Know Your Varietal Wines - Part 1 by Sherwin A. Lao

Screen Shot 2019-06-27 at 8.02.56 PM.png

Given this age of time when wine is gradually becoming a regular staple in our dinner table, it is already stodgy to simply call wines broadly by its color: red, white and rosé. It is just too darn generic...  and does not do justice to the multitude of wine choices available even in our country. That is why we must call our wines at the very least by varietal names. Varietal is a term we use to refer to the different kinds or breeds of grapes used in making wines.  There are literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of grape varietals planted in vineyards around the world, but only dozens of these names are familiar to the ordinary wine drinker. Starting with this column, I will try to increase your wine varietal vocabulary by briefly discussing twenty-one different varietal wines that can be found in the thriving local wine industry. There are thirteen red varietals and eight white varietals in my list. The top four varietals namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Syrah/Shiraz probably constitute over 50% of all varietal wines sold in the country.


1) Cabernet Sauvignon (Red) –mostly associated with the Medoc in Bordeaux France; Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and occasionally with Petit Verdot and Malbec to make the famous red Bordeaux wines; made 100% in most of New World like California, Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Africa; has typical aromas of blueberries, blackcurrant, licorice and mint; normally done full-bodied on the more premium labels and can age gracefully when kept well; a varietal that loves oak aging, and can develop a lot of complexity and depth with ample oak contact; very versatile and rich in flavors, something winemakers always enjoy working with; this is why Cabernet Sauvignon is also known as the undisputed King of Grapes

2) Chardonnay (White) -probably the most popular wine varietal in the world; the grape used on the famous Chablis of Bourgogne France, and one of the three mainstays of champagne in Champagne region (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier being the other two);Chardonnay can be very versatile, with strong tropical flavors, nice citrus influence, and can be favorable both with oak or without; Bourgogne produces arguably the best Chardonnays, ranging from the north most, Chablis, to the Cote de Beaune greats like Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet; California Chardonnays on the other hand are of great contrast, with good and more premium priced brands into more oak-aging, higher alcohol, fuller-bodied, and creamier styles; unoaked Chardonnays are very refreshing, with crisps acids, while oaked Chardonnays are quite mouthful and great with your cream-sauced meals

3) Merlot (Red) -another major Bordeaux varietal, more prominent and dominantly used in the `Right Bank’ (or East) of the Gironde River in Bordeaux; a dominant varietal in the very popular St. Emilion and Pomerol regions; Merlot is most likely the second red varietal wine choice after Cabernet Sauvignon; it is increasingly popular especially in the New World; Merlot has a tendency to be slightly lighter in body than Cabernet Sauvignon, and has a signature ‘earthy’ aroma that goes with fresh cherries and plum flavors

4) Syrah or Shiraz in Australia (Red) -originally from Rhone in France, a solo varietal in some of the most expensive appellations in Northern Rhone like Hermitage and Cornas; Syrah has a signature `burned fruit’ flavor with a ‘spicy’ nose; the Syrah or Shiraz grape is the most popular varietal of Australia;  Australia's first icon wine, Penfolds Grange Hermitage made of 100% Shiraz, was named after the famous Hermitage in Northern Rhone; Penfolds eventually dropped the Hermitage name to call their wine Penfolds Grange; with Australians at the forefront of this varietal, Syrah has become incredibly versatile; ranging from full-bodied, well-oaked, and fruit-powered, like those from Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Langhorne -all in South Australia, to lighter, semi-dry, fruitier versions from the New South Wales wine regions

5) Pinot Noir (Red) –known as the favorite varietal of wine connoisseurs; the only red varietal mainstay in Bourgogne except for the south most region of Beaujolais (technically still part of Bourgogne, that uses only Gamay grapes); Pinot Noir is also reputed to be one of the toughest varietals to grow for vintners; what makes Pinot Noir very interesting is its style -it can deceivingly be light to medium bodied in form, but it packs unbelievable power of raspberry, cherry fruits, floral and meaty elements when coming from the best vineyards; with oak treatment, Pinot Noir gains lots of extra flavors, improves complexity, develops nice soft tannins and more; also a mainstay of the Champagne region, and in threesome with Chardonnay and cousin grape, Pinot Meunier, make the heavenly champagnes


