There are so many types of wine out there. From dry red wine to sweet fortified wine, the options can be overwhelming. To help you familiarize yourself, we have made a quick and easy guide with common wine styles and colors. The key takeaway is that wines come in a range of sweetness levels, from bone dry to super sweet. They will be one of four colors (red, white, rosé, orange). Most wines are still, but some wines like Champagne or Prosecco are bubbly. The best way to learn what you like is to taste through the food and wine recommendations in this article. Cheers!
First… let’s talk about how wine is made. The basic concept is this: yeasts consume the sugars in grape juice to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is that biological process you forgot from high school science class called alcoholic fermentation. Wine becomes dry when the yeasts are allowed to consume all or almost all of the available sugar in the grape juice. Any sugar left is called residual sugar. The more residual sugar in the wine, the sweeter it is. It’s that simple. Great, now let’s get into it.
Red wine is made from red grapes. The grapes are either destemmed and crushed or allowed to ferment as a whole cluster, which tends to make lighter colored, fruitier wines like Beaujolais. All red wines ferment while soaking on their skins, which is what creates the red color, since the skins contain color pigments called anthocyanins. After soaking for a few days to a few weeks, the wine is drawn off the skins and is usually aged in oak barrels or steel tanks before being bottled and sold.
Red wines can be either dry or sweet, depending on how much residual sugar is left. The problem is, it’s often hard to tell from the label how much residual sugar there is, because it’s not usually on the label. Here are a few types of wine that are typically on the drier side.
Common Dry Red Wines
- Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir can taste like black tea, mushrooms, and cherries. It tends to be lighter in body, but that depends where it is grown. Light-bodied Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy or Alsace in France. Fuller-bodied styles come from California and sometimes Australia. The difference in style comes from the difference in climate – warmer regions tend to produce fuller-bodied wines. Pair Pinot Noir with any mushroom dish, like a mushroom risotto.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Chances are you’ve never laid eyes on a restaurant wine list without this grape. Cabernet Sauvignon, or just “Cab” as some call it, is a classic. It tastes like black currant, cedar, baking spices, and sometimes you’ll even get a touch of mint. Cabs are big, bold, and tannic, so they’re often blended with Merlot to soften them just a bit, a method typically used in Bordeaux. Pair Cabernet Sauvignons with grilled meats, like an Italian sausage with peppers and onions.
- Merlot: Merlot has been sort of the black sheep wine grape ever since the 2004 movie, Sideways, painted it as a boring, commonplace wine. In fact, the ensuing decrease in Merlot sales after the movie’s release is known as the “Sideways Effect.” But Merlot is actually a great wine! It has notes of chocolate, bay leaf, and plum. The best Merlot comes from Bordeaux, as well as Napa Valley and Argentina. Pair Merlots with short rib, lamb, or vegetable lasagna.
Common Sweet Red Wines
Most red wines these days are made to be dry, but for some grape varieties, winemakers are more likely to leave some residual sugar.
- Lambrusco: This Italian grape is usually used to make the bubbly red wine of the same name. It is light and fruity, and pairs perfectly with semi-firm cow’s milk cheeses.
- Zinfandel: Zinfandel is bold and fruity, but be careful not to equate “fruity” with “sweet.” Zinfandel isn’t always sweet (See the words below for sweetness indicators). It tastes like blackberry, strawberry, and cinnamon. Pair a full bodied, fruity Zinfandel with curry spices. You might also see this one sold as White Zinfandel, a sweet rosé.
- Shiraz: This grape is a toss-up. It comes in sweeter styles from places like California and South Africa, but if you find a French Syrah (which is the same grape as Shiraz), it’ll almost certainly be dry. Shiraz tastes like blueberry, plum, and chocolate. Pair a slightly sweet Shiraz with a spice-rubbed lamb.
There is only one thing that differentiates white wine from red wine: the skins. In white winemaking, after destemming and crushing the grapes, the juice is immediately fermented apart from the skins. Since color comes from the skins, if you crush a red grape and ferment the juice apart from its skins, it will actually be white wine! This is common in Champagne, where they make sparkling white wine from red Pinot Noir grapes. But most of the time, white wines are made from white grapes. They are usually made to be drunk young, but some kinds, like Riesling, can age for years to decades!
Similarly, white wines can be either dry or sweet. But unlike red wines, there are many premium sweet white wines on the market. Let’s start with dry white wines.
Common Dry White Wines
- Sauvignon Blanc: Sauvignon Blanc tends to be herbal and fruity, with flavors like lemongrass and honeydew melon. You can find Sauvignon Blanc from places like New Zealand, Chile, France, or Washington State. Pair Sauvignon Blanc with fish tacos or fresh goat cheese.
- Chardonnay: Chardonnay gets a bad rap. People tend to think all Chardonnays are oaky and buttery, thanks to an early 2000s trend that favored these types of flavors. But today, there are plenty of lighter, unoaked options that taste like apple, pineapple, and even almonds. The best Chardonnays tend to come from California and Burgundy, France. Pair an oaky, buttery Chardonnay with mac n cheese for a creamy indulgence. Unoaked Chardonnays tend to go best with soft cheeses like Brie, sushi, or oysters.
