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The ‘Whats’ of Reds

Further to Robert Parker’s fantastic article introducing ‘The Three Ws of Wine‘, here Mr. Parker goes into a little greater detail exploring the ‘Whats’ of various red wines. Learn more at

Cabernet Franc

What: Cabernet Franc
Color: Dark ruby to purple
Body: Medium
Character: Best used as a blending grape as it often lacks body
Flavours: Flowers, menthol, red and black fruits
Tannin: Low to moderate
Where it’s Best: Loire Valley, Bordeaux, occasionally California and New Zealand
With: Vegetarian dishes, fish with red wine sauces or brown stocks, veal and chicken in white wine sauces

Cabernet Sauvignon

What: Cabernet Sauvignon
Color: Dark purple to black purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Tannic, muscular, wines with gravitas
Flavours: Black currants, cedar wood, cigar tobacco, licorice, smoke
Tannin: High
Where it’s Best: Bordeaux (Médoc), California (Napa Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains), Argentina, Chile, Australia (Barossa, McLaren Vale, Margaret River)
With: Roast beef, leg of lamb, classic European cuisines, grilled steaks, Waygu beef


What: Gamay
Color: Medium ruby to dark ruby
Body: Medium
Character: Very fruity/expressive in a relatively straightforward, simple style
Flavours: Strawberries, cherries, raspberries, and occasionally spring flowers
Tannin: Very Low
Where it’s Best: Southern Burgundy, Beaujolais
With: An all purpose light red served chilled that works well with everything from American hamburgers, pizza, and barbecue, to relatively sophisticated red meat and fish dishes such as tuna, along with an assortment of Asian cuisines


What: Grenache
Color: Medium ruby to dark plum
Body: Medium to full
Character: Silky and voluptuous
Flavours: Kirsch liqueur, essence of cherries, raspberries, licorice, pepper, Provençal herbs, lavender
Tannin: Low
Where it’s Best: Rhône Valley of France and Spain (Garnacha)
With: Very flexible, all poultry (turkey included), meats, vegetarian, pizza, most Asian cuisines, especially Chinese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Korean kalbi ribs


What: Malbec
Color: Very dark to purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Largely a failure in France where it produced rustic and coarse wine
Flavours: Dark berries, blackberries, cassis, plums, figs
Tannin: Moderate and high
Where it’s Best: Argentina
With: Roasted and grilled meats, charcuterie, duck, patés


What: Merlot
Color: Dark ruby to dark purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Usually soft
Flavours: Black cherries, mocha, coffee, black tea, tomato skins, plums
Tannin: Moderate
Where it’s Best: Bordeaux (Medoc), California (Napa Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains), Argentina, Chile, occasionally Australia
With: Roasted or grilled vegetables, pork, duck

‘Red Grapes’ via . Used through Creative Commons licence.


What: Mourvèdre
Color: Dark ruby to dark purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Earthy, tannic, and ruggedly constructed
Flavours: Tree bark, fresh mushrooms, damp soil, forest floor, licorice, blueberries, and raspberries
Tannin: Medium to high
Where it’s Best: Southern France, Spain, and a few selected microclimates of California
With: Relatively flexible with food, it can work with numerous Provençal dishes such as eggplant and tomato-based sauces as well as barbecued birds, and beef, pork, and chicken roasts. It does not match well with any type of seafood.


What: Nebbiolo
Color: Medium ruby to dark garnet
Body: Medium to full
Character: Very fragrant, noble, rich, powerful, but surprisingly light/elegant
Flavours: Pure cherry liqueur infused with licorice, herbs, roses and tar
Tannin: High
Where it’s Best: Northern Italy, particularly Piedmont
With: Mushroom and vegetarian dishes, pastas, goat, lamb, various risottos, dim sum

Petite Sirah

What: Petite Sirah
Color: Opaque purple to nearly blue/black
Body: Full
Character: Forbiddingly tannic, backward, and nearly impossible to fully appreciate until it has had 8-10 years of bottle age
Flavours: Blackberries, incense, acacia flowers, tar, pepper, and creosote
Tannin: High
Where it’s Best: Hot climates such as coastal areas of California and southern Australia
With: Meat-based or pungent game dishes, including intensely flavored wild birds and other heavy foods; hence it has a reputation as a wine for winter drinking and eating

