Guide to Wine Types & Varieties for Beginners

Fine wines, like fine women, are almost impossible to describe. Certainly one can use words like silky, elegant, robust, complex, young or, ahem, age worthy wine, but do you really know what these wine tasting terms actually mean? If you were asked, could you honestly describe the difference between a light-bodied and full-bodied white, a pinot gris from a pinot noir and what futures really means in wine terminology? If you think it’s time to harness your inner Robert Parker, then read on. 

Wine Types

There are 5 main types of wine: Sparkling wine, White wine, Rosé wine, Red wine, and Dessert wine.

Now, we will get into details about each of these types and their differences regarding wine body.

Sparkling Wine

Well, this is an easy one to start with. Champagne, right? Erm … yes and no. While Champagne is certainly a sparkling wine, the terminology means much more than that. What you must understand when it comes to bubbles is that fizzy wine is perhaps the most technologically complex of all your wines. This is because it undergoes not one but two fermentations – one for the alcohol and one to make the bubbles. This secondary fermentation happens in the bottle and is a result of the yeast and sugar melange that is added to the wine before the bottle is corked. As the yeast ferments, it produces carbon dioxide. Because the CO2 has nowhere to go, it dissolves back into the wine, giving it that all important fizz. 

Light-Bodied White Wine

Light-bodied white wines are the greyhounds of the wine world. Elegant, lean, they are quick off the mark and always come home in first place. In wine terms this means wines are light and delicate, and contain lower levels of alcohol (under 12.5%). Prosecco is the perfect example of white wine that is both light-bodied and sparkling, proving that one thing does not exclude the other. 

Full-Bodied White Wine

Rich and smooth, full-bodied white wines are our millionaire playboys. These white wines are full-bodied with an alcohol content of at least 13.5%. They have a more complex structure than their lighter little sister (see above) as they are usually aged in oak and have undergone malolactic fermentation and lees stirring. These fuller-bodied white wines attract the red wine drinkers among you, appealing in their weighty, aromatic characters. In wine tasting terms think Chardonnay with apple, brioche and tropical fruit flavors and blossomy, concentrated Semillions. 

Aromatic White Wine

Aromatic white wines are the gift that keeps on giving. As their name suggests, these are heady, fragrant wines, intense and verging on sweet. It is not unknown for supertasters to linger over a glass of Gewürztraminer for hours, sipping and savouring every last drop. Aromatics do what they say on the box – so expect plenty of perfumed flower flavors; violet, lavender, citrus blossom and geranium. These wines bring a whole new meaning to the phrase of “having a nice bouquet!”. 

Rosé Wine

Think rosé and you’re automatically transported to a yacht in the South of France. Or a sunny terrace for an aperitif. Or a lunchtime barbeque with friends. This is the archetypal summer drink, to be enjoyed with anytime, anyplace, anywhere. While we all agree that nothing says sexy summer fun in the same way as a cool, crisp glass of rosé, in wine tasting terms, what can you expect? Well, despite it’s party girl image, rosé is actually a very technical wine, made by “dying” white wine with the skin of black grapes. The depth of colour depends on how long the skins have been left to ferment – typically this ranges from two to 20 hours. Wines from Provence reign supreme here. Think crispy, fruity, yet impeccably honed Cotes de Provence and Bandols. Easy on the eye and easy on the pocket, there is only one rule when it comes to rosé – the colder, the better. 

Light-Bodied Red Wine

Light-bodied reds are the beginning of the big league. These very delectable vinos are some of the most covetable there are. But investors beware – low tannins mean that ageing is not very long, so keep aware of your market here. Think 3-5 years maximum (in comparison to some full-bodied brothers that can go up to 100 years if well cellared). Pinot Noir is clearly the superstar of light-bodied reds, but don’t overlook Gamays, Grenaches and Nebbiolos. 

Medium-Bodied Red Wine

Medium-bodied reds are anything but mediocre. These are the middle children of the red wine world. Good at everything they do, they tend to get forgotten as they are sandwiched between their big, bold brothers, or their light, enviable sisters. The clue is in the name here: medium-bodied wines have the same varietals as other wines of the region but are lighter in sugar and consequently, alcohol. These are easy drinkers – they go with most foods and have easy tasting red fruit flavors such as cherry, raspberry, cranberry and strawberry. Unsurprisingly the aging is medium too – think 5-9 years except in exceptional cases. Medium bodied grape varieties include: Valpolicella, Carménère, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese. 

Full-Bodied Red Wine

These babies are the money shot. The aristocracy of plonk. They are the JFKs and Marilyn Monroes of the wine world – eternally stylish, hopelessly cool and always, always in fashion. Cabernet Sauvignons and Malbecs are just the tip of the iceberg here: think outside the box and consider deep, dark Syrahs and Shirazes and bold, heavy-in-the-mouth Portuguese Douro Reds and Sicilian Nero D’Avolas. Full-bodied red wines are naturally high in tannin (giving them superb aging appeal), and have a rich, complex, well-rounded flavor that lingers in the mouth. Wines in this category will feel richer, almost chewy, and will leave a residue in the glass. Black fruit is the overarching taste here, with tertiary tastes of coffee, leather, and fruitcake. 

You might find our detailed guide on red wine types helpful!

