Wine Varietals and the Five Elements of Taste
By understanding the characteristics of different wines and the grape varietals that go into making them, we can gain a greater appreciation for wine and it’s relationship with food. Every grape varietal has a unique personality and the way these character traits are expressed can vary greatly depending on how and where the grapes were grown, but there are certain qualities, outlined below, that you can almost always expect to find in a varietal wine.
Wine Makes the Meal
Below we will take a look at the classic international grape varietals, popular wine blends from around the world, a few of my personal favorites, and learn how the characteristics of the wine relate to food and the five elements of taste: bitter, sour, sweet, savory and salt.
First, we’ll summarize the basic principals of pairing food and wine according to the elements of taste that were introduced in Wine Makes the Meal, then we’ll take a closer look at each varietal and where it falls on this pairing chart.
Summary of Food and Wine Pairing Guidelines
Summary of Basic Pairings
Keep these basic pairing guidelines in mind when selecting a wine to go with a dish, but ultimately let your taste guide you. This pairing chart is only intended to serve as a guide. Through experience you will discover favorite combinations and pairings that are pleasing and enjoyable to your palate. I sometimes throw the rules completely out the window and serve wines that I enjoy drinking regardless of whether or not they perfectly compliment the meal. It’s through experimentation and bold pairings that you can discover something new and exciting and elevate an otherwise ordinary meal to an extraordinary experience for the senses.
The Naming of Wine
In the United States and some other “new world” countries, wines are typically named after the main grape varietal used to make the wine, as in cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. In Europe or the “old world”, however, wines are most often named after the region or town where the grapes are grown, as in Bordeaux or Champagne. For the most part, wines named after a region, town or person are capitalized whereas wines named after the grape varietal are in lower case.
The wines below are grouped according to similar body style. When pairing wine with food, body is typically paired with body so that one doesn’t overpower the other. But keep in mind that sometimes the rule of opposites is also true. This is especially the case when pairing an incredibly rich and decadent dessert with wine. Pairing it with an equally rich and decadent wine would likely completely overpower the palate, whereas pairing the dessert with a light bodied sweet wine would be incredibly refreshing. As with everything in life, exceptions always exist so these pairing rules are just a guide to help you navigate the wonderful world of wine and food.
The World of White Wine
Light to Medium Body, Off Dry to Sweet: Pair with Spicy and Salty Foods
A fruity grape that is grown in France (used to make Vouvray, among others), South Africa (Steen) and in California. It usually makes a pleasantly crisp wine with melon, peach, spice and citrus and can be sweet, off-dry or dry. Try chenin blanc with Mexican or other heavily seasoned and spicy foods. The acidity will keep the wine vibrant against heavy seasonings and the slight sweetness will help tame some of the heat.
An Italian fruity and golden wine which can range from sweet to dry.
Grown in France, Germany, California, Australia and New Zealand, this sweet to off-dry wine has a distinctive floral bouquet and bold flavors of gingerbread, vanilla, honeysuckle and grapefruit. The grape thrives in cool climates, particularly that of Alsace, France, where it produces full and complex wines. Gewürztraminer is usually floral with low acidity and pairs well with spicy dishes. Some of the fuller bodied Alsace wines can even stand up to many meats. Gewürztraminer grapes can also be left for late harvest and produce rich and complex dessert wines.
Muscat is also known as Muscat Blanc, Muscat Canelli and Moscato in Italy. It’s a versatile grape with floral and spicy notes that can make sweet sparkling wines or still dry wines.
Riesling is one of the classic white wine varietals, grown in Germany, France, Austria, California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and Canada. It is extremely resistant to frost in cooler climates and is capable of producing very sweet to dry wines. Due to its high acidity and distinctive floral, citrus, peach and mineral accents, riesling pairs well with spicy and salty foods.
Light Body Acidic: Pair with Light Seafood, Creamy Pasta or Acidic Foods
Albariño is a Spanish white grape that makes crisp, refreshing, and light-bodied wines with flavors ranging from citrusy peach to almond-vanilla and honeysuckle. The same grape is known as Alvarinho in Portugal and used for making vinho verde. Pair albariño with just about any light seafood dish. The bright acidity and creaminess won’t overwhelm the sweet delicacy of scallops.
