of grass, herbs, green tea and limes, often overlaid with a smokiness. In California, Sauvignon Blanc can also take on green fig and white melon flavors.
Riesling – Riesling is the renowned white grape of Germany, Austria and the Alsace region of France, though it is also popular in Washington state, New York state, and certain parts of California and Australia. This grape loves to grow in cold climates and when it does, it can exhibit exquisite delicacy and elegance with light peach and slightly mineral flavors.
Cabernet Sauvignon – Often called the "king" of red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is, along with Merlot, the famous grape of Bordeaux. It is also grown in other renowned wine regions throughout the world including California, Washington state, Italy, Australia, and Chile. Cabernet Sauvignon possesses what can be an impressive structure along with deep, rich cassis flavors.
Malbec is popular in Argentina and Chile. This black grape creates a rustic, mid-bodied wine, but is most often used in blending with other wines. This wine is great with pork, veal and spicy foods.
Merlot – The most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, the red grape Merlot is also grown in most of the same places as Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, the two are often blended. Because Merlot in general has somewhat less tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, it often feels softer on the palate. Its flavors often run to mocha and boysenberry.
Syrah/ Shiraz – Shiraz is the leading grape of Australia and the classic red grape of the northern Rhone Valley of France (where it is known as Syrah). It is also grown throughout southern France. In the late 1980s and 1990s, California vintners also became increasingly fascinated by the grape. The wine often has an unmistakable whiff of white pepper along with wild gamey, boysenberry flavors.
Pinot Noir – One of the most renowned red grapes in the world, Pinot Noir is known for its supple silky texture and mesmerizing earthy flavors. Pinot Noir, like Riesling, requires a cold climate and its ancestral home is the cool Burgundy region of France. The grape, which is very difficult to grow and make into wine, is also grown in Oregon and California but rarely elsewhere.
Rose is very similar to White Zinfandel but less sweet. This medium dry wine has many of the berry flavors and works well with pasta, fish and pork.
Viognier is becoming a favored white wine, as its depth of character and complexity is greater than the current white favorite, Chardonnay. Viognier is noted for spice, floral, citrus, apricot, apple and peach flavors. It typically produces medium bodied wines with relatively high acids and fruit. Great with all meats and spicy foods.
White Zinfandel is a pale-rose wine that's very sweet. White Zinfandel is delicious with cream-based-sauce with pasta, with fish, pork, and other "lighter" meals. It tends to have citrusy and light flavors - orange, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry, cherry.
Zinfandel – The much loved red grape of California, Zinfandel is grown in few areas of the world. In fact, its history has been mysterious. Zinfandel has recently been established as being identical to the Italian grape Primitivo. Zinfandel has a mouth-filling, thick berryness that is sometimes described as being jammy or chewy. White zinfandel (not a separate grape variety) is made when zinfandel grapes are fermented without their dark purple skins.
Now that you’ve had a brief introduction to a few basic varietal wines, you will have a better idea of where to focus your attention on the wine list. But most importantly, remember that there’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to wine – especially when trying new types of wine. Discovering and learning about wine with your date can be a great way for you to be adventurous together.
Wine Glossary and Varietal Descriptions.pdf