White Or Red: A Guide To Common Wine Varieties

Have you ever pronounced Merlot with a hard “t”? Made the heinous mistake of calling something Champagne when it was clearly just sparkling wine? Been completely unsure of how to pronounce ‘Tempranillo’ and just mumbled your best guess into your hand? In Part Two of Lifehacker’s wine guide, we’ll be teaching you about some of the grape varieties you’re likely to encounter in Australian wine, ranging from Sauvignon Blanc to Sangiovese.

All wine pictures from Shutterstock

(If you missed part one, where we introduced the basics of fine wine, you can find it here.)

Red or White?

Back when I worked in the premium section of a major bottle shop, no day was complete until I had fielded a panicked customer entreating me with cries of “help, I don’t like red wine”, as though their preference for whites meant that they didn’t have a taste for ‘real’ wine.

There are so many assumptions when it comes to red or white — you can’t be a wine connoisseur if you don’t like reds, white wine is for women and red wine is for men, drink reds in winter and whites in summer — none of which is necessarily true. There are plenty of reds and whites to suit every taste: from sweet, to fruity, all the way through to dry and savoury.

Ageing potential is not exclusive to red wine either — there are a handful of whites that will sit quite happily in your cellar for up to 20 years, gaining flavour and value. So in answer to the age old question of red or white: why not try both?

Dry or Sweet?

We’ve all come across the vague “dry” descriptor at some time — recipes will often ask for a “dry red” or “dry white” — but what does it actually mean? Why is it so hard to find a wine labelled “dry” that isn’t sold in a cask? In fact, the vast majority of the wine on the shelves of your local bottle-o is actually dry.

In wine terminology, dry simply refers to a wine that isn’t sweet, having low residual sugar. Even light, fruity wines like Sauvignon Blanc are classified as dry whites, as its rich, fruity flavour is different to the sweetness of residual sugar. Wines like Rosé or Riesling can be made in both sweet and dry styles, whereas newly popular Moscatos are an example of a sweet wine.

Australia’s Favourite Varieties


Shiraz: Also known as Syrah in Europe, Shiraz is one of Australia’s favourite varietals. A medium to full bodied red, you can expect predominant flavours of dark fruit (cherries, blackberries, plums and yes, grapes if you’re going to be a smartass) and hints of spice and leather in a classic Australian Shiraz. Generally speaking, our best Shiraz comes from the Barossa Valley region in South Australia — where it is well known for making up the majority of Australia’s most famous premium wine, Penfolds Grange.

Cabernet Sauvignon: A full bodied red, the exemplars of this varietal will be rich and smooth, at their best when enjoyed with food. With Australia’s warm climate allowing red grapes to ripen to their fullest potential, a big Aussie red is always going to be a winner with roast dinners or weekend barbeques. Look out for Cab Sauvs from the Coonawarra region for the very best Australia has to offer.

Merlot: Popularly known as a softer red, Merlot lacks the bite of its heavier cousins. It isn’t as popular in higher premium price points as it lacks the complexity found in Shiraz and Cab Sauv, but it can be a good wine for casual drinks, or for someone just starting to drink red wine.

Pinot Noir: One of the lightest reds available, Pinot Noir is typically fruity and soft. It provides good easy drinking at all price points, with some wines of exceptional quality and complexity available at premium levels. The Pinot Noir grape is a little more difficult to grow than most, so even entry level bottles will be more expensive than your standard red. Look out for Tasmanian or Central Otago Pinots to get the most bang for your buck.

Tempranillo: A medium to full bodied Spanish wine, Tempranillo is fairly similar to Shiraz and accordingly has found a place in the Australian market in the last few years. Typically spicy and rich, everywhere from the Hunter Valley in NSW to the warmer South Australian wine regions has been trying their hand at growing this varietal. Oh, and it’s pronounced something like ‘tem-pra-nay-oh’. You’re welcome.

Sangiovese: Another recentish import, the Sangiovese grape hails from Italy where it’s most well-known for being the main component of Chianti. As with Tempranillo, enterprising winemakers across the country have started experimenting with Sangiovese, although the King Valley in Victoria is particularly known for its Italian varietals, being home to a number of migrant families.

Grenache: Usually encountered in blends with Shiraz — making up a light, easy drinking blended wine — a good Grenache can also be drunk alone. Grenache is one of France’s most widely planted grapes, with fruit-forward flavours and a hint of spice, though Australia’s answer to this variety often gives a little more kick. Look out for Barossa Valley Grenache in particular.

