Other parts in the series:
- Part 1: Introduction – What is Wine & Why is it Interesting?
- Part 2: Tasting Wine, Describing Wine, and the Basics of Food & Wine Pairings
- Part 3: How to Recommend Wine & Serve it Like a Pro
Part 4 in the Essential Bartender’s Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert Series
You’ve made it! And you’re finally going to learn about the most important grape varieties… I bet you when I repeated the wise words of my sommelier friend in part 1, “if you really want to learn about wine, start with learning about the most important grape varieties first and everything else will fall into place,” you didn’t think it would take this long to get to them!
But there was a reason for that, so let me explain…
Everything else that you learned in parts 1, 2, and 3, were leading up to this point. In order to learn about wine, you must drink wine. So if you going to have any chance of understanding what these types of wine were like, you needed to learn how to taste and talk about them first!
That’s what the earlier parts of this guide were about… In part 1, you learned the basics of wine and grape varieties. In part 2, you learned how to taste wine & describe it. And in part 3, you learned how to recommend wine based on preference, & serve it like a pro!
Now that you’re armed with all the skills and finesse you need to conquer this intriguing subject, it’s finally time to apply those lessons to the most important grape varieties.
When you have a solid understanding of these grape varieties, working with wine is going to become A LOT easier. Trust me on this… So pay attention, and learn about these grape varieties well. Because these are the wines that you’re going to be serving throughout your entire bartending career.
To make learning about these grape varieties even easier, I’ve compiled them into an easy to use/refer to/study ‘cheat sheet’.
I highly recommend that you download this list, study this list, and taste these wines whenever you get the chance. Because that’s how you’re really going to learn about wine and ultimately become, your bar’s resident ‘wine expert.’
The Most Popular Types of Wine & Grape Varieties
When you’re going through these grape varieties, remember that every bottle of wine you work with is going to be different… Even within the same grape variety. So when I talk about the typical characteristics, that’s exactly what I mean. They’re the typical, not absolute, characteristics that you’ll find within these wines.
In order to know the ins and outs of each individual bottle, you’ll need to taste them (see part 2). But if that’s not an option, you can always rely on that wine’s tasting notes.
That being said, knowing the typical characteristics of these grape varieties is going to help you immensely when you start exploring them. Because instead of trying to figure out what you can taste from scratch, you’ll already have an idea of what to look for. And that will help you develop a picture of what the wine is like much quicker.
Wine and Geography
Wine has become more diverse throughout the centuries. From the start of civilization in Mesopotamia wine has spread throughout the entire world.
From being a major part of the diet before the advent of safe drinking water, wine has evolved into a social drink.
As explorers and colonists moved to different regions of the world, they also brought with them the knowledge necessary for the cultivation of grapes and the production of wine.
Today wine is produced world-wide, but several areas are of special interest.These regions are as follows: Eastern United States, California Australia, Chile, South America, South Africa and France.
Each of these regions has a different story behind the evolution of their individual wines. The unique political and agricultural landscapes of these areas have served to influence their wine and even how we, as consumers, view these wines. Today’s wine market offers us many different choices that were not always available to the civilized world.
Keep that in mind as you explore the most popular types of wine. They’re made and taste differently depending on where they come from.
When you’re learning about wine, it’s always good to sample different regions and countries so you get a fuller perspective.
Sparkling wine is basically carbonated wine… In other words, wine with bubbles. The most well-known type of sparkling wine comes from the region Champagne in France, called Champagne. But sparkling wine is produced all over the world, like Italy, Spain, Australia, USA, etc.
Sparkling wine is a very festive wine. That’s why you’ll often see people spraying bottles of sparkling whenever something good happens! But it also acts as a great palette cleanser. So it goes surprisingly well with food.
Champagne is not a grape variety, Champagne is a region in France that produces some of the best sparkling wine in the world. The grape varietals that are used to make champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Champagne is the most well-known sparkling wine in the world, and because of this, people will often refer to all sparkling wine as champagne. However, that’s technically wrong. Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it has been produced in the region Champagne.
Note: You don’t need to call customers out when they ask for Champagne… Just go with it!
