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Dessert Wines

Dessert wines are a unique style of wine known for sweetness and higher alcohol content.  Dessert wines come in white and red forms most notably including white zinfandels, moscatos, and ports.  Port wines were developed in Portugal and are fortified with an additional neutral grape spirit to stop fermentation leaving residual sugars in the wine.  Dessert wines are typically served in small pours.

Important Wine Terms

Breathing/Decanting: Wine breathes through contact with the air (principally oxygen).  Allowing wine to breath allows some wines, particularly red wines, to open, thereby releasing some of the flavors.  Allowing wine to sit uncorked, in a decanter, or in a glass can add to the wine profile.  Rolling your glass slowly can help speed the process, but the traditional swirling is only appropriate for one drink tastings; otherwise the wine will quickly be over-aerated and bruised.

Dry: Dry, when used to describe wine, means a low level of residual sugars.  Most wines do not have residual sugars, so this term is not used too often.  Dry is common with Rieslings and sparkling wines.

Estate: Estate wines refer to wines produced exclusively from grapes grown on the vineyard.  Many wineries utilize a portion of their grapes from outside vineyards.  Particularly in well-known areas where land is expensive, estate grapes are used to develop the flavor profile while others are used for body.

Fruit Intensity/Fruit Forward:  Fruit intensity is used throughout this page to describe how strong the fruit flavors appear within a wine.  Fruit forward is the most common term used to describe a wine with strong fruit flavors.

Nose: The smell of the wine.

Oak: Some wines are barrel aged during the wine making process in oak barrels.  The major distinctions are American Oak vs.French Oak and new oak vs. old oak. Oak barrels may be  toasted to add additional flavors.  Oak imparts woody tannins in a wine and wood barrels allow for some interaction between the air the wine during fermentation as wood is naturally porous.

Pairing: Wine pairing is the subjective art of matching a wine to a food (or vice versa).  As I've been taught, pairing food and wine is a balancing act where the end goal is to find a wine and food combination where each component balances the other, leaving your palet neutral.  I look for a wine that will not overpower my food (meaning that I will be able to fully taste my next bite after a sip of wine) and a wine that does not get overpowered by the food (meaning that I will be able to taste the full flavors of the wine while eating).  For example, I would tend to stay away from Cabernet Sauvignon with a fresh fruit salad of oranges and melon because the tannins in the wine will, in my mind, overpower the flavor of the fruit.  Also, I wouldn't choose a Chardonnay for a peppery steak because the stake flavoring would over power the more delicate flavors of the Chardonnay.  But in the end, wine pairings are up to your own tastes, so I encourage you to experiment!

Sweet:  Sweet is probably the word that is most frequently misused.  Sweet, in wine terms, refers to residual sugars.  Almost all wines have 0% residual sugars. Riesling, muscat, dessert wines, and some sparkling wines have residual sugars.

Tannin: Tannin is the textured component of wine that your mouth feel dry after a drink of wine.  Tannins are complex molecules imparted into the wine predominantly from grape skins and wood barrels.  Many winemakers add tannins as a powder.

Varietal:  The grape variety.

Vintage: The year the grapes were harvested.


Wine Regions that name their wines:

  • Bordeaux: A region in Southwestern France known principally for the red wine made with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc and white wine made with a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc
  • Burgundy: A region in Central France known principally for red wines made with Pinot Noir grapes and white wines made with Chardonnay grapes.
  • Champagne: A region in Northereastern France, just north of Burgundy, known principally for the sparkling wine called Champagne.  The region is largely defined by Pinot Noir and chardonnay grapes which are mixed in many Champagne wines.
  • Chianti: A region in central Tuscany (north/central Italy) known principally for red wine made with primarily Sangiovese grapes.
  • Rhone: A region in Southern France along the Rhone river.  The Rhone area is divided into the Northern Rhone known principally for red wine made from Syrah grapes and the Southern Rhone known principally for red wines with many many wine grapes, the best known style is Chateauneuf-du-Pape (10 red grapes and 9 white grapes).

