Learn About Wine: An Easy Explanation of Wine Types

After reading through this guide, you should have a working knowledge of the different types of wine and enough vocabulary to set out and buy your first serious bottle. (And maybe impress your girlfriend with a thing or two.)

Sledgehammer wine

This is the second part of our series on becoming a wine appreciator. Notice that I wrote wine appreciator and not wine snob. While we won’t be discussing the best way to polish a monocle or the proper angle at which you should tilt your nose into the air, there is some basic wine knowledge that you should master (or at least familiarize yourself with) in order to find the glass of wine that’ll please your palate the most.

After reading through this guide to learn about wine, you should have a working knowledge of the different types of wine and enough vocabulary to set out and buy your first serious bottle of wine. (And maybe impress your girlfriend with a thing or two.)

Let’s get started.

Red Wine vs. White Wine: What’s the Difference?

Okay, you probably don’t need any help recognizing a white wine versus a red wine. They look different and they certainly taste different as well. But since we’re in this to find you a bottle of wine that you’re going to enjoy, it’s worth your while to try and understand why they look and taste so different. The culprit in both cases: the skins, and a little something they bring to the party called tannins. Remember the word tannin and what it means, because wine people talk about tannins a lot.

Tongue, Meet Tannins

Tannins are a naturally occurring substance in grapes and other fruits and plants (like tea, for example). The taste of tannin is often described as bitter, causing a dry and puckery feeling in the mouth. Tannins end up in your wine when the vintner allows the skins to sit in the grape juice as it ferments. This is also how wines get their color. Wines that have little or no skin contact end up pink or white, with far fewer tannins. Wines that ferment with the skins for a longer period end up red, with high tannin content. As you’d imagine, red grape skins have more tannins than white grape skins.

(Fun fact: you can get a white wine from a red grape by removing the skins from the juice immediately. All the color comes from the skins—even red grapes are white inside.)

wine grapes on vine

Tannin provides the backbone of red wine, which is why you might describe a red wine as “firm” or “leathery” or just plain “bitter.” Tannin also gives red wine texture, making it feel “smooth” and “soft” or “rough” and “chewy.” In general, the darker the wine, the higher the tannin and the “bolder” the taste.

Popular red wine varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Barbera, Sangiovese

White wine has tannin, but not enough to make it the star of the show. Instead, white wines are backboned by acidity. That’s why you might say a wine is “crisp” or “tart.” Or, if there isn’t enough acidity, you might call a white wine “flabby” or “flat.”

Popular white wine varietals: Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Moscato (Muscat), Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer

Rosé, or blush wine, is pink in color. It gets that way because it is allowed to stay in contact with the red grape skins for relatively short time compared to red wine. On the spectrum between red and white, rosé is much closer to the light side, with relatively low tannin.

Popular rosé wine varietals: Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese

Why Can’t I Serve Red Wine Cold?
There’s no law against drinking chilled red wine, but there’s a pretty good reason why you shouldn’t, and again, it’s the tannins. Tannins tend to taste bitter as they get cold, which means your darker red wines won’t taste their best when they are as cold as the Rockies. On the other hand, white and rosé wines, with their low tannin content, taste just fine when chilled—but avoid getting them too cold, or you’ll miss out on a lot of the flavor. Of course, it’s all a matter of taste. Some people enjoy their beer at room temperature and their pizza cold. Whatever gets you there.

Dessert Wine and Sparkling Wine

Red, white and rosé wine that has an alcohol by volume content of 14% or less is considered “table wine” in the U.S. (and “light wine” in Europe). That excludes anything that is sparkling or fortified (i.e. has added alcohol).

Dessert wine gets its name because it tends to be sweeter and comes after a meal. Alcohol (usually brandy) is added to a dessert wine so that it can retain more of its natural sugars, which are usually used up during the fermentation process.

