For as deeply committed to the spirit world as scotch drinkers are, wine “enthusiasts” take it to a whole new level. Some call the fixation pretentious. Others say it is sad. Either way, it’s an affliction and hobby that affects a huge portion of the population. To us and others like us, wine is nothing more than a variety of boxes or bottles of 2 buck chuck that are sweeter on the tongue than ales or hard booze. We can differentiate between white and red, so long as it’s not one of those pinkish Rosé variety; but otherwise the wine world remains largely uncrackable.
Anyone else who’s ever stared at the wide range of wines, with their odd European names that probably aren’t even in English, it can be difficult to determine what type actually tastes like what. There’s dry wines, sweet wines, and then even sweeter dessert wines that are basically bottled diabetes. Telling the difference to the layperson is like identifying a Pilsner vs. an IPA if you’re not serious about beer. We constructed this wine primer to cover all the major wine types so that anyone can get a handle on the whole affair, and improve their liver-destroying habits.
There’s far too many wines to easily list here. We’ve sought out the most common vintages that you’re likely to encounter. The goal is to start you down the path, and help you pair your food and wine a little more adroitly. If you want to do a deep dive and find all there is to know about Picpoul Blanc or Malagouzia then help yourself.
Champagne – “Sham·pain”
Champagne is technically a sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of France. There’s many sparkling wines that pretend to be champagne, and many are quite respectable, but calling anything but a true champagne by the name is a faux pas that will have your sommelier rolling in the aisles, knocking over spit buckets. Always white, the only difference between a sparkling wine – such as Champagne – and a flat wine is carbonation.
Sherry – “She-ree”
Sherry is a curiosity, as it’s a wine that has been fortified to increase its alcohol content. You’ll never want to refer to sherry as wine, since that’s worse than confusing whiskey and whisky, but it helps to know Sherry’s origin. Largely made from Palomino grapes in the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain, sherry is produced in a variety of styles and is worth a try if you want a wine with more kick.
Port – “Port”
Another fortified wine, this one coming out of Portugal, Port is a much sweeter alternative to sherry that is similar in every other way. You can find it in dry and white versions, but you’re better off thinking of it as a good dessert choice than anything else.
Riesling – “Reese·ling”
Among the blondest of the white wines is the ethereal Riesling. It’s made in a variety of styles, from the dry to the sweet, though most err on the side of sugary. Riesling originated in Germany, but has developed in several regions, with each bearing a distinct flavor. Despite seeming like a forgettable sweetheart of a drink, Riesling’s versatility has managed to capture the imagination of many in the wine elite. You’ll rarely find a basic Riesling, with dry varieties seeming highly acidic and sweet ones too syrupy.
Sauvignon Blanc – “Saw·vi·gnon blanc”
Sauvignon Blanc offers a tannic taste with tartness and citrus landing heavily on the tongue. Beginning in France, it goes with most light meats and works extremely well with spicy cuisine. Try it with a little Mexican food or some Thai to help it come alive. You’ll get a whole range of tropical and exotic fruit tastes here.
Chardonnay – “Shar·doe·nay”
Sahara dryness is one of the markers of chardonnay, a French creation that bears a lot of that nation’s apparent spikiness. Citrus runs hard here, as it does with most white choices, but there’s factors that affect this. Some chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, which will bring out spice and hints of bourbon. Unoaked choices are lighter and more fun. Due to the relatively low sugar content, hangovers with Chardonnay are typically less painful. For food matches, go with seafood and any item bearing a heavy cream sauce. This cuts right through it.
Gewürztraminer – “Geh·vurtz·tra·meen·er”
Not as much of a household name as some, gewürztraminer appears here as a hallmark of flexible, medium wines. Think of it as Goldilocks, not too dry and not too sweet. There’s a lot of fruit flavor in this aromatic wine, with some delicate spices lurking around for texture. When it comes to food, this is a little bit of a skeleton key that helps with salty pork and the MSG of Asian cuisine.
Zinfandel – “Zin·fan·dell”
It’s popular to hate Zinfandel, especially White Zinfandel, which is the most abhorred of the Rosé wines. A gentle, blushing choice that’s ideal for day drinking, the inoffensive build allows it to go with any meal, even if it does draw the stink eye from purists. Wine newbies should start here. Those who like to drink for effect will get a lot of mileage on this easy sipper, and rapidly find empty bottles piling up.
Pinot Noir – “Pee·no nwar”
Perhaps the best example of a wine that looks almost exactly like it tastes, Pinot leads with a little acidity, as it is dry, but has enough playful fruits to blunt the sharper notes. Rose on the nose with cherry and cranberry coming in tight on the inside track, this is as widely beloved as Zinfandel is loathed. Being mildly tannic, it is best with heavier foods, but rarely goes astray with almost any meal.
Merlot – “Mer·lo”
Here’s your red wine gateway drug. Soft on the palate and smooth, bearing herbs and some dark stone fruit, it goes with anything, looks good in any glass, and is as inoffensive a flavor as you’re likely to find. Starting a wine journey here will earn you more respect – though not necessarily a better experience – than drinking Zinfandel.
Syrah/Shiraz – “Sah·ra/Shi·raz”
Careful with the pronunciation here. Syrah is the name Europeans will use, and the only name they tend to recognize as correct. This wine is complicated, having toffee and black pepper with spices and dark fruit. The depth of it can intimidate some, and those with an “unsophisticated” taste might find it overwhelming.
Cabernet Sauvignon – “Ka·ber·nay So·vee·nyon”
Usually aged in oak barrels, Cabernet is really the only choice of wine when eating red meat. It’s full of tannins and fairly dry, though not nearly as much as the drier whites. Easily grown anywhere and everywhere red grapes can take hold, the iterations of this are endless, and every vintage is worth trying.
Alternative Wines – “ôl-tûrˈnə-tĭv wīns”
Whenever you see “apple wine” or something of the kind, you’re usually not getting a true “wine” in any way that will be recognized by vine-lovers at large. They can taste great and will get you to the end of the rainbow, but serving them to anyone who knows what they’re doing will get a laugh.