Arneis is a light-bodied dry wine from the Piedmont Region of Italy. Try it with a buttery and creamy pasta dish or with seafood.
Cortese is a white wine grape grown in Piedmont and Lombardy used for making the wine known as Gavi. Like many other Italian grapes, it produces a light-bodied, crisp and well-balanced wine. Gavi is acidic enough to cut through a creamy pasta dish.
Pinot Blanc is a lighter style wine that is often compared to Chardonnay due to similar flavors and texture. This light-bodied wine is gently spiced and, when made well, can be complex and intense, exhibiting ripe pear, citrus and honey notes. Try pinot blanc with a buttery lobster or creamy pasta.
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
Pinot Grigio, which produces light, acidic and delicate wines, is mostly grown in Northeast Italy but can also be found in Alsace, France where it is known as Tokay and in the Burgundy and Loire regions of France where it is known as Pinot Gris. This aromatic and crisp white pairs well with a tomato and cheese pizza and its acidity could even stand up to richer toppings like sausage, leaving the palate refreshed.
Glera grapes are used to make the sparkling Italian wine Prosecco. Traditionally, Prosecco was soft and sweet but today most are dry but more fruity and not quite as crisp as Champagne. Try Prosecco with appetizers or a cheese pizza.
Soave is the straw-colored dry white wine from Italy’s Veneto Region. Like Pinot Grigio, it is also delicate, smooth and light with crisp acidity. Try it with a crisp salad or seafood dish.
Verdicchio is yet another Italian white grape that produces a pale, light-bodied, crisp wine.
Light/Medium Body Acidic Earthy: Pair with Tangy Foods and Light Meats
This is the most widely planted and significant grape in Austria and can be found in other parts of Eastern Europe. Grüner often displays properties of white pepper, tobacco and citrus flavors and aromas. Its high acidity makes it an excellent partner for many different types of food. Grüner is similar in body and texture to an Austrian Riesling but it’s flavor profile is unique in its own right.
This varietal is most known for producing grassy, vegetal and herbaceous wines of light to medium body. However, New Zealand has had good success making a fruitier style wine. Sauvignon blanc is crisp and refreshing making it an ideal partner for many foods from oysters, spicy foods, heavily seasoned foods and Asian-fusion dishes. Sauvignon blanc also loves anything with tangy goat cheese. Sometimes sauvignon blanc is aged in oak like chardonnay and called Fumé Blanc.
Full Body Dry: Pair with Buttery Foods, Sauces and Rich Meats
Chardonnay is one of the most popular white varietals, grown all over the world, and has earned its title as the queen of whites. Not only does this varietal yield consistently excellent, bold, rich and complex wines, but it is also a versatile grape that grows easily in a variety of climates. Characterized by flavors of apple, pear, vanilla, fig, peach, pineapple, melon, honey, spice, butterscotch, butter and hazelnut, chardonnay benefits and takes well to oak aging, barrel fermentation and other vinification techniques. Chardonnay’s popularity in the United States has led to a broad range of quality and variety from which to choose from. In France, some of the most exquisite whites, like Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissè and Chablis, are made from Chardonnay grapes. Pair buttery chardonnay with equally rich and buttery dishes like lobster with drawn butter or with an equally sweet crab meat in butter sauce.
Marsanne is most popular in the Rhône region of France and in Australia and is usually blended with other white grapes. This full-bodied and moderately intense varietal displays spice, pear and citrus notes.
This grape is the foundation for one of my favorite French dessert wines, Sauternes. Combined with Sauvignon Blanc for making Sauternes, sémillon adds flavor, body and texture. On its own it can also make wonderfully rich late-harvest wines bursting with complex fig, pear, tobacco and honey notes. Some countries use it to make a full-bodied white often disguised as Hunger Riesling in Australia or White Burgundy. Try a sémillon with briny oysters. Late harvest sémillon is dessert in a glass.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano
Vernaccia is one of Italy’s oldest and most noble white grapes. Vernaccia grown in the Tuscan historic hill town of San Gimignano is some of the country’s best. This powerful white wine is recognized by its golden hue, full body, floral aromas and dry, crisp flavors. Pair with fish, vegetables and simple pasta dishes.