6) Sauvignon Blanc (White) -from the Bordeaux and Loire region in France; a solo varietal in the renowned Sancerre region and its equally known neighbor Pouilly Fume -both from Loire region; Pouilly Fumé even inspired Robert Mondavi to call Sauvignon Blanc as Fumé Blanc in California; in Bordeaux, it is the co-star of the Semillon grape on the sweet and dessert-type Sauterne and Barsac AOC wines, while majority to 100% varietal in most of the dry Medoc white Bordeaux wines; a very aromatic wine that is typically limey, herbaceous, grassy and vegetative; in Pouilly Fume, it even has an extra `smoky’ flavor on it or "Fumé" in French; Sauvignon Blanc is also very popular in New Zealand, especially in the Marlborough region in the South Islands, where the Kiwis have niche themselves with a uniquely gooseberry nose found on this varietal only in that region; very much like Syrah (or Shiraz) is to Australia, Sauvignon Blanc has made New Zealand wines an international player

7) Riesling (White) -originally from Germany, but a major varietal in Alsace, Norther nFrance, a key varietal in Ontario Canada, and also in South Australia particularly in Claire Valley; known mostly for its sweet flavors (including late harvest and botrytized), Riesling can actually be very dry, as you will experience trying this varietal in Alsace; while majority of French regions are in appellation names, Alsacian wines are named after its varietal grape, so it shouldn't be hard for one to find a French Riesling, which is also found in the unique fluted long green bottle (called Rhine bottle);some of the most expensive dry Rieslings come from the German regions of Pfalz, Mosel and Rheingau; Riesling has aromas of apricot, peach, longan, lychee and is quite minerally; truly a delight to drink, whether done in dry or sweet style

8) Tempranillo (Red) -originally from Spain, where it has several names like Cencibel, Ull de Llebre, Tinto Fino and Tinto del Pais; a regular staple in Spain's proudest wine regions, Rioja in the North Central and Ribera del Duero in the Castile-Leon area; normally comprising of70-90% of the Rioja and blended with the Garnacha (or Grenache in France and other parts of the world), the obscure but very dark Mazuelo grape, and the indigenous Graciano grape; Tempranillo has nice cherry flavors, coupled with some earthy and grassy notes; this varietal benefits from oak aging; now already an international varietal with growing plantings in Australia and California, this varietal is bound to become a major varietal for wine lovers all over the world

9) Sangiovese (Red) -originally from the Tuscan region in Italy, this varietal is the majority grape in all the great Tuscan wines from the surreal Brunello di Montalcino, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (where it is called Prugnolo), the Bolgheri, to the Chianti(where it is blended with Canaiolo);Sangiovese when blended with popular varietals that originated from neighboring France, majority being Cabernet Sauvignon, but also with Merlot and Syrah, are what are known as `Super Tuscans’; Sangiovese is another versatile wine that can be light and approachable in basic Chiantis, but full-bodied, powerful and intense raspberry fruits when done in Brunello style; oak aging adds complexity to Sangiovese as can be compared between a basic Chianti with little oak to a Chianti Classico Riserva with a mandated full year in oak; another varietal gaining popularity with increased plantings in New World territories of Australia and California

10) Nebbiolo (Red) -originally from Piedmont in Northern Italy; also called Spanna or Chiavennasca in other parts of Italy; this is the varietal used in the long lived Barolo, and its’ neighboring Barbaresco; Nebbiolo has nice dried fruits flavor of prunes and raisins, may be high in acid, quite meaty, and does not have as much dark color as other top notch red varietals; Nebbiolo is an amazing varietal that with oak aging makes for excellent, deeply complex wines; a varietal that can last very long despite a relatively weaker red color

More varietal wines on Part 2, coming soon.


Sherwin Lao is the first Filipino member of both the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV based in France, and the Circle of Wine Writers or CWW based in England. He has the only regular wine column in the country called By the Glass, appearing at Business World, and is a freelance wine writer/contributor to several magazines. Sherwin is also a regional wine consultant, wine educator and wine importer. You can reach him at or follow him on twitter at