Popular dessert wines/fortified wines: Port, Madeira, Vermouth, Sherry, Marsala

Sparkling wine is wine that has significant carbonation, which can occur as a natural part of the fermentation process or via carbon dioxide injection after fermentation. When reading sparkling wine labels, you’ll also encounter terms that indicate its sweetness/dryness.

From driest to sweetest, these terms are: Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry/Extra Sec/Extra Seco, Dry/Sec/Seco, Demi-Sec/Semi-seco and Doux/Sweet/Dulce.

Sparkling wine is made from a wide range of red and white grapes. Champagne proper is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and/or Pinot Noir.

Increasingly, wine drinkers and producers are using the term “sparkling wine” and “champagne” interchangeably, in the same way we might call any facial tissue a Kleenex. Purists insist that only wine produced in the Champagne region of France should rightfully be called champagne or Champagne, but there are no laws in the U.S. governing that distinction. So, if you think you’re getting a steal on a bottle of imported “champagne” for only $12, you should probably check the label a bit more closely.

Varietal and Regional Wines

Varietal wines are wines that are named after the primary grape variety that the wine was made from. So, if you pick up a bottle of Merlot, it means that it contains mostly Merlot grapes. In most jurisdictions, the minimum is about 75%. For instance, you could have a blend of 85% Zinfandel and 15% Syrah and still call it a Zinfandel without mentioning Syrah anywhere on the label.

You can certainly choose a wine based on its grape variety, but that’s a poor guarantee for consistency. That’s because different grape varieties can be grown in a number of regions and “microclimates” using a wide range of winemaking methodologies that affect the final product. Try a glass of California Riesling after a dry German Riesling and you’ll see a difference.

In the EU, they name wines according to the region or country they come from. Sometimes, it’s easy to remember which grape comes from where. For example, they grow Pinot Noir in the Burgundy region of France. But in Bordeaux, they grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and others, meaning you won’t even know if you’re getting a red or a white if you order a “Bordeaux” without any other parameters.

At this stage in our wine education, this is all too much to memorize. No reasonable person should expect you to be able to look at a menu and know what a wine will taste like based on some obscure region, vintage, producer and varietal. For now, it’s okay to ask a store clerk or server for suggestions based on taste.

Describing Your Favorite Wine

So, to recap: red wine is red because it was fermented with the skins, making it more tannic. White wine has less tannin, and is more acidic. Dessert wines have higher alcohol content and are usually sweeter, and sparkling wine has bubbles.

Easy, right? Of course not. Stopping at red vs. white wines would be like ending a discussion on vehicles at cars vs. trucks. If we’re going to peg the kind of wine that you enjoy drinking, we’re going to have to get a bit more specific. Yes, that means we’re going to have to talk about how a wine tastes.

This is where wine drinkers lose most of us. There is perhaps nothing more subjective about humanity than taste, and trying to find common ground when talking about wine with our limited vocabulary seems ill-fated from the start. But in spite of the glut of snobby descriptors for wine that you’ll stumble across, there are a few terms that mean pretty much the same thing to everyone.

They are:

Sweetness. Needs no explanation. The opposite of sweet is dry. A wine can also be medium-dry or off-dry (i.e. just a hint of sweetness, but almost too faint to move the needle).

Acidity. We already talked about this. Acidity is a big deal for white wines, and it makes them refreshing and crisp (or “sour” if its overdone). Lower acidity makes a wine taste “fat.”

Tannin. Another one we’ve already covered. It’s all about the tannins for red wine. High tannin wines are astringent, maybe even bitter and inky. Lower tannin wines are smooth and soft, and depending on your tastes, more drinkable.

Body. This refers to the perceived “weight” and viscosity of the wine. A full-bodied wine feels thick, coating the sides of the glass as you swirl. A light-bodied wine is almost like water. A medium-bodied wine is in-between.

Let’s pause right here so I can share a pro tip that I picked up from Wine for Dummies by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan (a must-read for wine neophytes). The best way to wrap your taste buds around these four descriptors is to make yourself a strong cup of tea. Sip it black, without anything added. That’s what something very tannic will taste like (i.e. bitter). Now, add a squeeze of lemon juice and taste it. That’s acidity joining the party. Combined with the tannic taste, it should taste astringent. Now, stir in some sugar for some sweetness. This mellows everything out to make it taste soft.

