Glossary of Wine Varietals

Written by
Vintage Cellars
February 16, 2017
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Get back to basics and round out your wine knowledge with our glossary of some of the most popular wine varietals.

For something as ubiquitous as a glass of wine, consumed among friends, you don’t need any special knowledge to please your palate. But you may be surprised how a little descriptive terminology will tap into your curiosity and expand your comfort zone into entirely new varietals.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The classic blend of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, is arguably the most significant of all red grapes. This is a robust varietal that ages well in the bottle and caters to most palates. Given its reputation, many make inferior examples, but the best of the bunch, are perched at the very top of the wine pyramid.

Expect: Deep, earthy, black fruits like currants and blackberries with mouth-drying tannins and charry oak.

Food match: Roasted leg of lamb.

Similar to: Merlot.

Champagne

The wines of Champagne are defined by their acidity and method of production. Made mostly from two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and sometimes Chardonnay, wines from Champagne are strictly sparkling, and those bubbles must be made from the Methode Champenoise – a process codified in law. They owe their long life to the acidity and the deeper flavours to the autolytic notes derived from a second fermentation in the bottle. While non-vintage wines are designed for early drinking, the vintage wines, made from a single great year’s harvest, will hold for decades.

Expect: Citrus, green apples, high acidity, bubbles and bready, toasty notes.

Food match: Oysters or rare seared tuna.

Similar to: Method Traditionelle Sparkling wine from Australia.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is said to be the key to Australia’s wine comeback. In the earlier Australian incarnations, we tasted too much oak and too much malo (that buttery flavour) in the average bottle of Chardonnay. The Chardonnay we are enjoying now, in contrast, is thrilling, balanced and world-class. The benchmark for Chardonnay will always be white Burgundy, but these wines can be brittle, inconsistent and wildly overpriced. Australia is now making the world sit up and listen, and value our terrific Chardonnay.

Expect: Fine-boned, subtle oak, notes of peach, nectarine and cashew. Fresh acidity.

Food match: Roast chicken, pan seared crispy skin fish, or hard cheddar.

Similar to: High quality Pinot Grigio or barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc.

Learn more: Chardonnays to Try Now

Cotes du Rhone GSM

Cotes du Rhone is an appellation in the south of France where the key grapes are Grenache, Syrah (known locally as Shiraz) and Mourvèdre (GSM). When you taste this style of wine, expect spice, earth, leather and tannins with a core of bright Grenache fruit. When you taste GSM from Australia, however, you can expect something far more plush, fruit-driven and seductive.

Expect: Confectionary notes of red fruits, earthy at times, and leathery with fine tannins and oak.

Food match: Beef stew with tomato-based sauce.

Similar to: Sangiovese or young Shiraz.

Gamay

The wines of Beaujolais are some of the finest examples of this distinct grape. Gamay stands out from other varietals due to carbonic maceration, a process whereby the grapes are not pressed, but instead left to ferment inside the berry under a blanket of CO2, producing bright, floral and fruity aromas, before completing fermentation in the traditional manner. These wines can at times cross over from the Beaujolais villages into the greater Burgundy region and as a result they can taste similar to a delicate and bright Pinot Noir. For the most part, though, Gamay is like a field full of flowers, confectionary and spice.

Expect: Fruity wines, ripe berries and floral, lovely perfume and supple tannins.

Food match: Roasted pheasant or other game birds.

Similar to: Pinot Noir.

Malbec

Historically a grape from Cahors, Bordeaux, and more recently Argentina, Malbec is like a sibling to warm climate Shiraz (but more closely related to Merlot). Malbec is generous in the fruit department, has a lovely texture and a makes a perfect partner to steak, as the Argentinians will attest.

Expect: Ripe black fruits like cherries and plums, medium tannins.

Food match: Chargrilled steak.

Similar to: Barossa Shiraz.

Learn more: Mercurial Malbec

Moscato / Muscat

Moscato is the Italian name for what might be better known as Muscat in Australia. Although there are a range of characteristics across the varietal, for most of us, Moscato is a sparkling dessert wine, low in alcohol and tasting of flowers and lychees. Rutherglen is perhaps one of the more renowned Australian hotspots for Muscat. Here, the brown Muscat grapes are turned into fortified wine with incredible ageing potential, whilst still maintaining that signature sweetness.

Expect: Sweet flavour and aroma, rose petals, lychees and lemonade notes when sipping on Moscato, or sweet, dried sultanas and Christmas cake for Muscat.

Food match: Match Moscato with berries and cream or a simple fruit salad. Muscat goes well with chocolate brownies, or for something completely different, blue cheese.

Similar to: Moscato is a more delicate version of Gewurztraminer or a very aromatic Pinot Gris. Muscat can be likened to a Tawny Port.

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio (“grey Pinot”) are one and the same, with fruit that appears more dusty that the ‘Noir’ version, verging on purple. Pinot Gris wines are modelled on the wines of Alsace in France, ripening on the vine to deliver a full and aromatic glassful. They can be sweet and smell of cooked brown pears, or a floral burst of roses. You may need to try a few examples before you really please your palate.

Expect: Aromatic, possibly some sweetness, ripe, cooked pears, unwooded.

Food match: Strong cheese, like Munster from Alsace.