Pinot Noir

What: Pinot Noir
Color: Light to dark ruby
Body: Light to medium, occasionally full
Character: Cherries, forest floor, strawberries, fresh mushrooms, herbs
Tannin: Moderate
Where it’s Best: Burgundy, California (Russian River, Sonoma Coast, Santa Barbara), Oregon, Champagne – sparkling Blanc de Noirs
With: Salmon, tuna (especially toro), roast chicken, lamb, veal, Mediterranean and Vietnamese dishes, Peking duck, smoky BBQ


What: Sangiovese
Color: Medium ruby
Body: Medium
Character: Leafy, earthy, medium-bodied
Flavours: Tart, crisp, strawberries, often herbal and acidic
Tannin: Low to moderate, but acids are often high
Where it’s Best: Southern Italy, particularly Tuscany
With: Tomato-based pasta dishes, rabbit, chili, grilled beef

Syrah / Shiraz

What: Syrah / Shiraz
Color: Dark ruby to black/purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Fleshy
Flavours: Blackberries, cassis, pepper, tar, coffee
Tannin: Moderate
Where it’s Best: Northern Rhône Valley, Southern Australia (Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley), California
With: Grilled meats, patés, smoked foods, wild game, charcuterie, Kobe/Wagyu beef


What: Tempranillo
Color: Dark ruby to opaque purple
Body: Medium
Character: Silky
Flavours: Sweet cherries, black currants, loamy soil, earthy undertones
Tannin: Moderate
Where it’s Best: Spain
With: Spanish tapas, paella, roast lamb, chicken, smoked or Peking duck


What: Zinfandel
Color: Dark ruby to dark purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Tart, spicy, peppery, herbal
Flavours: Cherries, earth, spice, pepper, and dark wild berries
Tannin: Low, but acidity is moderate to high
Where it’s Best: California, and a handful from Australia
With: Grilled meats, pizza, hamburgers, Korean BBQ, Kobe/Wagyu beef

The ‘Whats’ of Whites

Further to Robert Parker’s fantastic article introducing ‘The Three Ws of Wine‘, here Mr. Parker goes into a little greater detail exploring the ‘Whats’ of various white wines. Learn more at


What: Chardonnay
Color: Light gold to greenish light gold
Body: Light to full
Character: Dry, creamy, oaky, rich
Flavors: Diverse, including lemons, pears, peaches, tropical fruits, oranges, pineapples, honeysuckle
Where it’s Best: Burgundy, California, Australia, Champagne (sparkling Blanc de Blancs)
With: Shellfish (especially lobster, crab, and scallops), shark’s fin soup, miso marinated cod

Chenin Blanc

What: Chenin Blanc
Color: Light to greenish straw; sometimes gold
Body: Light
Character: Frequently possesses residual sugar
Flavours: Oranges, apple blossoms, spring flower garden
Where it’s best: Loire Valley (Savennières, Vouvray)
With: Indian and Malaysian cuisine, poultry in white sauces, cheeses, and fruit-based desserts (if it is sweet Chenin Blanc)


What: Gewurztraminer
Color: Light gold to deep gold
Body: Medium-bodied
Character: Exuberant to flamboyant, intense aromatics, relatively heavy and oily flavors. Dry to sweet; usually a love-it or hate-it wine.
Flavours: Potent aromatics, very fragrant, roses, lychee nuts, peaches, apricots
Where it’s best: Alsace, Northern Italy
With: Asian cuisines both spicy and not spicy, such as Cantonese, Sichuan, Korean BBQ, kimchi, dim sum

Grüner Veltliner

What: Grüner Veltliner
Color: Light greenish/gold
Body: Medium to full
Character: Citrusy, with surprising strength and medium to full body
Flavours: Quince, white currants, white flowers, honeysuckle, and nectarines
Where it’s best: Austria
With: Any fish or shellfish dish, lighter dishes of grilled veal and chicken, and an assortment of Asian cuisines, especially Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and the spicier Chinese cuisines such as Sichuan and Hunan

Pinot Gris

What: Pinot Gris (Grigio)
Color: Light straw to deep gold
Body: Light
Character: Ranges from fruity and medium weight to rich, extravagant and long-lived. Usually offers considerable flexibility with food.
Flavours: Apples, orange skins, honey
Where it’s best: Alsace, Northern Italy
With: Curried dishes, lighter fish and poultry dishes, smoked salmon


What: Riesling
Color: Light, pale straw to greenish straw
Body: Light
Character: Fresh, delicate; usually possesses residual sugar and high acidity
Flavours: Citrus, grapefruit, green apples
Where it’s best: Germany, Australia (Clare Valley), Austria, Alsace
With: Root vegetables, raw vegetables, delicate fish, shellfish, oysters, shrimp, most Asian cuisines, especially fish and shellfish work well, and Riesling can stand up to the fiery cuisine of Thailand