Malbec: A dark, robust grape, the previously maligned Malbec has found its perfect home in Argentina and, eventually, here in Australia. Both Argentinian and Australian versions of this varietal have been making waves in the last few years. Like most bold reds, Malbec is best when grown in South Australia’s wine regions.

Sweet Reds: While not as common as sweet whites, these reds can make a great wine to pick up for a lazy weekend drink as we come into warmer weather. Italian grape Lambrusco is often used to make a semi-sweet and lightly sparkling red wine, likewise many Australian producers make a Dolcetto and Syrah blend that is very similar in style. Remember that sweet reds are best when refrigerated, making for a more refreshing way to get your red wine fix in summer.

Sparkling Reds: An Australian classic, sparkling reds found themselves with a bad reputation a couple of decades ago, thanks to an influx of low quality wine. These unique Aussie wines are making a comeback in a big way, however, with many boutique wineries making sparkling wines not just from the old staple of Shiraz, but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and even some of the more obscure varieties like Tempranillo.


Sauvignon Blanc: Having usurped Chardonnay as Australia’s favourite wine, Sauvignon Blanc is everywhere. Intensely fruity, most of the Sauvignon Blanc you’ll find will be from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, although Australian regions like Adelaide Hills provide some exemplary departures from the standard tropical fruit style. While not always of the best quality, Sauv Blanc is usually the safest cheapy to buy if you’re on tight budget.

Chardonnay: Suffering from the same problem as sparkling reds, a glut of low quality, badly oaked Chardonnay turned Australia off this variety in the early 2000s. While it’s never quite reached its former level of popularity again, modern winemakers are once more doing great things with Chardonnay. While most would associate a ‘chardy’ with a heavy, almost unpleasantly oaky white, Chardonnay is actually one of the most versatile white varieties. For a wine that’ll make you change your mind about this unfashionable variety, you can’t go past NSW’s Hunter Valley region.

Pinot Gris/Grigio: Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio both refer to the same grape variety, although the names are not as interchangeable as you might think. Pinot Grigio is the Italian style of this varietal, which is picked earlier for a crisper, more acidic finish. Pinot Gris, on the other hand, is named for the French style in which the grapes are picked later, for a slightly sweeter and more floral wine. Either of these styles can sometimes be aged in oak, for a lighter alternative to Chardonnay.

Semillon: One of the Hunter Valley’s most famous varietals, Semillon can either be drunk young for a vibrant, crisp, citrusy style of wine, or aged for a full buttery wine that’s similar to an oaked Chardonnay. It also makes up part of Australia’s classic white blend — Semillon Sauvignon Blanc — which combines the best of these two varieties.

Riesling: Although it has a reputation as a sweet wine, Riesling is traditionally made as a dry white. Australia’s most famous region for this varietal is the Clare Valley, where you can even cycle the famous Riesling Trail as you sample the best this country has to offer.

Viognier: A less popular white variety, Viognier is much more floral than most of its fellows, with some tasting almost perfumey. It is not often sold as a straight varietal, so you’ll most commonly find it blended with Shiraz to add a hint of apricot or a floral aroma to the full-bodied red.

Sparkling Wine: While sparkling wine can be made from almost any grape variety (although styles like sparkling Sauvignon Blanc do not come highly recommended) the classic Champagne blend that we all know and love is comprised of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A classic sparkling should be very dry — which is what the ‘brut’ on the labels of sparkling wine means. With a very similar climate to the region of Champagne in France, Tasmania is putting out a bunch of quality Australian sparkling wines at this time.

Prosecco: A dry to off-dry style of Italian sparkling, Prosecco can be a touch sweeter than the ultra-dry French style of sparkling. Many imported Proseccos are available in the Australian market, but I would argue that the original isn’t always the best in this case. Instead, look for an Australian Prosecco from the King Valley, where a large Italian migrant population is putting New World spin on some classic Italian wines.

Moscato: The sweetest wine available that isn’t classified as a dessert wine, Moscato originated in Italy, like many of the sweeter styles of wine. Imported Moscatos usually come from the Italian region of Asti, while Australian takes on this variety are being produced by winemakers all over the country. The high sugar content has its drawbacks, however — Moscato has one of the lowest alcohol contents of any wine, having as little as three standard drinks in a 750ml bottle.

While I haven’t managed to cover even a quarter of the many varieties that Australian winemakers are currently experimenting with, I’ve nonetheless mentioned the most popular and noteworthy amongst them.

Now that you’re savvy in the names and varieties you might encounter in your search for wine, look out for the next part in Lifehacker’s wine guide to better help you navigate your local wine section. Next time we will be deciphering the language of wine awards, asking if those shiny gold medals actually mean anything, and which ones — if any — you should pay attention to.

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