Viognier, another one of my favorites, is one of the most difficult white grapes to grow. It’s easy to fall in love with this spicy, floral full-bodied white expressing apricot and peach aromas and fruit. This fruit-forward wine pairs beautifully with fruit-driven foods. Try viogner with pork and apple compote, roasted chicken with apricots or duck in a fig sauce.
Full Body Sweet: Pair with Rich Foods or Light Desserts
Eiswein, as it is known in Germany, describes dessert wines that are produced by crushing overripe frozen grapes that have been left on the vines to freeze. The resulting juice is incredibly concentrated in sugar. These rich wines are incredibly expensive and should not be confused with grapes that are harvested and then frozen and crushed. This is not true ice wine.
Late Harvest Wines
This describes a variety of dessert wines in which the grapes have been left on the vines well beyond optimal ripeness. The grapes continue to gain sugar resulting in lusciously rich sweet wines. We typically see these wines being made with high acid grapes like chenin blanc and riesling.
A rich, delicious and sweet wine from the Bordeaux area of France, Sauternes is a blend of mostly Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The grapes are affected by Botrytis Cinerea, or noble rot, resulting in a concentration of sweetness and alcohol. Sauternes is positively decadent with creamy cheeses, equally rich foods like foie gras, desserts and all on its own.
This fortified wine is made from several grapes (most of which are white) grown on the island of Madeira, Portugal, which named for the island on which its grapes are grown. Madeiras can range from dry to rich and sweet and is full of toffee caramel characteristics. Drier Madeiras are great paired with an appetizer or salad and the sweeter style ones are acidic enough to pair with even the richest of chocolate desserts.
Bubbles and Sherry: Pair with Salty Foods, Fruit and Just About Everything
A few very special wines from France and Spain are made in so many different styles that they get their own grouping: Méthode Champenoise wines and Sherry. The variety of successful food pairings with these wines is as diverse as the styles available.
A Spanish sparkling wine that is produced by the méthode Champenoise or classic method used in France. Its moderate acidity pairs well with appetizers and salty foods.
Champagne is known as the wine of kings. Most Champagnes are very dry, known as brut, but they can also be less dry known as extra dry or sec, or they can be slightly sweet, known as demi-sec or doux. Similarly, Champagnes range from light bodied to medium or full-bodied. It can be made from white chardonnay grapes, known as Blanc de Blancs, or from red pinot meunier and pinot noir grapes, known as Blanc de Noirs. The refreshing acidity and tingly bubbles of dry style Champagnes make it a perfect pairing for many salty appetizers and foods, like smoked salmon. Sweeter Champagnes are best enjoyed after dinner or with dessert.
Sherry, Spain’s fortified sipping wine, is made from three grapes but comes in a variety of styles and tastes, from bone-dry to sugary sweet. Like Champagne, sherry is served in a special tulip-shaped glass. Some sherries are served cold while others a served at a cool room temperature. Sherry country also happens to be the home of Spanish tapas so pair a dry sherry with Serrano ham or garlic shrimp. Some of the sweetest sherries are dessert in and of itself.
The World of Red Wine
Light Body Sweet Reds: Pair with Light, Fruity Desserts and Chocolate
Another one of my favorites, Brachetto, is made from a red Muscat variety that produces a light sparkling, low-alcohol dessert reds full of strawberry fruit in the Piemonte region of Italy. Try Brachetto with a fruit dessert or pair it with sausage as many Italians do.
Lambrusco is also grown in Northern Italy and produces sparkling wine that can range from dry to sweet. Don’t associate this with the “Italian” jug wines you find at the grocery store. Lambrusco also pairs well with fruity or lighter style desserts.