Sauvignon Blanc

What: Sauvignon Blanc
Color: Light straw even very pale and almost watery in appearance
Body: Light to medium
Character: Flexible with an assortment of foods; always zesty and vibrant
Flavours: Pungent green beans, freshly mowed grass, grapefruit, melons, figs
Where it’s best: Loire Valley (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé), California, New Zealand
With: Sushi, oysters, vegetarian dishes, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese cuisine, fatty cheeses

White Rhône Varietals

What: White Rhône Varietals (Marsanne, Roussanne, & Viognier)
Color: Medium gold to very gold
Body: Medium to full-bodied
Character: Oily/viscous
Flavours: Nutty, floral (rose petals), marmalade, ripe jam
Where it’s best: Rhône Valley, California (Central Coast), Southern Australia
With: Intensely flavored fish and poultry dishes, confit of duck, smoked seafood, Mediterranean vegetable dishes, shark’s fin soup, Asian hot pot, dim sum

Making Sense of Terroir

“Knowing in part may make a fine tale,
but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.”—Asian Proverb

And so it is with the concept of ‘terroir’, that hazy, intellectually-appealing notion that a plot of soil plays the determining factor in a wine’s character. The French are the world’s most obsessed people regarding the issue of terroir. And why not? Many of that country’s most renowned vineyards are part of an elabourate hierarchy of quality based on their soil and exposition. And the French would have everyone believe that no one on planet Earth can equal the quality of their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, etc. because their privileged terroir is unequaled. One of France’s most celebrated wine regions, Burgundy, is often cited as the best place to search for the fullest expression of terroir. Followers of terroir (the terroirists) argue that a particular piece of ground and its contribution to what is grown there give its product a character that is distinctive and apart from that same product grown on different soils and slopes. Burgundy, with its classifications of grand cru and premier cru vineyards, village vineyards and generic viticultural areas, is the terroirists ‘raison d’etre’.

Lamentably, terroir has become such a politically-correct buzzword that in some circles it is an egregious error not to utter some profound comments about finding ‘a sense of somewhereness’ when tasting a Vosne-Romanée-Les Malconsorts or a Latricières-Chambertin. Leading ‘terroirists’ such as wine producer Lalou Bize-Leroy, Burgundy wine broker Becky Wasserman, and author Matt Kramer make a persuasive and often eloquent case about the necessity of finding, as Kramer puts it, “the true voice of the land” in order for a wine to be legitimised.

Yet like so many things about wine, especially tasting it, there is no scientific basis for anything Bize, Wasserman, or Kramer propose. What they argue is what most Burgundians and owners of France’s finest vineyards give lip service to—that for a wine to be authentic and noble it must speak of its terroir.

Terrior Only One Factor of Wine Character

On the other side of this issue are the ‘realists’, or should I call them modernists. They suggest that terroir is merely one of many factors that influence the style of a wine. The realists argue that a multitude of factors determine a wine’s style, quality, and character. Soil, exposition, and microclimate (terroir) most certainly impart an influence, but so do the following:

  1. Rootstock: Is it designed to produce prolific or small crop levels?
  2. Yeasts: Does the winemaker use the vineyard’s wild yeasts or are commercial yeasts employed? Every yeast, wild or commercial, will give a wine a different set of aromatics, flavor, and texture.
  3. Yields and Vine Age: High yields from perennial overcroppers result in diluted wine. Low yields, usually less than two tons per acre or 35-40 hectoliters per hectare, result in wines with much more concentration and personality. Additionally, young vines have a tendency to overproduce, whereas old vines produce small berries and less wine. Crop thinning is often employed with younger vineyards to increase the level of concentration.
  4. Harvest Philosophy: Is the fruit picked underripe to preserve more acidity, or fully ripe to emphasise the lushness and opulence of a given varietal?
  5. Vinification Techniques and Equipment: There are an amazing number of techniques that can change the wine’s aromas and flavors. Moreover, equipment choice (different presses, destemmers, etc.) can have a profound influence on the final wine.
  6. Élévage (or the wine’s upbringing): Is the wine brought up in oak barrels, concrete vats, stainless steel, or large oak vats (which the French call foudres)? What is the percentage of new oak? All of these elements exert a strong influence on the wine’s character. Additionally, transferring wine (racking) from one container to another has an immense impact on a wine’s bouquet and flavor. Is the wine allowed to remain in long contact with its lees (believed to give the wine more aromatic complexity and fullness)? Or is it racked frequently for fear of picking up an undesirable lees smell?
  7. Fining and Filtration: Even the most concentrated and profound wines that terroirists consider quintessential examples of the soil can be eviscerated and stripped of their personality and richness by excessive fining and filtering. Does the winemaker treat the wine with kid gloves, or is the winemaker a manufacturer/processor bent on sculpturing the wine?
  8. Bottling Date: Does the winemaker bottle early to preserve as much fruit as possible, or does he bottle later to give the wine a more mellow, aged character? Undoubtedly, the philosophy of when to bottle can radically alter the character of a wine.
  9. Cellar Temperature and Sanitary Conditions: Some wine cellars are cold and others are warm. Different wines emerge from cold cellars (development is slower and the wines are less prone to oxidation) than from warm cellars (the maturation of aromas and flavours is more rapid and the wines are quicker to oxidise). Additionally, are the wine cellars clean or dirty?