Because wine is a business just like any other. And France has acquired legal rights to the word Champagne. If other winemakers were allowed to slap the word Champagne onto their bottles and their wines were of poor quality, it could potentially ruin Champagne’s reputation.
Typical Characteristics: Champagne is generally bone-dry, it’s highly acidic, and has aromas of citrus (lemon, grapefruit), subtle fruits (pear, melon, peach), oak (vanilla, toast, nuts), and earth (smoke, chalk).
Food Pairings: Champagne acts as a great palette cleanser and goes surprisingly well with a variety of foods. But in particular, it goes great with oysters, seafood, cured meats, and chicken.
Famous Regions: Champagne!
Prosecco is Italy’s answer to Champagne. It’s probably the second most well-known sparkling wine in the world and it’s a lot more affordable! It has to be made from at least 85% of the Glera grape variety to be called Prosecco and its name isn’t specific to any region. However, it did originate in Veneto, Italy.
Typical Characteristics: Prosecco typically tastes sweeter than champagne because it’s much more fruity. But it’s still a dry wine, just not bone-dry. It also has a high acidity, but it’s not as acidic as Champagne. It has strong subtle fruit aromas of green apple, melon, and honeysuckle. It’s not aged in oak and generally doesn’t show any earthy characteristics.
Food Pairings: Prosecco also acts as a great palette cleanser and goes fantastically with seafood, chicken, and pork. Its sweet aromatics also makes it a great choice for spicy curries and Southeast Asian food.
Famous Regions: Valdobbiadene (Veneto, Italy).
White wines are simply that… Wines that are white! They are made from several grape varieties and don’t have any tannins because the grape skins are removed before the wine-making process begins.
Being able to describe the sweetness and acidity of white wines is important because customers will often ask for dry white wines. Even though the majority of white wines are dry, it generally means that they’re looking for the driest white possible.
Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular white wines in the world. And it’s become particularly popular during the summer months because its high acidity makes it very refreshing.
Typical Characteristics: Sauvignon Blanc wines are almost always dry and highly acidic. Its high acidity makes the wine feel even drier. Its aromas are very fruity (melon, white peach) with prominent citrus (lime, lemon) and floral/other (grass, jasmine, dill) notes. There are no oak and very little earth aromas.
Food Pairings: Sauvignon Blanc goes great with anything green like salads and herbs. It also matches well with fish and white meats like chicken & pork.
Famous Regions: Bordeaux (France), Loire Valley (France), Marlborough (New Zealand).
Pinot Gris/ Pinot Grigio
Pinot Gris/Grigio is becoming more and more popular these days. In France it’s called Pinot Gris, in Italy, it’s called Pinot Grigio, but they’re the same grape.
Typical Characteristics: Pinot Gris/Grigio are mostly dry with medium acidity but can be made sweet (like in Alsace, France). Its aromas are fruity with citrus (lemon, lime) and prominent subtle fruit (apple, melon, peach) notes. Occasionally, it’s aged in oak (vanilla, almond), and can have earthy characteristics.
Food Pairings: Pinot Gris/Grigio is a very versatile food wine so you can experiment with it. It’s generally matched with seafood, fish, chicken, pork, but will also go well with spiced meats especially made from duck.
Famous Regions: Alsace (France), Alto Adige (Italy),
Chardonnay’s is the world’s most planted white grape and is commonly made in two different styles. One is made as a rich creamy full bodied white wine (due to the presence of oak). The other is a fruity, acidic, full-bodied white wine (no oak). It’s one of the first white wines people generally learn about. I personally love un-oaked Chardonnay!
Typical Characteristics: Chardonnay is dry with medium to low acidity and has fruity aromas of citrus (lemon) and tropical fruits (pineapple, passion fruit, peach). It’s oaked version additionally has aromas of butter, vanilla, and even caramel. It also takes on earthy characteristics of rocks and saline.
Food Pairings: Chardonnay goes great with crustaceans (crab, shrimp), fish, chicken, pork and soft cheeses.
Famous Regions: Chablis in Burgundy (France), California (USA), South & Eastern Australia.