Dessert Wine

Or, to put it another way, harmony in a glass. These sweet sensations were once all the rage in the 1800s but fell out of favour mid 20th century. If you’re after a dessert wine with a difference, our suggestion is to look no further than Sauternes. A truly great Sauternes (Chateau d’Yquem, raise your hand) will properly balance sweetness with acidity to create a harmonious mouthfeel and flavor profile, meaning this is best sipped in small doses rather than quaffed like beer. Because Sauternes can be so expensive to produce, it is thus sold for relatively high prices. Don’t be surprised if you can only find it is 375 ml bottles, which in our opinion is all you need. 

The mysterious and interesting ice wine is also part of the dessert wine family! Fortified wine is also usually enjoyed after dinner.

Wine Varieties

Most Popular Wine Varieties:

  • Chardonnay
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Pinot Gris
  • Riesling
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Syrah
  • Zinfadel
  • Pinot Noir

In order to understand the ins and outs of the wine terminology world, one must first go literally back to its roots. We all know wine is made from grapes, but the bunches that you’ll find on the vine in St. Emillion are very far removed from those that you’ll find in your supermarket. Grapes destined for winemaking have thick skins, are much smaller and sweeter than table grapes and contain seeds. At over 1,000 different varietals it would be impossible to list them all here, but a quick reference guide from Sauvignon to Syrah can be found below.

White Wine Grapes


Chardonnay is synonymous with white wine. Just saying it sounds like a smile – easy to say in all languages, Chardonnay is to poetry what Trebbiano is to prose. It’s the world’s most ubiquitous white wine grape, used in everything from Champagne to Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé, and Chablis. It’s a vintner’s grape – considered a “blank canvas” meaning that winemakers can work their wizardry with it. Chardonnay can taste different, depending on terroir and weather, but typically, Chardonnay is a dry, medium- to full-bodied wine with moderate acidity and alcohol. 

As we’re speaking of Burgundy, you might be interested to find out some more interesting facts about French wine regions. Did you know that there are different classifications of French wines? The Premier Cru and the Grand Cru are the best of them all! You can read more in our guide on French wine regions.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is to Bordeaux what Chardonnay is to Burgundy. It’s incredibly popular, planted on more than 275,000 acres of vineyards all over the world. It’s a king in the white winemaking world – a little bit crisp, a little bit herbal, it mixes well with other varietals (think Semillon for Sauternes) and is a failsafe when it comes to flavour. Originally from the Loire Valley, this dry white wine grape is found everywhere from New Zealand to England. 

Pinot Gris

The three brother Pinot family contains the famous Noir, the lesser known Blanc and the under-the-radar Gris. Better known by its Italian name Pinot Grigio (where it is immensely popular), wines are light to middle-weight and easy-drinking, with marked citrus aromas. French Pinot Gris tend to be from Alsace, while the Italian regions that favour the grape are the North East regions of the Veneto, Lombardy, Friuli, Trentino and Alto Adige.


Despite being one of the world’s most noble grapes, Riesling is today synonymous with sticky, warm, under par wines. Think again – look for the good stuff and you’ll find that some of the best (and most investment worthy) wines in the world are Rieslings. So good is the Germanic white skinned grape that it is considered by many critics as the world’s finest white wine grape variety. Yet, it remains a niche taste choice. With it’s high acidity and primary orchard fruit flavours of nectarine, apricot, apple and pear it’s not for everyone’s palette.

Red Wine Grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is the lovechild of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. It is the world’s most famous red wine grape, and most planted of any colour. It’s the cornerstone of many of the finest red Bordeaux (where it is heavily planted) and makes up the majority of wines from the Médoc, such as Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Saint-Estèphe and Pessac-Léognan. Napa Valley wines are Cab Savs. Tastewise expect full-bodied with bold tannins – hence long aging potential for investors. Very recognisable by its powerful flavor of blackcurrants, if matured in new oak, it can adapt and take on tertiary flavours of  cedar, cigar boxes and, sometimes, tobacco. 


Depending on where it is grown, Syrah is also known as Shiraz. Cooler climates – such as France’s Rhone valley where it is heavily planted – tend to favour Syrah while if the grape is grown notably in the southern hemisphere, it will probably be called Shiraz. This is because of the grapes chameleon-like ability to take on the expressions of the terroir. Recognisable by its opaque ruby colour, Syrah (Shiraz) produces full bodied wines with intense flavours. Medium tannins and medium acidity mean medium ageing (5-9 years) but exceptional vintages can be kept for up to 25 years, if cellared correctly. 


A grape that is so popular worldwide it even has its own festival (yes, really), Zinfandel is a favourite of New World wine lovers. Despite originating in Croatia, today it is considered as american as apple pie and ice cream or baseball. It’s easy on both the pocket and palette, making Zinfandel a popular choice among drinkers. It’s a good looking wine too – light in colour and body but it’s moderate tannin and high acidity make it taste bold. Expect notes of jam, blueberry, black pepper, cherry, plum, boysenberry, cranberry, and licorice to explode in the first sip. Zinfandel also packs a punch – expect  high alcohol levels ranging from about 14 – 17%. The pink and white varieties are also extremely popular stateside. 

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is the racehorse of red wine grapes. Capable of producing spectacular results, if conditions have not been perfect, it won’t perform. Grown exclusively in cool climates this thin-skinned, mercurial grape is best-known for its use in red Burgundy wines. Loved by oenologists, sommeliers and enthusiasts the world over, Pinot Noir offers complex, delicate, nuanced wines with acidity and a soft, smooth, low-tannin finish.

You are now ready to turn wine from a drink into an investment! If you find this idea interesting, check out our guide on how to invest in wine.

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