Flavors. If you’re not sure, don’t bother diving into descriptors like graphite, barnyard and other flavors you’ve (hopefully) never tasted. Instead, stick to the most relatable flavors like fruity, earthy, spicy, smoky or flowery. Not sure which is which? Go to a wine tasting or visit a wine store and simply ask for some contrasting bottles of wine. Say, “Give me something fruity and give me something earthy.” Or, “Give me a smooth red wine and a bold red wine.” Drinking them back-to-back will give you a good feel for what these terms mean.

In the wine world, you’ll inevitably hear a lot of discussion about “oak” or “oakiness” or “an oaky quality.” Oak flavor gets in your wine when it is either fermented or aged in oak barrels. If you’re a whiskey drinker, you already know how much of a big deal oak can be. With wine, oak is just another parameter for taste. Some say oak adds qualities like smokiness, clove, spiciness or vanilla tones. Others just plain don’t like oaky aromas. If that’s you, go for a wine with low oaky character. Many wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel casks, and are thus not oaky at all (unless the winemaker adds oaky essence after the fact).

Hot tip: Pair oaky wines with salty food. Salt cuts the bitterness of oak in much the same way that salt makes shots of tequila go down smoother.

Buying a Good Starter Wine

This is enough information for you to go out and try some bottles of wine, and perhaps even take some notes. It’s best to start simple so you can isolate what you’re tasting and what it is about a wine that you like or dislike.

Start in the $10 to $15 price range. Most wines at this price point are “typical” of their variety and region. Some say that complexity doesn’t start until the $25 level or $35 level, but while we’re in our exploratory phase, it’s better to spare your wallet. That being said, you can find good bottles of wine under $10—it’s just a bit harder. If you are lucky enough to live in a state where wine is sold in grocery stores, don’t hesitate to pick up a bottle of “Two Buck Chuck” from Trader Joe’s.

Again, it’s hard for a beginner to tell how a wine will taste based solely on the varietal. So, above all, don’t be shy about asking for help. Your best bet is to walk into the store and ask for the kind of wine you’re interested in trying. Say, “I want a dry, light-bodied white wine” or “I want to try a full-bodied red.” Or, you could even mention wines that you’ve enjoyed in the past and ask for something similar.

Another good tactic is to ask for a “typical” varietal, e.g. “Find me a typical Pinot Grigio for $15.” Here’s a quick rundown that might help you decide:

Popular Whites

  • Chardonnay – Fruity, buttery, with a velvety feel that’s atypical to dry white wines.
  • Pinot Grigio (aka Pinot Gris) – Simple, light-bodied, dry and crisp. (Fun fact: the favorite wine of Liz Lemon).
  • Riesling – Usually very sweet, with intense fruit flavors. Much lighter than chardonnay.
  • Moscato – Fruity, and often sweet.
  • Sauvignon blanc – Dry, tart and acidic with herbal flavors as well as tropical fruit.

Popular Reds

  • Cabernet sauvignon – Full-bodied with herbal notes. Younger cab has rich flavors of currant.
  • Merlot – Fruity, spicy. Very soft, less tannic than Cabernet sauvignon.
  • Pinot noir – Delicate and fresh, very soft tannins with fruity aromas.
  • Zinfandel – Typically zesty, ranges from medium- to full-bodied and dry to off-dry.

At the end of the day, you really can’t make a wrong choice. As long as you pay attention to what it is that you don’t like about a wine, each bottle will get you closer to what you do like. Be adventurous, be aware of what you’re tasting and above all, don’t fake it. Take it one glass at a time and don’t be afraid to admit it if you can’t quite put your finger on something. Focus on enjoying your wine—that’s the entire point.

Jack Busch lives in the Pittsburgh area where he writes and edits for fun and money.