Light Body Acidic: Pair with Red Pasta, Pizza and Lighter Meats
Bardolino is made from the three Veneto grape varieties, Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. Unlike other Valpolicella wines, it is light and fruity and can also be made into a sparkling wine. It’s a great picnic wine that’s meant to be enjoyed young and slightly chilled.
The third Thursday in November each year marks a special day that is celebrated throughout the wine world, particularly in France. This is the day that Beaujolais Nouveau, the first French wine of the vintage, is released to the world. I’ll drink to that, but more likely than not I’ll be pouring a Cru Beaujolais rather than a Nouveau. Over the years, the release of Nouveau has become a bit too commercialized for my taste, and if you’ve only ever tasted Nouveau, you haven’t yet experienced Beaujolais!
Nouveau, which is made from grapes in the southern part of Beaujolais where the granite soils are less prevalent, is bottled just a few weeks after fermentation intentionally produced for early consumption. These juicy wines are full of bright red fruit flavors and tropical notes and are very low in tannins. You can serve it chilled, and for food pairing purposes, could pretty much treat it like a white wine. Nouveau is refreshing on a picnic and served with appetizers and light foods.
But I like big wines with character, richness and structure. Further north in Beaujolais, there are 10 Cru, or areas, that produce age-worthy wines that rival some of Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs, but at a fraction of the cost. These are the Cru Beaujolais and they are the pinnacle of the region and the highest expression of the gamay grape. You can pair these fragrant rich wines with braised meats and heavier dishes. You might even consider serving one with your Thanksgiving turkey! They are incredibly food friendly and would pair well with any of the dozen different dishes you’re likely to be serving. And that can’t be said for many other wines.
Whether you decide to jump on the Nouveau bandwagon tomorrow or seek out one of these greater expressions of gamay that you can enjoy now or cellar for years at under $20 a bottle, I hope you will join me in raising a glass to whatever it is you wish to celebrate. Cheers!
Made with the three Veneto grape varieties, Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, Valpolicella Classico is a light, dry wine that can be enjoyed young. It’s high level of acidity makes it a great partner for many Italian appetizers and pasta dishes.
Moderate Reds: Pair with Bold, Heavily Seasoned Meats and Foods
The fruit-forward red wines in this group are medium to full-bodied and moderate in acidity and tannins, making them ideal partners for a wide range of foods.
Originally from Spain and one of the most widely grown grapes all over the world, Grenache produces fruity, spicy, medium-bodied wines with subtle tannins. It is often blended with other grapes and is most well known for its role in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and other areas in the Southern Rhone. Try it with a rich and creamy French cheese or with savory Spanish foods like Picadillo.
Malbec is the great wine of my father’s country, Argentina. In other parts of the world, like Bordeaux, France and the United States, Malbec is more often used as a blending grape. Malbec is characterized by ripe, dark fruit, smoky finish, medium acidity and medium tannins. Pair malbec with heavily spiced meat dishes like chili or with bold and spicy sauces like Argentine Chimichurri.
Merlot is often used as a blending grape to soften tannic wines like Cabernet Sauvignon as in Bordeaux wines. Soft, medium-bodied and oak-aged, Merlot exhibits qualities of herbs, cherry and chocolate. Pair a soft merlot with anything from meatloaf to pasta to a tangy goat cheese potato gratin.
Montepulciano, the grape grown in Southern Italy, produces soft, medium-bodied, fruit-forward and affordable wines, with good color and structure. Don’t confuse this wine with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano which is made from Sangiovese grapes in the Chianti region of Italy. With soft tannins and bright flavors, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo pairs well with a rustic tomato pasta dish or Chicken Parmigiano.
Mourvedre is popular in Southern France and Spain. These warm weather grapes produce pleasing wines with spice, cherry and berry flavors, medium-body and moderate tannins. Mourvedre-based wines pair well with many Spanish and French dishes made with complex flavors.
Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso
Another wine from Veneto made with the three grape varieties of that region, Ripasso gets its name from the time it spends with the leftover seeds and skins used to make the great Amarone. Ripasso is a dry, higher quality, medium-bodied wine with more color, tannins, and flavors than a Valpolicella Classico. The intense flavor and texture is comparable to a jammy Zinfandel. Enjoy Ripasso with rich and spicy pasta bolognese.