These are just a handful of factors that can have extraordinary impact on the style, quality, and personality of a wine. As the modernists claim, the choices that man himself makes, even when they are unquestionably in pursuit of the highest quality, can contribute far more to a wine’s character than the vineyard’s terroir. If one listens to Robert Kacher, a realist, or to Matt Kramer, a terroirist, it is easy to conclude they inhabit different worlds. But the irony is that in most cases, they tend to agree as to the Burgundy producers making the finest wines.

Distinctive Style

If you are wondering where I stand on terroir, I do believe it is an important component in the production of fine wine. However, I would argue that the most persuasive examples of terroir do not arise from Burgundy, but rather, from Alsace. If one is going to argue terroir, the wine has to be made from exceptionally low yields, fermented with only the wild yeasts that inhabit the vineyard, brought up in a neutral medium, such as old barrels, cement tanks, or stainless steel, given minimal cellar treatment, and bottled with little or no fining or filtration.

For example, if I were to take up the cause of the terroirists, I would use one of Alsace’s greatest domaines, that of Leonard and Olivier Humbrecht, to make a modest case for terroir. The Humbrechts do everything to emphasise the differences in their vineyard holdings. Yet in a blind tasting, why is it so easy to identify the wines of Zind-Humbrecht? Certainly their Hengst-Riesling tastes different than their Riesling from Clos St.-Urbain. The question is, is one tasting the terroir, or the winemaker’s signature? Zind-Humbrecht’s wines, when matched against other Alsatian wines, are more powerful, richer, and intense. Zind-Humbrecht’s yields are lower and they do not filter the wine at bottling. Yet this is a case where the wines not only possess an identifiable winemaker’s signature, but also a distinctive vineyard character.

Lalou Bize-Leroy of the Domaine Leroy is often cited as the pre-eminent terroirist. She is a persuasive woman and talks a mighty game when it comes to how her vineyard parcels impart specific characteristics to her wines. But when Bize’s wines are evaluated in blind tastings, the obvious conclusion is that she fashions more concentrated and ageworthy red burgundies than her peers. Once a taster is familiar with the style of her wines (there are subtle differences) Leroy’s wines can be easily identified in a blind tasting because of their power, purity, richness, and exceptional intensity rather than by any particular terroir characteristic. The same can be said for many of Burgundy’s finest producers. Anyone who is familiar with the style of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can usually pick a DRC wine out of a blind tasting because of the singular style of its winemaking. Winemaker Jacques Seysses, a producer who received a five-star rating in my book on Burgundy, and someone I admire tremendously, runs up the terroir flag as fast as any Frenchman, saying, “man can destroy, not create.” Seysses, who utilises 100% new oak for all of his grand crus, produces wines of extraordinary finesse and elegance. However, when tasted, his wines are dominated by his own winemaking autograph and can be picked out, not because they emanate from vineyards such as Clos de la Roche, Clos St.-Denis, or Bonnes Mares, but because of his distinctive style.

Terroir, as used by many of its proponents, is often a convenient excuse for upholding the status quo. If one accepts the fact that terroir is everything, and is essential to legitimise a wine, how should consumers evaluate the wines from Burgundy’s most famous grand cru vineyard, Chambertin? This thirty-two acre vineyard boasts twenty-three different proprietors. But only a handful of them appear committed to producing an extraordinary wine. Everyone agrees this is a hallowed piece of ground, but I can think of only a few producers – Domaine Leroy, Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Rousseau, Domaine des Chézeaux (Ponsot makes the wine for Chézeaux) – that produce wines that merit the stratospheric reputation of this vineyard. Yet the Chambertins of three of these producers, Leroy, Ponsot, and Rousseau, are completely different in style. The Ponsot wine is the most elegant, supple, and round, Leroy’s is the most tannic, backward, concentrated, and meaty, and Rousseau’s is the darkest-colored, most dominated by new oak, and most modern in style, taste, and texture. Among the other eighteen or twenty producers (and I am not even thinking about the various negociant offerings) what Burgundy wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter on retailers’ shelves ranges from mediocre to appallingly thin and insipid. What wine, may I ask, speaks for the soil of Chambertin? Is it the wine of Leroy, the wine of Ponsot, the wine of Rousseau?

