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World of Wine: Knowing the big six varietals of the wine world

Ron Smith

Most have been mentioned in previous World of Wine columns, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to cover each of the “Big Six” on the wine world.

Wines in America and in most of the southern hemisphere are labeled with varietal names of the grape. While there are hundreds of wine grapes, we seems to focus on Riesling, sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. These varietals make up about 80 percent of all the wines made around the world.

Give yourself a chance to learn to distinguish and appreciate what these wines are all about. Invite some friends and family to do a tasting in one sitting, and try to identify what it is you like or don’t like about a particular varietal.

But you don’t need to start with just these. Just about every wine growing region around the world –Napa, western Europe, Australia and New Zealand – will have these vines planted and their wines marketed. And, I dare say, they are pretty consistently good with just variations in style created by the vintner.

To keep the initial tasting experience simple, pick a wine producing area of the world – for example, the Napa region in California. Get six varietals, and take notes on their taste.

For beginners it is usually the pleasant aftertaste that wins them over. Take written notes of your impression for each varietal from the Napa region.

Another time, get the six wines from Chile – try to sample many as possible, again, taking notes. Then go to New Zealand or Australia and repeat. You may find that you enjoy the pinot noir from Napa the most, Riesling from Chile and cabernet sauvignon from New Zealand.

Assuming most tasters would be beginners, evaluate the wine using the following criteria:

  • Go by the body of the wine; light, medium or full. 

For example, every Riesling I’ve ever tasted I would classify as a “light-bodied” white wine, while an oaked Chardonnay would come under the classification of “full-body” wine.

To make this even clearer to understand, think of the differences between skim milk, whole milk and cream. Obviously very different body types! An unoaked, young Chardonnay will move into light-body classification due to the acid and strong fruit flavor.

  • In taking notes on your tastings, don’t try to emulate the experts and their sophisticated terminology. Use your own descriptive adjectives that you understand. 

Start with the name of the winery, for example:

14 Hands Winery

Variety: Merlot

Vintage: 2011

Winery Location: Napa California

Tasting Date: June 21, 2014

Price: $15

Color: Purple

Aroma: Fruity

Taste: Smooth, mellow

Body or Finish: medium

Don’t fret if you and your fellow tasters do not agree on terminology. It is no big deal. As long as you like the wine, nothing else matters!

Ron Smith, a retired NDSU Extension horticulturist, writes weekly about his love of wine and its history. Readers can reach him at