Zinfandel is one of my favorite reds due to is bold intensity full of fruit forward flavors like raspberry, cherry, wild berry and plum and spicy notes of leather, earth and tar. In Southern Italy there is a very similar grape known as Primitivo. Zinfandel is also blended with Petit Syrah producing in-your-face, high alcohol wines and can also be made into decadently rich late harvest dessert wines and port-style wines with ripe, raisiny flavors. Pair a bold and spicy Zinfandel with equally bold, rich and spicy dishes. It also pairs well with complex dishes like beef chili, rich sausage-based dishes and even simple grilled chicken or turkey dishes.
Medium Body Acidic: Pair with Rich Pasta, Pizza and Meats
The grapes producing these bright and crisp wines mostly come from Italy’s Piedmont region. Barbera is characterized by it’s deep ruby color, high acidity, full body, low tannins and berry flavors. Barbera pairs well with many different types of food particularly tomato-based pasta dishes and pizza.
Sangiovese grapes are used in many Italian wines from light, food-friendly reds like Chianti to the Super Tuscans to the great Brunello di Montalcino. These medium to full-bodied wines are known for their soft texture and spice, raspberry, cherry and anise flavors. Try Chianti with marinara-based pasta dishes and pizza.
Light to Medium Body Earthy: Pair with Earthy and Savory Foods
Cabernet Franc is lighter in body, tannins and is more herbal and earthy than Cabernet Sauvignon, which it is often blended with as in Bordeaux, France. Pair it with heavily seasoned meats and earthy mushroom dishes.
Similar to Beaujolais, Dolcetto is also meant to be enjoyed young. The grapes producing these soft, round and earthy wines with fragrant fruit and notes of almonds and licorice come from the Piedmont region of Italy. Dolcettos are light in acidity, tannins and body. Pair it with an antipasto platter, other Italian appetizers or with an earthy mushroom meatloaf.
Pinot Noir is the great, noble grape of Burgundy, France. It’s a fussy and finicky grape that is difficult to grow which is why it is often referred to as the heartbreak grape. At its best, Pinot Noir produces smooth, elegant yet rich wines that are low in tannins and full of concentrated raisiny flavors and undertones of black cherry, raspberry, currant and spice and earthy aromas of tar, herb and cola. It’s thin skins don’t handle temperature extremes well and is capable of producing ordinary, light wines that are vegetable and weedy. Pinot Noir juice is also used to make Blanc de Noirs in Champagne. Moderate acidity make Pinot Noir a great partner for many foods from rich, creamy pastas to sweet dishes made with vegetables like butternut squash or pumpkin to dishes made with earthy ingredients like mushrooms or olives.
Tempranillo is the great red wine of Spain. It is often blended with other grapes to produce Riojas which are usually medium-bodied, acidic and moderately tannic wines with flavors of brown sugar, vanilla, plums, tobacco, tea and cassis. Tempranillo grapes from the Ribera del Duero region produce more dense wines with tannins similar to a Cabernet Sauvignon. Try a Rioja with a plate of sauteed mushrooms for an earthy flavor explosion. Tempranillo also pairs well with Spanish tapas like chicken and ham croquetas or savory picadillo.
Full Body Moderate to Highly Tannic: Pair with Rich, Fatty Meats and Heavy Foods
Cabernet Sauvignon, which is often referred to as the king of red wines, is grown and enjoyed all over the world. These grapes produce full-bodied, tannic wines with depth, richness, concentration and ability to age. The varietal is characterized by flavors of currant, plum, black cherry and spice and notes of vanilla, olive, tobacco, cedar, anise, pepper and herbs. Cabernet Sauvignon is the backbone of the great Bordeaux wines, contributing complexity, color, tannins and backbone, and along with the other Bordeaux grapes, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot, producing some of the world’s finest and most expensive wines. Pair a bold Cabernet with a rich steak. The tannins will cut right through the fatty steak and the rich fat will soften the tannins. A match made in heaven!