Arguments such as this can be made with virtually any significant Burgundy vineyard. Consider Corton-Charlemagne and the products of four of its most celebrated producers. The firm of Faiveley owns the most prized parcel atop this famous hill, and they make a compellingly elegant Corton-Charlemagne. Stylistically, it is the antithesis of the super-concentrated, lavishly oaky, broadly flavored, alcoholic Corton-Charlemagne made by Louis Latour. Again, Domaine Leroy makes a backward, hard, tough Corton-Charlemagne that resembles a tannic red more than a white wine. Domaine Coche-Dury makes a wine with extraordinary mineral components, as well as remarkable richness, unctuosity, and opulence where the oak takes a back seat to the wine’s fruit and texture. Which of these Corton-Charlemagnes has that notion of “somewhereness” that is raised by the terroirists to validate the quality of a vineyard?

Are terroirists kindergarten intellectuals who should be doing more tasting and less talking? Of course not. But they can be accused of naively swallowing the tallest tale in Burgundy. On the other hand, the realists should recognise that no matter how intense and concentrated a wine can be from a modest vineyard in Givry, it will never have the sheer complexity and class of a Vosne-Romanée grand cru from a conscientious producer.

In conclusion, think of terroir as you do salt, pepper, and garlic. In many dishes they can represent an invaluable component, imparting wonderful aromas and flavours. But if consumed alone, they are usually difficult to swallow. Moreover, all the hyperventilation over terroir obscures the most important issue of all – identifying and discovering those producers who make wines worth drinking and savouring!

The Three Ws of Wine

Robert Parker is one of the most knowledgeable and influential wine critics in the world.  Here’s a piece from his website,, that I find very useful and educational. I would encourage anyone serious about learning more about wine to subscribe to his site and also purchase his wine guides.

The subject of wine is so vast it can easily be intimidating for those of us just beginning to understand and enjoy it. This guide will help you develop a basic perspective on wine and serve as a useful tool for choosing a wine tableside or in your favorite wine store.

I encourage you to broaden your wine horizons. Don’t always play it ‘safe’ with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Chardonnay. While these are very important grape varieties, they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

Also consider trying something other than California wines. Otherwise you’ll miss out on the many exciting and affordable wines being produced in regions like Australia, South America, Spain, Italy, and the South of France.

It’s as easy as remembering the three Ws of wine!

What Type of Grape?

When we’re talking about the ‘What’ of wine, we’re talking about what wine is made from: grapes! Grape varieties largely determine important factors such as color, body, character, flavor, when you should drink it and its tannin level.

Together these factors also influence the foods a wine best complements. I don’t believe in rigid rules in this regard, but I’ll give you some general guidance for food pairings with each variety.

Keep in mind some wine labels tell you what grapes the wine was made from. But this isn’t always the case—particularly with wines from France. For example, many people who love to drink Chardonnay from California are surprised to learn that white wines from Burgundy are made from the same grape.

Where were the Grapes Grown?

Differences in climate and soil have a dramatic impact on the taste of wines made from the same grape. This isn’t quite the whole story since winemaking techniques vary around the world and definitely impact the final result. However, paying attention to where the grapes were grown will definitely help you orient yourself and figure out the flavor profiles you prefer.

When were the Grapes Grown?

A wine’s vintage influences its quality. All other things being equal, the higher the quality of grapes, the better the wine. In general, grapes do best when the climate is hot and relatively dry, particularly in the late summer and fall. Too cool and they may not ripen. Too wet and they may be diluted or rot.

Paying attention to vintage is important when you are faced with a list of unfamiliar wines. Knowing that the Northern Rhône had a great vintage in 2003 or that Bordeaux produced great wines in 2005 can increase your chances of making a good choice. Knowing that the harvest was disastrous in the Southern Rhône in 2002 can help you avoid disappointment.

Cover photograph by Aline Ponce from Pixabay. Used through a Creative Commons licence.

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