Similar to: A sweeter style of Riesling or a less aromatic Gewurztraminer.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir, or “black pine”, is closely related to Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio, and easily mutates new characteristics. Pinot Noir is notoriously challenging to produce, requiring cooler climates and a delicate touch. At its best, Pinot Noir shines as brightly as any varietal. For reliably good Australian Pinot, look for southern coastal regions such as the Mornington Peninsula, but some excellent examples are now coming from high altitudes like the Yarra Valley and the Macedon Ranges. Expect ample perfume, sweet notes of fruit, and depending on where it is grown, you may find it deep and tannic and powerful, or as light as a touch.

Expect: Berries, red cherries, plums, earth, mushrooms and spice, medium acidity, fine tannins and oak.

Food match: Confit duck is the classic pairing, but the depth of flavour on your plate shouldn’t dominate your Pinot Noir.

Similar to: Gamay and some cool climate Syrah.

Learn more: Spotlight on Pinot Noir

Port & Tawny

Port is from Portugal, which is a convenient fact to commit to memory. Port is a fortified wine, like those of Muscats of Rutherglen - sweet, high in alcohol and can cellar as well as any other varietal. To make Vintage Port, the grapes must come from a single year’s harvest. As the fermentation begins, the young wine (at around 5% alcohol) is arrested by the addition of neutral spirit. This stops the fermentation, leaving behind plenty of sugar, and fortifies the wines to around 18% ABV before bottling. Tawny Port is made in almost the same way, but spends more of its life in a barrel before bottling. The barrelling allows the wine to oxidise and take on its tawny appearance. Tawnies can also be consumed over a longer period of time.

Expect: Port has high alcohol content, intense flavours, spice and deep, red berries. Drinking Tawny? Expect caramel, Christmas cake and sultanas.

Food match: Pair Port with blue cheese and Tawny with crème caramel.

Similar to: Fortified Shiraz from Australia and Rutherglen fortified wine.

Learn more: Port & Tawny, A Buyers Guide

Riesling

Riesling is said to be the greatest white grape on earth, given the enormous array of styles that it can create. While Alsace and the Mosel make the most expensive Riesling in the world, the Austrians, Australians, Kiwis, Canadians and Italians also make deliciously bright, acid-driven, floral expressions. From citrus flavours through to ripe apples and peaches, teeth-achingly dry drops and sweeter expressions, Riesling is diverse and always exciting to drink. If you don’t have Riesling in your home, it’s time to explore.

Expect: Floral notes, high acid, citrus and varying degrees of sweetness, ranging anywhere from bone-dry to sweet and unwooded.

Food match: Charcuterie, sashimi or roast pork.

Similar to: Gruner Veltliner and Albariño.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc comes in three main styles. The Sauvignon Blanc that we encounter most often is from Marlborough, located in the northwest of New Zealand’s south island. It’s the epitome of summer days and fresh fruit salad. Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley in France is its antithesis, with subtle notes of flint and an electric acidity. Sauvignon Blanc blended in the wines of Bordeaux is another beast entirely. It’s much broader on the palate and often aged in oak. What these three styles share is a common fruity thread, passionfruit notes in almost every instance and often blackcurrant. This grape is far more complex than we often give it credit for, and a savvy purchase is sure to impress.

Expect: Passionfruit, citrus, high acidity, mostly unwooded.

Food match: Goats cheese or fresh seafood.

Similar to: Verdejo or Arneis.

Shiraz

When you drink Shiraz, you can expect anything from a dark and brooding giant to a light-bodied and terrifically spicy example that won’t overwhelm. A general distinction between the contrasting styles: Shiraz from warmer climates is typically big and bold, whereas Shiraz from cooler climates often boasts more spicy notes. While many associate Shiraz with a peppery undertone, it is only really seen in cool climate expressions. Shiraz and Syrah are in fact the same grape.

Expect: Big, bold dark red fruits, low acidity, and intensity. Syrah is typified by earthy notes, spice, medium-body, higher acidity and more assertive tannin. Both are fermented in oak.

Food match: Shiraz is best enjoyed with chargrilled steak or rich stews and Syrah with Moroccan lamb or beef tartare.

Similar to: Shiraz is likened to Malbec and Mataro. Syrah to Sangiovese and Grenache.

Tempranillo

Temprano means ‘early’ in Spanish, hence this particular varietal was named Tempranillo because the grape ripens early. Made famous by the wines of Rioja in Spain, Tempranillo can be big and bulky like the great Cabernet wines or it may exude a more perfumed and delicate style not too dissimilar to Pinot Noir. Made in a multitude of styles defined by oak barrelling, Tempranillo is a wonderful all-rounder.

Expect: Ripe black fruits like cherries and plums. Some unwooded (Joven), but mostly oak-aged.

Food Match: A plate of jamón or paella.

Similar to: Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) Malbec.

Learn more: Spotlight on Tempranillo

We’ve given you the most popular, widely appreciated and flourishing varietals, but the list of wines available to us is seemingly endless. With each category there are further intricacies, descriptions, definitions and side-notes. Each time you buy a new bottle of wine, you open a Pandora’s Box to both enjoyment and knowledge. Wine ‘research’, that of drinking and reading and learning, is far and away the very best type of homework there is.