Wine Varietals

A great way to expand your palate is to try a wide variety of wines. Understanding key characteristics of each wine varietal can help you identify the wines you like, and why. A membership in our wine club makes it easy to try a wide variety of wines, risk free. Every bottle is backed by our Love It Guarantee.

A note about names: New World wines are generally labeled by varietal, where Old World wines are labeled by region (i.e. Bordeaux wine refers to a wine made in the Bordeaux region of France. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are two varietals grown in Bordeaux). There are thousands of wine varietals in the world, but here is a short list of popular varietals.

Albariño - Albarino is an interesting grape that traces its origin to the Iberian Peninsula, and continues to flourish today in Spain. The hallmarks of this aromatic white wine are crispness and dryness with excellent balance. It is especially good with seafood, crab cakes, oysters, and fowl.

Barbera - Barbera is a red wine grape found primarily in Italy's Piedmont region. It produces hearty red wines with deep ruby colors, full body and low tannin levels. Its acid is perfect to cleanse the palate when indulging in a plate of pasta.

Cabernet Sauvignon - Cabernet Sauvignon is a red wine known for its depth of flavor, aroma and ability to age due to the wine’s noticeable tannins. It is full-bodied and intense, with cherry, currant, and sometimes herbal or tabacco flavors. Five things to know about Cabernet.

Champagne/Sparkling Wine - These wines are made effervescent by a secondary fermentation in the wine-making process. Champagnes and sparkling wines range in style from very dry (Natural), dry (brut) and slightly sweet (extra Dry) to sweet (sec and Demi-Sec). Many sparkling wines are also identified as Blanc de Blancs (wines made from white grapes) or Blanc de Noirs (wines produced from red grapes). *Champagne is only called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. Five fun facts about Champagne.

Chardonnay - One of the world’s most popular wines, Chardonnay is a white wine originating from Burgundy. Flavors range from clean and crisp with a hint of varietal flavor to rich and complex, vanilla, butter and oak-aged wines. Chardonnay typically balances fruit, acidity and texture. Five things to know about Chardonnay.

Chenin Blanc - Chenin Blanc is a white wine with fresh, delicate floral characteristics. It grows well in warmer climates and produces light, well- balanced wines ranging from dry to off-dry (slightly sweet) styles.

Cinsault - Pronounced 'San-soh.' "This is a high-yielding, early-ripening, hot-weather red grape generally used in blends. Cinsault tends to be low in tannin and is often added to blends to add a spicy component. It is rare to find Cinsault as a varietal bottling in the States. In France, Cinsault is the “king” of grape varieties in Provence Rosé wines. Its large, juicy berries produce elegant, mouthwatering dry Rosés for the sophisticated palate. Among the grape’s claim to fame is being half the genetic cross (along with Pinot Noir) behind the South African Pinotage grape. Cinsault came to California in the 1860s, but total planting in 2004 was only 144 acres, producing a mere 672 tons. The Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi is home to 25 acres of Cinsault, planted in 1886, making it the oldest Cinsault vineyard in the world."--Onesta Founder/Winemaker Jillian Johnson

Dolcetto - This red wine grape is found almost exclusvely in Italy's Piedmont region. It produces light and fruity wine.

Fume Blanc - Popularized by Robert Mondavi in 1970, Fume Blanc is Sauvignon Blanc. Often, the name indicates that it has been fermented in oak.

Gewürztraminer - Gewürztraminer is a white German wine that produced distinctive wines rich in spicy aromas and full flavors, ranging from dry to sweet. This varietal is a popular choice for Asian dishes.

Malbec - Uniquely plump in texture while being forwardly fruity. Usually a wine this dark is expected to be a little bit harsh, but Malbec typically is very soft while filling the mouth with rich fruit flavors. Originating from the Cahors district of southwestern France, Malbec is also grown successfully in Argentina where it is the primary red grape varietal. Pair with leaner red meats or dark poultry meat. It works very well with pepper, sage, creamy mushroom sauces, and other rich sauces with vibrant flavors.

Merlot - Merlot is a red wine with medium to full body with black cherry and herbal flavors. Merlot is typically smooth, soft and mellow. Some of the world's most expensive, and most prized wines are Merlots and Merlot blends.

Mourvedre - This warm-weather, red wine grape is common in Southern France's Rhone Valley. Rich in color with early aromas, often blended with Syrah.

Petite Sirah - Petite Sirahs are inky red wines with firm, robust tannic tastes, often with peppery flavors. Petite Sirahs may complement meals with rich meats. Learn more about this big, rich red.

Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio) - The low acidity of this white grape helps produce rich, lightly perfumed wines that are often more colorful than other whites. Learn more this wine.

Pinot Noir - Pinot Noir is the world famous grape from Burgundy and more recently California and the Pacific Northwest. A light to medium-body wine, pegged as one of the most difficult to grow and make. Delicate and smooth with rich complexity, Pinot Noir is a versatile dinner companion. Five fun facts about Pinot Noir.

Riesling - Riesling is the classic white wine grape from Germany and known for its floral perfume. Depending on where they're made, they can be crisp and bone-dry, full-bodied and spicy or luscious and sweet. Well made Rieslings can be aged for decades.

Rosés (Blush Wines) - Rosés, also called blush wines, are light pink wines made from several red wine grapes. They get their color from a very short period of contact with the grape skins during the wine-making process. Rosés are light and can be very dry or somewhat sweet. They are best served well-chilled. See the different ways this wine can be made.