- Pinot Grigio: This grape will be called Pinot Grigio in Italy or the U.S., and Pinot Gris in France. It is light, acidic, and citrusy with flavors of lemon, lime, and nectarine. Pair Pinot Grigio dry white wine with fresh veggies, fish, or semi-firm cheeses like Gruyere.
Sweet White Wines
- Moscato: Also known as Muscat, this wine is like a flower garden in a glass. It tastes like orange blossom and honeysuckle. It usually comes from Italy or France, but can also be found from Australia and Greece. Pair Moscato with a soft cow’s milk cheese, or if you’re feeling fancy, with rosewater macarons.
- Sauternes: This wine comes from the region of Sauternes, just outside of Bordeaux, France. Made primarily from Semillon, this wine is decadent. It tastes like candied ginger, mango, and caramel. In France, they always drink it at Christmas time with fois gras. If nutty, sweet desserts are your thing, you’ll love Sauternes.
- Riesling: Ok, this one is tricky. Riesling can be sweet, but dry Riesling wines are very popular these days. Remember, any wine can be made dry by allowing fermentation to occur until completeness, turning all of the sugar into alcohol. Riesling with just a little bit of sugar will be called semi-dry or off-dry. The best fully sweet versions come from Germany. They will taste like apricot, jasmine, and honey. Plus, aged Riesling has this amazing ability to smell like gasoline. Sounds gross, but we promise it’s delicious! Pair sweet Riesling with a Thai curry. The sugar will help to cool the burn of the spicy curry.
While you can never be 100% sure about the level of dryness or sweetness in American-made wines until you try them (or ask!), sometimes it’s even harder with European wines. European wine labels often focus more on the region than the grape itself, making it even harder for consumers, especially people used to the American wine label signals. So, when you’re looking at imported wines, look for these words on the labels to cue dryness or sweetness.
These words indicate dryness:
- Italian: secco
- French: sec, brut
- Spanish: seco
- German: herb, trocken
These words indicate sweetness:
- Italian: dolce, abboccato, amabile, semisecco, vin santo
- French: doux, moelleux, demi-sec, vin doux naturel
- Spanish: dulce
- German: Spätslese, Auselese
Rosé wines are pink and perfect for poolside sipping. They get their color by briefly soaking with the skins of red grapes (usually 6-48 hours). Sometimes, in regions like Champagne, winemakers will actually blend red and white wines to get a pink color. In another process called saignée, meaning “bleeding” in French, some wine will be drawn off the skins during red winemaking to concentrate the red wine. The resulting “bled off” wine tends to have a deep pink hue and sold as rose.
Just like with reds and whites, roses can either be dry or sweet. While some big wine producers use concentrated sugar syrups with color dyes in their roses, a darker pink color doesn’t always indicate sweetness. For example, the wine called Tavel from the south of France is a super deep pink color, but it’s also dry. But, to keep things simple, it’s a safe bet to assume a lighter hued rosé will be dry.
Orange wine has grown in popularity over the years because of its unique color, although it’s still relatively uncommon. This one is a little misleading but no, orange wine is not made from oranges. It is made with white grapes that are processed like red grapes. In other words, the white skins soak with the juice, which extracts a slight golden or orange hue. These wines might even dry out your mouth because tannins are extracted from the skins during maceration.
Orange wines are made from all different kinds of white varieties, and is usually on the drier side, but refer to those white varieties above to help you figure out if it’s likely to be drier or sweeter.
Fortified wine is sweet, but what differentiates it from a regular sweet wine is the booziness. In order to retain some of the sugar in the wine, a brandy spirit is added to kill the yeasts, which raises the alcohol content. While it can be tempting to gulp sweet drinks, slow sips are the way to go with these powerful wines.
Common Fortified Wines:
- Port: Port comes from northern Portugal. It is made with red grapes, and tends to taste like chocolate and raisins. Port is excellent with blue cheese.
- Madeira: This one is from the island of, you guessed it, Madeira, a Portuguese country in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morocco. Madeira is made from red or white grapes, and tastes like hazelnuts, orange, and caramel. Naturally, it pairs well with caramelized nuts.
Most sparkling wines are white, but some are red (i.e. Lambrusco) or pink (i.e. sparkling rosé). There are two main ways that wines become bubbly. The first and most common way is for the wine to undergo fermentation in a closed vessel so that the carbon dioxide is captured. The second way is by injecting still wine with carbon dioxide, much like seltzer water.
Common Sparkling Wines:
- Champagne: The undisputed king of sparkling wines, Champagne is a classic. To be called champagne, it must come from the Champagne region of France. It tastes like brioche, almonds, and cream. Dry champagne is called brut, and sweeter champagne is called demi-sec or doux. Pair a dry champagne with anything salty or fried, like French fries or fried chicken. Trust us on this one.
- Prosecco: The Italian counterpart to champagne, Prosecco tends to be more budget-friendly and approachable. It tastes like green apple and pear. Again, this one will pair with anything salty and fried, but you could also try it with cured meats.
And that’s it! You officially have the tools you need to become a wine connoisseur. Seriously, if you’ve made it to the end of this article, you know more than the average consumer about all the different types of wine out there - bravo!
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