What does varietal wine mean?

A Wine 101 Guide to Wine

Sasha Peatman

When starting to learn about wine, it is easy to become overwhelmed. In addition to navigating difficult vocabulary concerning mouth feel, body, acidity, etc.; a question most wine beginners ask is “What does varietal wine mean?”

In the most basic terms, a wine varietal is a wine grape that has a unique flavor and appearance. In that way it is similar to apples: just like there is a big difference between a granny smith and a Fuji apple, there is a big difference between Merlot and Chardonnay.

So how can you keep track of what wines you like? What wines you might like based on what you know you already adore? What should you try to get completely out of your comfort zone?  Here is a breakdown of eight main grape varietals and what you can expect from each. Hopefully this can help answer all of the above questions



Riesling: 

On the nose– fresh flowers and honeysuckle. This wine is full of orchard fruits when you smell it, like apple, peach, and apricot. This note can turn into more of a lemon-lime nose if grown in a cooler climate. 

Body– light bodied and highly acidic

Taste– clean tasting, racy and bright. Can take on more complex aromas which can include an aromatic expression of petrol or diesel.

Sauvignon Blanc:

On the nose– cut grass and bell peppers

For this wine the level of pyrazine influences whether its varietal character is mild or intense. An example of intense character is often described as smelling like a “cat-box”. This intensity tends to occur in cool climates where the grapes are harvested underripe.

 


Think about how your wine might pair with food. For example, cashews and sauvignon blanc are a perfect match!

Chardonnay:

On the nose– apples, lemons, peaches, and tropical fruits

This wine is unmistakable in the mouth due to its balance, medium to full body, and smoothness. If it undergoes malolactic fermentation it has a soft and buttery flavor profile. 

People commonly ask why Chardonnay can taste so different! It is easy to taste two chardonnays and find one to be crisp and fruity, while the other smells like butter. This is because the second underwent secondary fermentation.


Pinot Noir:

On the nose– Roses and Barnyard

This grape has a very thin skin that is incredibly sensitive to the natural environment. When grown in a cool climate it has high acid and often produces tart and underripe flavors of cherries and cranberries. When grown in a warmer climate you can expect it to taste of riper fruit flavors. In both climates, however, it will always have an earthy note- anywhere from fresh soil to truffles to a full barnyard.


Sangiovese:

On the nose– leather.

This grape is known for always smelling of leather, be it wet, fresh, or cured. In the mouth it is savory and spicy, with less acid than a pinot noir, and more tannic character. Tastes and aromas include tobacco, cherry, plum, leather, spice, and orange peel.


Grenache

On the nose– Garrigue (a fancy word for wild herbs and lavender) 

This wine tends to have higher alcohol levels than other red wines, and its primary flavor is dark cherry. The aromas include black pepper, olive and anise. This is one of the more full bodied wines around so if you are looking for something full bodied and are sick of cabernet, try a Grenache next time!

What does varietal wine mean?
Do you swirl your wine before you taste? Since so much of taste is linked to smell, swirling helps the aromas of wine attach to oxygen- making them easier for your nose to pick up. Make sure you swirl next time before you try!

Syrah:

On the nose– meat/game. This can vary wildly from jerky, to grilled steak, bacon, roast beef, and sometimes even roadkill!

If you look at this wine you will see that it is deeply pigmented. In the mouth it is fuller in body and tastes of dark fruits with notes of white pepper. 

In Australia where this grape is grown as Shiraz you can expect it to be riper and more intense. Shiraz is fruit forward with higher alcohol and lower acidity than the French Syrah.


Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot:

Yup! You read that right. These two wines are pretty identical and have the same varietal fingerprint. You can expect quite a few similarities between the two

On the nose– green pepper and graphite

In the mouth Cabernet will feel richer, more complex, full bodied and dry, Both Cabernet and Merlot will exhibit herbal notes, along with dark fruit and pencil shavings. Other key aromas include violets and cassis.


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