The Top Six Wine Varietals

Learning the basics of wine begins with becoming familiar with the big six varietals, which are the grapes that comprise the majority of the world's wines.

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grapes on the vine

Photo by: Bruce Shippee

Bruce Shippee

grapes on the vine

Chardonnay: This wine is the world's "it" white, which is usually rich and buttery but sometimes moderate in weight and intensity. It positively sings in the presence of richer fish preparations, roast or fried chicken, and dishes with butter or cream sauces.

Sauvignon Blanc: This white is popular for its bright and zesty personality. "Savvies" (as they say in New Zealand) are textbook perfect with equally light and tangy tastes, be it delicate fish such as halibut or sole, goat or feta cheeses, or citrus sauces.

Riesling: While this wine is loved by insiders, it is misunderstood by the rest of us who think that it is always sweet. Dry versions harmonize with seafood of all kinds, while those with some sweetness are famous for their affinity with spicy fare and fruit sauces.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Known as the emperor of grapes, this red is big in spirit, history and taste, coveted by connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. Cabernet makes fast friends with heavier meats, such as steak and sausage, and hits all the right notes with Roquefort and other blue cheeses.

Merlot: This moderately rich red wine can be downright delicious. Hamburgers, stews and dry cheeses, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, hit its gastronomic sweet spot.

Pinot Noir: As the darling of the last decade, Pinot is light, silky and crisp enough to pair with a galaxy of foods — and please fans of both red and white wine. It is a bull’s-eye pairing with robust fish such as grilled salmon and swordfish, as well as with poultry, pork and all but the richest pasta.


Mark Oldman
is a wine expert, acclaimed author and lead judge of the hit series The Winemakers.

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