Barbaresco is made from the great grape of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region, Nebbiolo. It is lighter in style, less robust and slightly more graceful than Barolo, which is made from the same grapes. Try Barbaresco with a rich, buttery pasta dish. The tannins will cut right through the creamy sauce.
Like Barbaresco, Barolo is made from Nebbiolo grapes in the Piedmont region of Italy. Barolo, however, is a highly regarded Italian full-bodied red wine bursting with dark, fruit and high in both tannin and alcohol. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo also ages well. This tannic wine makes it an ideal partner for heavy meats, pastas and rich risottos.
Brunello di Montalcino
Another great Italian wine, Brunello is made from a particular strain of Sangiovese. It is a rare and expensive wine full of luscious black and red fruits and chewy tannins. Try it with a rich Italian steak or a creamy sausage pasta.
This is my favorite red French wine. The blend of various grapes from the area of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône Valley of France produces famous red wines that are known for being rich and ripe with high alcohol levels and rustic flavors. Try this Grenache-based wine with heavily spiced meats, gamey foods and simple, rustic dishes and french cheese.
Often used as a blending grape in France and California to provide structure and color, Petit Sirah produces dark, full-bodied, tannic wines with plum, blackberry and spicy flavors. Pair it with a big, grilled steak and other meats.
Amarone della Valpolicella
Amarone is the great powerhouse wine of Veneto, and my personal favorite. Like the other Veneto region wines it is made with the three grape varieties, Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. The grapes are left to dry and raisinate resulting in wine that is highly concentrated in fruit flavor, higher in sugar which is converted to alcohol, fuller body and firm, yet balanced, tannins. Amarone is so expensive because it takes twice as many grapes to make, but the resulting port-like, rich wine full of bitter chocolate, mocha, dried fig is well worth the price tag. It pairs well with both roasted meats and Italian hard cheeses.
Syrah grapes are grown all over the world from the United States to France and Australia, where it is called Shiraz. These grapes are capable of producing smooth, majestic reds with aging potential that are rich, high in tannins, complex and distinctive. Higher quality Syrahs exhibit peppery and earthy flavors of spice, black cherry, tar, leather and roasted nuts. Syrah pairs wonderfully with grilled, gamey foods like duck or lamb.
Full Body Sweet: Pair with Chocolate or Salty Cheese
Banylus is a French wine made from late-harvest Grenache grapes. It’s thick, rich, high in alcohol and pairs well with chocolate and other slightly sweet dishes.
Marsala, Sicily’s most well-known wine, is a fortified wine made in styles ranging from dry to sweet. Dry Marsala is often used as a cooking wine in many Mediterranean dishes.
A true Port is made from grapes in the Douro region of Portugal. There are several styles of Port made, all of which are sweet and decadent. Similar fortified wines are made in the port style in the United States and other parts of the world. Try a glass of sweet Port with a wedge of salty stilton for a classic sweet and salty pairing.
Recioto della Valpolicella
This decadent, rich dessert wine is made from the three Valpolicella grape varieties that make the great Italian wine, Amarone, Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. Like Amarone, the grapes are left to dry and raisinate resulting in a high concentration of fruit flavor. Unlike, Amarone in which all of the sugar is coverted to alcohol resulting in a dry wine, Recioto has residual sugar so it tastes sweet. It pairs so well with creamy Italian cheeses but a glass of expensive Recioto is dessert heaven all on its own.
Vin Santo, known as holy wine, is one of the best known sweet wines produced in Italy. It’s not as sweet as a French Sauternes but it has a delicate and creamy honey nut taste that is all its own. Serve Vin Santo after dinner with Italian biscotti or all on it own.
Food and Wine Pairings
Wine tasting, just like food preferences, is subjective. Everyone’s taste is different when it comes to wine and food. You have to find what works and tastes great for you. This summary is intended to provide a basic guide and starting place. The fun part is in the tasting and experimentation! If you are interested in learning more about which wines pair well with which foods, check out Wine Makes the Meal for a more detailed description of the basic pairing guidelines and the Recipe Collection, where every single recipe is expertly paired with complimentary wines to help you create the perfect meal.