Sparkling Wines

Sparkling wines come in both white and red styles but generally refer to carbonated wine.  The most recognized sparkling wines are Champagne, Brut, Asti, and Prosecco.  Champagne wines are defined by the Champagne region of northern France.  Brut style wines traditionally have fewer sugars than typical sparking wines. Asti wines are from the region near Asti, Italy and are known as sweet sparkling wines. Prosecco wines are light sparkling wines known for a crisp and dry flavor, often described with hints of apple.


Rosé wines are wines that have had limited contact with the grape skins.  Typically, rosé wines are made from red wine grapes, although in the case of sparkling rosés, a blend of white wine grapes and red wine grapes are not uncommon.  Rosé wines are typically a mild version of the associated red wine grape and without the tannins.  These wines focus on the fruit aspects of the grape.  Rosé wines can be paired with a wide range of foods because of the wide range of grapes.  Rosé wines are a good option for those who prefer red wines, but want the light and crisp components of a white wine.

Other Wines

There are many types and styles of wine that are not discussed here, but sparkling wines, rosés, and dessert wines are three broad categories that can be found almost anywhere.  A good sparkling wine can be an incredible addition to any event and a good dessert wine can arguable serve as a substitute for traditional desserts (although I prefer them both!).

Red Wines

Red wines, unlike white wines, retain their skins throughout the fermentation process.  The more tannic red wine styles are often meant to age for several years to several decades.  Ageing wines helps soften tannins within the wine.

Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon are, in my opinion, the most common red wines you will encounter and are shown in order from light bodied to full bodied.  Additional red wine varietals include Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Grenache, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, and Tempranillo.

Pairing red wines with foods are up to your personal preferences.  A few common trends are discussed within the description of each varietal.  Generally, I try to match my wine to foods with a goal of pairing that share the same intensity of flavors.  Unlike white wines, red wines have an additional layer of tannins which creates a strong mouth-feel and can significantly impact a pairing.

Here are some ways additional ways to differentiate red wines. To the right, the wines are listed from light bodied to full bodied.

Fruit Intensity (High to Low)

  • Zinfandel
  • Pinot Noir
  • Merlot
  • Syrah
  • Sangiovese
  • Malbec
  • Cabernet Sauvignon

Tannins (High to Low)

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Malvec
  • Zinfandel
  • Sagiovese
  • Merlot
  • Syrah
  • Pinot Noir

White Wines

The primary differentiation of white wines and red wines is that the grape skins are removed before fermentation - some white wines come from red grapes.  White wines are typically meant for consumption near the time of bottling and most will be from a year to three years old vintages.

Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay are, in my opinion, the most common white wines you will encounter and are shown in order from light bodied to medium bodied.  Additional white wine varietals include Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Semillon, Torrontes, Verdejo, Vernaccia, and Viognier.

Pairing white wines with foods are completely up to you! I have identified a few common trends, but it all comes down to personal preference.  Generally, I try to match my wine to foods with a goal of pairings that share the same intensity of flavors.  I don't want the wine to overpower the food and vice versa.  Generally, white wines go well by themselves on a warm day, with light snacks, salads, and citrus flavors.  

Wine & Wine Styles

While there are many distinct varietals, there are thousands of ways to blend them.  The best wine is always the wine you enjoy the most.  There are many guidelines to understanding wine types and food pairings; however, these are just guidelines, so take them for what they are and don't get caught in the "rules".  This page outlines some of the most common grape varietals and some basic information to help guide your quest to understand your wine favorites.  Remember though, most wines are a blend of several varietals, so make sure you don't judge a wine type based on just one bottle.


Riesling is one of the predominant German varietals and can be found in Washington.  While best known as a sweet wine, Riesling can be a light to medium bodied crisp dry (not sweet) wine. Typical descriptors of Riesling include citrus, apricot, pineapple, mineral, and honey.  Riesling is often paired with Asian flavorings, seafood, and chicken.  Sweet Rieslings are served as an aperitif or with dessert.