Moscato or Muscat Blanc is often made very sweet and it’s always fruity. And because of its sweetness, it seems to be very popular with the younger female population in Australia! But, I haven’t found it to be popular anywhere else…
Typical Characteristics: Moscato is a sweet wine with medium acidity and is sometimes slightly carbonated. It has aromas of citrus (lemon), with strong subtle fruit (peach, nectarine) and floral/other (orange blossom) notes. It’s not aged in oak and shows very little earthy characteristics.
Food Pairings: Moscato works great with spicy foods like Thai & Vietnamese cuisine because of its sweetness. Very sweet versions also work well with desserts.
Famous Regions: Piedmont (Italy), Alto Adige (Italy), Alsace (France).
Riesling is one of the most aromatic grape varieties on the planet and it’s massively underrated. It’s underrated because the Rieslings that were originally made in Germany were very sweet and people didn’t like them. But now, it’s been made into fantastic dry whites as well and they’re becoming very popular. Riesling is my favorite white grape variety.
Typical Characteristics: Riesling can be made either dry or slightly sweet and will always have a high acidity. It’s highly aromatic with citrus (lemon, lime) notes and strong subtle & tropical fruits (nectarine, apricot, apple, pear, mango) aromas. They often have ‘other’ aromas like honeysuckle and the presence of earthly (petrol, chalk, ginger) characteristics.
Food Pairings: Because of its sweetness, Riesling goes great with spicy foods. Indian and Asian spices matched with duck, pork, chicken, or crab, are fantastic!
Famous Regions: Mosel (Germany), Alsace (France), Clare Valley (Australia).
Rosé wine is a style of wine that’s made when the skin of red grapes are removed at a point during the wine-making process. It’s the skin of the grapes that gives the wine its color. And if they’re removed at a certain stage in the wine-making process, the color will become a pale red… I.e. rosé!
Rosé can be made from any red wine grapes, but some grapes are better suited for rosé than others. In particular, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Grenache, and Syrah make great Roses.
Rosé wines range from dry to sweet, but in general, they’re dry. And the dry versions are always refreshing making it the perfect wine for a summer’s day.
Because rosé can be made from a variety of different grapes, their tastes and aromas can be very different from wine to wine. So it’s more difficult to nail down their ‘typical characteristics’. But I’ve tried to anyway.
Style: Light-medium bodied
Glass: Aromatic or Burgundy
Typical Characteristics: Rosé wines can range from dry to sweet wines with differing levels of acidity, but generally their acidity falls in the middle. They have aromas of citrus (lemon, grapefruit), subtle fruits (melon, peach), red fruits (strawberry, watermelon) and can be very floral (rose petals, rhubarb). They’re generally not aged in oak and have few earthy characteristics.
Food Pairings: Rosé wines can go with a range of foods, but are particularly well suited to fish, chicken, pork, and cured meats.
Famous Regions: Provence (France), Beaujolais (France), all over Italy and Spain.
The biggest difference between red wines and white wines is the presence of tannins and obviously, their color. White wines are white and don’t have any tannins because they’re made without their skins. Whereas red wines are made with their skins on. And that’s where the tannins and color come from.
All red wines are sweet to some extent, so you don’t need to describe the sweetness in red wines. Describe the presence of tannins instead.
Pinot Noir is one of the most elegant and most popular red wine grapes in the world. Some people are absolutely obsessed with it… And for good reason. It makes fantastic wine and it’s the perfect red grape variety to introduce red newbies too. Because of its popularity and the fact that it’s a difficult grape to grow, it’s also one of the most expensive grape varieties.
Pinot Noir is also one of the grapes that makes Champagne and sparkling wine around the world.
Typical Characteristics: Pinot Noir is generally made in 2 styles. One that’s slightly heavier and made to show off its fruity characteristics. And another that is lighter and made to show off its earthy characteristics. Pinot Noir is a delicate wine with soft tannins and fairly high acidity. Its aromas are highly perfumed with vibrant red fruits (cherry, raspberry, cranberry), some oak characteristics (vanilla, clove, cinnamon), and often shows off the earth’s (mushroom, tobacco, wet leaves) influence.
