Wine Varieties

There are several categories of wine, and they in turn can be subdivided further. Table wines are those you would drink with meals, they come in red or white, and they're usually rather dry, or lacking in sweetness. Sparkling wines have bubbles, range from tart to sweet and red to white; when they're white and come from the Champagne region of France, they're called champagne. Dessert wines are typically consumed after meals, and sweetness is their major characteristic. Fortified wines may be sweet or dry, and their major feature is extra alcohol that's been added--the "fortification." But that's just the short version; there's much more to know, and below you'll find some of it.

Red Wines

Generally speaking, red wines tend to be the finest. Those old wines you hear about that may be decades or more old and sell for thousands of dollars are almost always reds. They age well, and before they're bottled they often spend several years in oak barrels. The best of them continue to age in the bottle, some for many years. Those, of course, are the rarest reds. Most are meant to be drunk within five to 10 years after their grapes leave the vine.

There are exceptions. Some red wines are made to be drunk within just weeks of bottling--the French nouveau beaujolais is the most prominent example--but again, that's an exception.

Another safe generality about reds is that they're almost always dry; you seldom encounter a sweet red wine.

One source of confusion concerning red wines specifically and wine in general, is the difference in designation between vintages from the Old World and the New. In France, for instance, wines are named for their region, and the wines within each of those regions are similar in character. Burgundy comes from the Burgundy region, and the reds from there are made from the Pinot Noir grape. Wines from the Bordeaux area are called Bordeaux, and they're usually created from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes.

In the United States, however, fine wines are most often named after the major grape variety used; they're called "varietal wines." A Cabernet Sauvignon from California will be called just that: Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine may also contain some Cabernet Franc or Merlot grapes (though in California varietal wines must contain at least 75 percent of the grape type the wine is named after). Such a California Cabernet, blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, may, however, be referred to as a "Bordeaux Style" Cabernet.

And while in France a Burgundy usually denotes a wine of good quality made from Pinot Noir grapes, in the United States, "burgundy" is a name often used for a generic red wine of indeterminate grape types.

White Wines

Unlike red wines, which are usually aged for at least a few years and typically devoid of any sweetness, white wine is often released within a year of being made, and may range from dry dinner wines to very sweet dessert wines. In between are wines of moderate sweetness suitable for drinking with brunch, say, or by themselves, as a light, cold, refreshment on a summer afternoon.

Just as with reds, white wines from California or elsewhere in the New World tend to be named after the grape type. In France, they're named for their region. German wines may be named for either the grape or region. For instance, there are German wines sold as Rieslings, which are usually moderately to very sweet. Meanwhile, there are also Mosel- region wines, which come from that river valley area, which are also made from Riesling grapes, and are moderately sweet.

Chardonnay is the grape generally credited as creating the finest white dinner wine, and it's called that when it comes from California. Pouilly-Fuisse, on the other hand, is a Chardonnay from that small area in France's Bordeaux region. Just as with red burgundies, which means something very specific in France yet elsewhere refers to any common red wine, there are white burgundies that suffer a similar confusion. These are called Chablis, which is part of the French Burgundy region, and are also made chiefly from Chardonnay. In the United States, Chablis is a euphemism for a pedestrian white wine which may be made from any type of grape.

Whatever it's called, however, Chardonnay is the white wine with the most character and body. It has a distinctive silvery taste, and unlike most white wines, it improves with age and can stand up to the flavors imparted by oak barrels. As with most dinner wines, it's usually dry, lacking any sugar content. Other popular dry whites served often with dinner include wines made from grapes of the Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes called Fume Blanc) and Chenin Blanc varieties. Riesling and Gewurztraminer, grapes which are used to make light, fruity flavored wines that usually have moderate to high sugar contents, are more suitable for drinking with brunches or dessert.

Very sweet white wines, unlike their drier compatriots, may tolerate the age of many years. French Sauterne epitomizes these. Produced in the Sauterne district in Bordeaux, a classic Sauterne is a full-bodied, richly flavored sweet wine. In California, however, sauterne came to mean common, dry white wine; it is seldom produced as such anymore.

Pink Wines

Usually referred to as blush or rose wines, these wines range in flavor from fruity and dry to sweet. They bear more in common with white wines than reds; they're meant to be consumed while young, and they're served cold.

They're not typically considered fine wines, and most of the time, roses are produced by mixing mediocre red and white wines. White Zinfandel is something of an exception. It's made from red grapes of the respectable Zinfandel variety, but the juice is separated from the color-giving skins at the time of crushing so that the resulting wine is slightly pink.

Sparkling Wines

What's the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine? True Champagne is a sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of France; it's usually considered the finest of sparkling wines. Genuine Champagne is usually a blend of juice from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, the latter two of which are red grapes (they're handled in such a way as to prevent the color from coming through in the final product). Vintages from different years are also blended, with consistency across time the goal.

Most California sparkling wine is made exclusively from Chardonnay, but, like the French model, is usually very dry. German and Spanish sparkling wines may tend to be slightly sweet.

One important peculiarity to be aware of is the odd distortion of terms for sweetness when it comes to Champagne and sparkling wines. Typically, in French, sec means dry, and demi-sec means medium-dry. But when the terms apply to Champagne, sec means medium-dry, while demi-sec means medium-sweet. The driest Champagne is referred to as brut.

Dessert Wines

These are sweet wines, and they're most often white. Sweet versions of wines made from Riesling and Gewurtztraminer grapes often qualify as dessert wines, and so, for instance, does Muscatel (made from the Muscat grape) and other fortified wines, such as cream sherry (which can be made from many varieties of grape). French Sauterne is one of the finest of the breed, made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. White Zinfandel, on the other hand, is a sweet blush wine made from the red Zinfandel grape.

Fortified Wines

Fortified wines are blends of different kinds of wines over many years, with a little extra alcohol or sugar (that's the "fortification") thrown in to achieve varying results.

The most well-known are port and sherry, the first a reddish brown wine of moderate sweetness, with 15 to 20 percent alcohol content (compared to about 12 percent for most wine). Sherry is usually a golden brown, has similar alcohol levels, and ranges from austerely dry to extremely sweet. The latter type is called "cream" sherry.

The drier fortified wines are often consumed before dinner, while the sweeter varieties tend to be served afterward, often with dessert or cigars. The finest of both types come from Portugal, though good replicants are produced elsewhere.