Chardonnay is one of the best known Burgundy grapes and is popular in California and Australia.  Chardonnay is a medium bodied wine that has a reputation for buttery flavors; however, this is a characteristic of oak barrel aging and not the grape itself.  Unoaked chardonnays are much more crisp without the butter flavor. Typical descriptors of chardonnay include citrus, papaya, butter, and vanilla. Chardonnays, both oaked and unoaked, are often paired with seafood, oil based dressing, and foods with rich fruits such as papaya and mango.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is one of the better known white Bordeaux wines and is also popular throughout California, New Zealand, and Chile.  Sauvignon Blanc is a crisp light-bodied wine.  Typical descriptors of Sauvignon Blanc include citrus, melon, grass, and mineral.  Sauvignon Blanc is often paired with shellfish, grilled vegetables, citrusy salads, and fish.

Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris

Pinot grigio and pinot gris are the same grape.  Pinot grigio is a popular grape grown in Italy, Oregon, and in parts of California. Pinot grigio wine is light to medium bodied.  Typical descriptors include citrus, mineral, pear, and apple.  Pinot grigio is often paired with shellfish, egg dishes, citrus marinated meats, and pate.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet sauvignon is the defining grape of the Napa Valley region and is an important part of a Bordeaux wine.  Typical descriptors of cabernet sauvignon are plum, black cherry, pepper, olive, jam, and spice.  Cabernet sauvignon can be very tannic and is a dark red or purple color with a full body and firm acidity.  Cabernet sauvignon is a strong wine that is typically paired with foods containing acidic, peppery, and savory flavors most notably red meats and tomato sauces.


Zinfandels are from Croatia, but best known in California. Zinfandels are a full-bodied fruit-forward wines with medium tannins best known for their bold fruit flavors. Typical descriptors for zinfandels include ripe stone fruit, jammy, raspberries and are best known for their bold fruit flavors.  Zinfandels are often paired with lean meats,grilled flavors, and vinegary or acidic dressings.


Malbec is a varietal best known in Argentina. Typical descriptors of malbec are spicy, tart, sour cherry, spice, and may include smoke, earth, leather. Malbec wines often have a dark color profile and stand up to spicy and rich food flavors.  Malbec may share pairings with cabernet sauvignon; however malbecs are more closely associated with spicy foods such as Mexican, Cajun, and Indian.


Sangiovese is the grape used in Chianti and is a staple for Tuscan wines; however Chianti wines must come from the Chianti region, otherwise these wines are called sangiovese.  Sangiovese wine is medium bodied and is relatively light in color with mild tannins.  Typical descriptors of sangiovese wines are raspberry, anise, tobacco leaves, and cherry pie.  Sangiovese is often paired with tomato sauces, mushrooms, and grilled fish and red meats.


Merlot is one of the primary Bordeaux varietals and is found in Washington and more recently in California.  Merlot is typically a medium-bodied wine with moderate tannins.  Typical descriptors of merlot include cherry, herb, plum, watermelon, and strawberry.  Merlot is one of the most versatile wine varietals and looking at particular bottle’s blend will help you understand what to expect from any individual bottle. Merlot is often paired with lightly-spiced dark meats and white meats with strong flavors. 


Syrah and Shiraz are the same grapes.  Shiraz is the Australian term for this varietal found as a staple of the Rhone varietals.  In the U.S., Syrah is found in Washington and California.  Petite Sirah is a different, but related, varietal. Syrah/Shiraz is a full-bodied tannic wine. Typical descriptors of Syrah/Shiraz include blackberry, boysenberry, black cherry, peppery, leathery, and clove. Syrah/Shiraz is often paired with lamb, sausages, grilled meats, and dishes with strong pepper and herb flavorings.

Pinot Noir

Pinot noir is one of the primary Burgundy grapes and are well-known in Oregon, California, and New Zealand.  Pinot noir is typically a medium-bodied wine with low to medium tannins.  Typical descriptors of pinot noir include blackberry, floral, ripe tomato, raspberry, and strawberry.  Pinot noir is often paired with fish, pork, fruit, and vinegar dressings.