Food Pairings: Pinot Noir is the catchall food wine. From fish to red meats, you can enjoy Pinot Noir with virtually anything! But if you’re looking for something specific, it’s perfectly matched with duck and/or mushrooms.
Famous Regions: Burgundy (France), California (USA), Victoria (Australia).
Grenache is the Riesling equivalent of red wine. It’s massively underrated but people are starting to realize how good it actually is. It’s one of my favorite red grape varietals and as I’m writing this, I really want one! Grenache is sought to originate from Spain where it’s called Garnacha.
Typical Characteristics: Grenache has medium tannins with medium acidity. It’s known as a ‘spicy’ wine and its aromas have some citrus (red grapefruit), red fruits (strawberry, cherry, raspberry), it’s aged in oak (vanilla, cinnamon, cloves), and can take on some earthy (clay, gravel) characteristics.
Food Pairings: Grenache goes great with spicy foods, herbs, and roasted meats. Think meats like chicken, pork, lamb, and beef.
Famous Regions: Rioja (Spain), Rhone Valley (France), California (USA).
Merlot is most commonly associated with the grape varietal Cabernet Sauvignon as its junior blending partner in the infamous Bordeaux blend. But Merlot is also fantastic (and underrated) on its own. It’s another great food wine.
Typical Characteristics: Merlot has medium tannins with medium acidity. It has aromas of both red & black fruits (raspberry, black cherry, plum), it spends a decent amount of time in oak (vanilla, cedar, dill, coffee), and takes on earthy (clay, soil) characteristics.
Food Pairings: Merlot is a great food wine so you can experiment with it. In particular, it goes great with meats like chicken, pork, duck, lamb, & beef.
Famous Regions: Bordeaux (France), Tuscany (Italy), California (USA).
Syrah, or Shiraz as it’s commonly referred to in Australia, is well known for its ‘peppery’ aromas. It’s the most planted grape in Australia and Australia produces some of the best (if not the best) Shiraz in the world.
Typical Characteristics: Syrah/Shiraz has medium tannins with medium acidity. It’s known for its ‘peppery’ aromas as well as black fruits (blueberry, plum, blackberry), it spends a decent amount of time in oak (vanilla, chocolate, cloves), and takes on earthy characteristics (tobacco, tar).
Food Pairings: With its massive full-bodied taste, Syrah/Shiraz pairs great with rich foods. Try it with strong cheeses (blue cheese), and rich red meats like bbq’d meats, lamb, and beef.
Famous Regions: Rhone valley (France), South Australia, Stellenbosch (South Africa).
Cabernet Sauvignon (Cab Sav)
Known as the king of red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape in the world. It’s a natural cross between the grapes Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc and first appeared in Bordeaux (France). It’s well known for being the more dominant grape in the infamous Bordeaux blends. This grape can grow anywhere!
Typical Characteristics: Cabernet Sauvignon is a high tannin (one of the highest) medium acidity wine. Because of its high tannins, it’s one of the most ‘age-able’ wines. Its aromas show black fruits (blackcurrant, black cherry, blackberry), it responds supremely well to oak (vanilla, cedar, baking spices), and it often takes on earthy characteristics (tobacco, clay, lead). It’s also known to take on ‘other’ aromas like bell peppers, violets, and black pepper.
Food Pairings: As a full-bodied rich wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is best served with bold, rich foods. Think rich marinated red meats, strong cheeses, and tomato-based mushroom dishes.
Famous Regions: Bordeaux (France), California (USA), Colchagua Valley (Chile).
So there we have it, ‘The Essential Bartender’s Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.’ That’s everything you need to know as a bartender in order to work with wine like a pro.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I have writing it. And I hope that you’ve got a lot out of it!
I know that it’s a lot to take in, so take your time with this guide. Start with learning about each of these grape varietals one at a time, until you have a solid understanding of each of them. Taste them, describe them, and start recommending your favorites whilst you’re working.
Then, once you have a solid understanding of the most important grape varieties, you can start exploring more exotic grape varieties (preferably the ones on your wine list!), blends, regions, and the wine-making process, if you choose to.
Good luck! And don’t forget to download ‘The Most Important Grape Varieties Cheat Sheet.’