Sangiovese - Sangiovese is best known as the Italian red wine, Chianti. Hearty and dry, it often displays a distinctively smooth texture with spice, raspberry and licorice flavors. Super Tuscans are red blends that typically include Sangiovese.

Sauvignon Blanc - Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine best known for its grassy, herbal flavors and is a popular choice for shellfish or as a refreshing alternative to Chardonnay. Five things to know about Sauvignon Blanc.

Syrah (Shiraz) - Syrah can produce giant red wines with strong tannins and complex combinations of flavors including berry, plum and smoke. It's known as Shiraz mainly in Australia and South Africa. See how Syrah from cooler climates differs from warm climate Syrah.

Viognier - Viognier is a rare white grape growing in popularity for its uniqueness. It is an aromatic variety typically displaying peach, apricot and sometimes spicy flavors.

Zinfandel - Zinfandel is a medium to full-bodied red wine with berry or spicy, peppery flavors. Great with pizza and tangy barbecue sauce. Six things to know about Zinfandel.

Zweigelt is similar to a Pinot Noir, but a bit bigger and bolder. It is the most widely planted grape in Austria. It’s a perfect food wine. It was created in 1922 by crossing St. Laurent and Blaufrankisch.

We hope this short list of popular varietals has been helpful to you.

All About Blends
Now that you have a good understanding of some popular varietals, you can explore the world of varietal blends. Varietal blends offer winemakers an added level of artistic freedom that can be done during a blending process with wine from tanks and barrels, or can even be done in the field during harvest (a "field blend").

Wine blends vs. varietals? What a wonderful choice to make! At one time, that wasn’t even a choice to make with California wines. In the 1950s and 1960s, blends were “the” thing. Varietal wines, like 100% Cabernet Sauvignon were almost non-existent. (Legendary Winemaker Martin Ray is credited as one of the first to bottle 100% Cabernet in California. Courtney Benham has revived the Martin Ray brand.)

But the blends back then bear little resemblance to those we see today. Typically, they were mass-produced jug wines labeled “Chablis” for the whites and “Burgundy” for the reds. Fun fact: the popular "Hearty Burgundy" of the 1960s was made primarily from Lodi old-vine Zinfandel.

In reaction to this, for many years varietal wines took center stage in California. One-hundred percent Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot, or Sauvignon Blanc was considered a far better choice than any blend, since blends had gotten a bad reputation during the era of jug wines.

It wasn’t until 1974 that California saw its first “proprietary”, high quality Bordeaux blend, produced by Napa Valley vintner Joseph Phelps. This was something new for California wine lovers – a handcrafted blend, where the winemaker explored various combinations of blending elements, all Bordeaux varietals, before deciding on his own special creation. The spectacular success of Phelps’ “Insignia” blend inspired many others to create proprietary Bordeaux blends.

Now, we are seeing something like a golden age of wine blends in California. It’s a creative, exciting time because so many winemakers are exploring blends as they have never before.

Here’s the short list of varietal blends you’ll find with California wines today:

Red Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec

White Varietals - Sauvignon Blanc + Semillon

Côtes du Rhône:
Red Varietals: GSM: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and even Viognier (a white wine)

White Varietals: Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier

Super Tuscans:
Red Varietals: Sangiovese + Merlot, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon

Champagne/Sparkling Wine:
Varietals: Usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier but can also include Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.

From this list, you can see most blends are related to certain regions (Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, Italy, Champagne). But California winemakers have begun to break those barriers. They’re blending Zinfandel with Cabernet Sauvignon or Petite Sirah or Syrah, or all three. Tempranillo, a Spanish red, may be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Why do red blends dominate the market? Where are the white blends? Reds may be the star because there are so many more choices of red wines for blending. Also, Chardonnay is the top wine in America, and winemakers tell us consumers do not want to see their Chardonnay muddled up with any other wine.

Which brings us back to varietals. Certain wines lend themselves more than others to 100% make-up. Pinot Noir is one of them. This is a wine that is well known for its ability to express its sense of place or terroir, and that is the holy grail for artisan winemakers. Blending in other varietals would obstruct that pure reflection of terroir and cancel out all the care the winemaker took in the vineyard and in the cellar.

You’ll see a lot of 100% Zinfandel, too, perhaps because it is such a distinctive red wine on its own. Syrah is another common 100% varietal. The beauty of a pure Syrah is that those planted in cool climates and warm climates are very different. It’s fun to compare the lusher, fruitier warm climate Syrahs with the leaner cool climate versions and see which type you like best.

Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, can go either way. It is a world-class blender, but also can be a phenomenal 100% varietal wine. To blend or not to blend depends on the Cabernet vineyard and terroir. There are some vineyards where the Cab is so wonderful, it doesn’t need any Merlot for softness or any Petite Sirah for color.

There has been a movement in California for many years promoting 100% Petite Sirah (aka Durif), a wine most often found in Bordeaux blends. It’s a deep, bold red that hasn’t yet caught on. It is is a powerhouse for color, and adds structure and tannin to blends.

So, what will it be? A blend or a 100% varietal wine? If you’re looking for adventure, a blend may be your best choice. If your goal is reliability, a 100% varietal you know you like is always safe.

Getting to know the varietals used in some of your favorite (and not so favorite) wines is a great way to help you find more of the wines you love. Learning about wine can be a lifelong adventure and the more you learn the better your wine tastes!