The 6 Basic Styles of Wine

Paige Comrie

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The world of wine often feels vast and confusing. While there are thousands and thousands of wine varietals out there, the good news is that they all fall roughly into just 6 simple categories of wine: Light, Fruity Reds; Smooth, Medium to Full Bodied Reds; Powerful, Big and Intense Reds; Aromatic Whites, Crisp Whites, and Rich, Full Bodied Whites. If you understand these six styles, you can more easily understand where a wine falls along the spectrum of flavors and body.

While it can be tempting to memorize this information, or panic and skim over it, please remember that I’m sharing this information not so you go out and make flashcards and memorize it, but to give you an initial exposure to this information. Out in the real world, at a wine shop or a restaurant, you’re able to pull up an app like Vivino or PocketWine and research the varietal a little or pull up some fast facts. You don’t need to memorize this, but in time and with practice, you’ll learn it by heart.

The BEST way to absorb the information in this post is to read through, take some notes. If one of the varietals sounds particularly interesting to you, go out and get a bottle or two of it! Give it a try and see how it measures up to your expectations.

When I was first starting in wine, my goal was to try a different varietal each week. There’s a group of wines known as the “6 Noble Varietals”. These 6 varietals define the complete range of wine flavors and are easy to find. By trying a wine or two from each category, you can get a general understanding if you’d like wines that are similar in nature.

Please keep in mind that these categories are generalizations, however. Wine is a spectrum and each producer crafts wine differently. If you don’t like merlot, I’d still urge you to try a Malbec, another wine in the smooth/medium to full bodied red category. Never say never to any wine you encounter! Curiosity is rewarded in the world of wine.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir - Pinot Noir grapes are small and difficult to grow, but produce a highly sought-after wine. You might hear it referenced as the “heartbreak grape” because of these difficulties. Because of the numerous obstacles to growing this light-colored grape, Pinot Noir is pricier than other red wines in its class. Pinot Noir is smooth, with low tannins and medium acidity. It is generally aged in oak barrels, giving it a deep, earthy flavor that balances well with its dark fruit flavors like cherry and blackberry. Because Pinot Noir is one of the lightest of the red wines, its pairings are nearly endless. Pinot Noir is often considered the "catch-all" red wine for food pairing.

It is a light, fruity style red. Other styles in this category include Gamay, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Cinsault.

Merlot

Merlot - The approachable flavors of Merlot catapulted this wine into popularity during the 1990s, but overproduction led to its backlash in recent years. Merlot is fruity and smooth, with noticeably low tannin levels, making it easy to drink even for the novice. Merlot is usually aged in oak barrels, which lend earthy flavors like mocha, tobacco, and vanilla.

It is a smooth, medium to full-bodied red. Other wines in this category include Grenache, Tempranillo, and Malbec.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon - Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied red wine whose flavor varies greatly with the climate and soil conditions. Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in oak barrels, giving it a deep earthy flavor. Cabernet Sauvignon has a subtle flavor, but the higher tannins and acidity make it last longer on the tongue. The higher tannin levels of Cabernet Sauvignon make it great for pairing with heavier savory foods, like beef, rich cheeses, and mushroom sauces. When you try this one, note the way the tannins hit your tongue.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a powerful, big and intense red. Other wines in this category include Syrah, Zinfandel, Barolo, and Tannat.

Riesling

Riesling is known for its intense floral and fruity aromas with green fruit flavors of apple, grape,a nd pear, which can extend to citrus and stone fruit flavors. Its natural high acidity and tangy minerality is offset by residual sugar. Note that Riesling ranges from completely dry to very sweet, so pay attention to the label when you’re grabbing a bottle of it! The light, crisp nature of this wine is a perfect balance for spicy or Asian foods.

Riesling is an aromatic white. Other wines in this category include Gewurtraminer, Albarino, and Muscat.

Sauvignon Blanc

Crisp and fresh, Sauignon Blanc displays wonderful aromas of cut grass, nettles, and vegetal notes of asparagus and green pepper. It’s often accompanied by green fruit flavors of gooseberry, green apples, and limes.

Sauvignon Blanc is a Crisp white. Other wines in this category include Pinot Grigio, Verdejo, and Vermentino.

Chardonnay

Unfortunately, many new wine drinkers are only familiar with cheap, overly oaked Chardonnay. But it’s actually an incredibly expressive varietal that comes in a range of styles – from mineral and crisp to oaky and buttery, this grape does it all. It’s also one of only three grapes allowed in the production of Champagne!

An oaked Chardonnay will be rich and lush in texture, with aromas and flavors ranging from citrus and stone fruits to tropical fruits, depending on the climate of the region (warmer = more tropical fruits). Butter and a creamy yeasty richness accompany these flavors, as well as toast and vanilla, imparted by the oak.

An unoaked Chardonnay will be pure and crisp with subtle aromas and flavors similar to the fruit in oaked chardonnay, but with defined mineral notes instead of buttery notes.

Chardonnay is a rich white. Other wines in this category include Viognier, Pinot Blanc, and Grenache Blanc.

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By understanding these basic 6 styles of wine and the most common varietals within them, you can get a better grasp for wine as a whole. If you like Pinot Noir, then you like light, fruity reds and will enjoy similar varietals, such as Gamay. Similarly, if you like Sauvignon Blanc, then you like crisp whites and will enjoy other wines such as Pinot Grigio or Verdejo, which are also in that category. Understanding categorically where a wine falls can help demystify the world of wine and make drinking it a little more enjoyable.

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Paige Comrie is a Certified American Wine Expert and holds her WSET3 Advanced Certificate in Wine. She's passionate about helping connect consumers with great bottles of wine, and inspiring people to live the "wine lifestyle". This phrase, to her, means elevating the everyday, enjoying the little moments, and taking time to sip and savor everything life has to offer. In addition to wine and food, Paige also writes on the subject of Social Media and Digital Marketing, specifically focusing on the wine industry. Follow her on Instagram @winewithpaige

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