Wine Appreciation through Education
email newsletter: march 2002

Making Some Sense of a World of Wines

It seems that every time we try to better understand wine, we run up against the same problem: Wine is diverse and, in the end, quite complicated. It is wine's complexity that seems to always get us off track. We're looking for simplicity, but simple rules like "White with fish; red with meat" leave out too much important detail and end up being restrictive. We need general rules that empower us in our choices and that enhance our ability to select wines that are going to please us the majority of the time.

As a first step in trying to simplify my own approach to wines, and to help me better understand it all, I grouped together some of the most common wines based on their impression on the palate and their usefulness at the table. Bear in mind that this is a simplification, and a personal one at that. Not only are my categories arbitrary, so are the choices I've made when placing wines into each category.

My objective was to group like with like. At first I tried to put wine on a continuum. But if I started with Muscadet at one end, what goes at the other end, California Chardonnay or Gewürztraminer? There are too many distinctive styles of wine to be able to line them up in a single row. I turned next to the marketplace which, understandably, is very focussed on the wine styles it will accept. People buy Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Sometimes they will try something a little different, but not too different. As in all things where personal tastes are involved, something new must be at least a little familiar. During my brief time as a wine merchant, I found that I could sell a Pinot Blanc or an Auxerrois to a Chardonnay drinker, but not a Riesling. A Chianti fan might be just as happy with a Zweigelt but not a Zinfandel. For the most part, customers were keen to try something new as long as it wasn't a shock to their systems.

Three categories should be enough for anyone. Fortunately, the majority of popular wines fall fairly neatly into six styles, three for whites and three for reds. I chose a grape or wine that seemed to define a broad style, and then added other wines that I felt fit within that style. It just isn't possible to used "light, medium and heavy" to talk about wine, so my "hearty" group for white wines holds Chardonnay and work-alikes, the "racy" group is patterned after Sauvignon Blanc, and the "fruity" group includes Riesling and its ken. Red wines were a bit trickier because they tend to have more body and structure than whites. But still, the groups fell nicely into three general styles represented by three major wines.

The following table is meant as a starting point -- a way to help us discover new wines that might be as pleasing as those that are already familiar. If you like a Cru Beaujolais, you might also like a Rioja. If only a hefty Cabernet will do, try a Barbaresco. If, after you've had some practice, you feel a wine belongs in a different group, go ahead and move it there. Like "white with fish," this is only a guideline. Your palate will tell you how well this technique works for you.

These are all wines that you should be able to find easily on wine store shelves. There are others, but 55 examples should be enough to keep you busy for a while. Please let me know if this approach works for you.

Making Sense of Wine: Basic Wine Styles

White Wines

Red Wines

I. Hearty: The Chardonnay Group

Fumé Blanc (1)
Oaked Chardonnay
Pinot Blanc/Bianco
Pouilley Fuissée
Unoaked Chardonnay
Viognier (1)
White Burgundy

I. Lean & Fruity: The Beaujolais Group

Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages
Burgundy, Pinot Noir (3)
Chianti, Sangiovese, Valpolicella, Cinsaut
Maréchal Foch (3)

II. Racy: The Sauvignon Group

Bordeaux Blanc
Chenin blanc (1)
Pouilley Fumé (1)
Sauvignon Blanc
Vinho Verde

II. Big & Juicy: The Syrah Group

Baco Noir
Cabernet Franc (4)
Cru Beaujolais
Rhone wines
Rioja, Ribera del Duero

III. Fruity: The Riesling Group (2)

Pinot Gris/Grigio

III. Bold & Aristocratic: The Cabernet Group

Barolo, Barbaresco
Chianti Classico

(1) Watch out for oak
(2) May be off-dry or even sweet. Check with store staff
(3) Can be quite meaty
(4) Some might put this into the next group

All material is Copyright 2002 by The Frugal Oenophile.
Reproduction by any means must be accompanied by proper attribution.