Understanding varietals is a key part of wine knowledge, and of knowing your own tastes in wine. These notes are designed to help, and we have also put together tasting packs to help you find the varietals you like best.
Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in most wine regions. Good Cabernet has a deep colour, blackcurrant flavour and is full-bodied. Other flavours and aromas that you will come across are mint, chocolate and leather. Cabernet is often blended with other wines. Almost all Bordeaux wines include Cabernet and Merlot in their blend. The main difference in Cabernets is along the New World/Old World divide. New World Cabernets make full use of their plentiful sun to get the grapes fully ripe. This means they are fruity, soft and alcoholic. Bordeaux wines are generally more restrained in their fruit and are somewhat tannic. For this reason they need to be decanted or poured sometime before they are drunk to give the wine time to open up.
Explore our Cabernet Sauvignon collection here.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes
Merlot’s popularity has risen with the demand for wines that are soft and easy to drink when young. Merlot grapes ripen more easily than Cabernet and so achieve phenolic, or full, ripeness quicker thus producing a softer, more generous, plummy wine. Merlot is a key constituent of Bordeaux blends but achieved its fame in California where the film Sideways clearly showed how common it has become.
Explore our Merlot collection here.
A note on Bordeaux Blends
Also known as claret or meritage, the typical Bordeaux-style red blend is Cabernet Sauvignon (providing structure and body) blended with Merlot (providing fruit and smoother tannins), with smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec (or Carmenère) added to further balance the wine. While this style originated in France, it is popular with winemakers around the world as it allows them to find the best expression possible for the product of each year's particular growing conditions. We really enjoy these wines and have a fabulous selection of Bordeaux blends.
Pinot noir tastes of cherries when young and is often quite surprisingly light. As it ages it gets more earthy, savoury or umami in nature. Like Merlot it is more approachable than Cabernet but is not as sweet or overtly fruity. "If it's so great, why isn't it more popular?" you ask. Well it is pricey for one thing and its quality is hugely variable for another; you’re going to be disappointed more often with Pinot. But when it's good, young or aged, it's very good. P.S. Ours here at halfwine.com are all very good.
Explore our Pinot Noir collection here.
Pinot Noir grapes
Syrah in France or Shiraz in Australia deserves to be more popular. We like them as full bodied alternatives to Cabernet. Syrah is the grape of the Northern Rhone where it is peppery, spicy and rich with leather, herb and oak nuances. Shiraz in Australia is completely different; here they are fruity (blackcurrant), concentrated and powerful with high alcohol levels. In between these two extremes is Shiraz from the Swartland area north west of Cape Town in South Africa; peppery, spicy and fruity.
Explore our Syrah/Shiraz collection here.
Other red wines
halfwine.com also offers an often-changing selection of other red wines. These include Gamay from Beaujolais and Grenache from the Southern Rhone; Cabernet Franc from the Loire river; Sangiovese from Tuscany and Primitivo from Puglia; Tempranillo from Spain; Malbec from Argentina; and Zinfandel from California.
Explore our collection of other reds here.
Chardonnay is grown in almost every wine area in the world; it is the only white wine in Burgundy and the Californians worship it. Its flavours range from clean, fresh and lemony to complex, toast, butter and nuts. This range of flavours comes from where it is grown and how it is treated in the cellar. The broad dimensions are New World vs Old World and oaked vs unoaked. Old world chardonnay is more likely to be minerally and steely whilst New World chardonnay is more likely to be rounder and buttery. Unoaked wines are more likely to be fresh and lemony whilst oaked wines are more likely to be vanilla and toast. To give full expression of the range of chardonnay we offer a Chablis which is not likely to be oaked, an oaked and an unoaked white burgundy and a new world chardonnay which is most likely to be oaked.
Explore our Chardonnay collection here.
Sauvignon Blanc is most likely to be the wine that you can recognise instantly by its aroma and flavour; lemons, gooseberry, grass, green pepper (capsicum). Old World sauvignons are best represented by those from the Loire in France where the fruit flavours and aroma are restrained and the wine is bone dry and crisp. New World sauvignons have been made famous by those from Marlborough, New Zealand, but excellent examples come from South Africa and the cooler regions of Australia, whilst many people love those from Chile.
Explore our Sauvignon Blanc collection here.
Sauvignon Blanc grapes
Other white wines
halfwine.com also offers an often-changing selection of other white wines. These include Rieslings from Germany or Alsace; Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris from Alsace; Pinot Grigio from Italy; Chenin Blanc and Muscadet from the Loire river.
Explore our collection of other whites here.
Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris grapes
Rosé has come into its own again as the choice wine for summer days. It ranges from the palest of pinks to almost red; from bone dry to off dry; from truly awful to almost drinkable (showing our prejudices here, although we have to admit to occasionally enjoying those from Provence). It is made from red grapes where the juice is left in contact with the skins for only a short while, hence the light red colours. It is also made by blending red and white wine.
Explore our rosé collection here.
When it comes to Champagne it is hard to beat a quote from Madame Bollinger. She was asked "When do you drink champagne?" and she replied: "I only drink champagne when I'm happy, and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty.” Most wine regions produce a sparkling wine that is not allowed to be called Champagne because it does not come from the Champagne region in France. However, it is often made the same way and the bottle will say something like Méthode Traditionelle. Those that are as good as champagne are usually priced the same. halfwine.com stocks brut (dry) and extra brut champagnes and sparkling wines.
Explore our collection of bubblies here.
Champagne grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier
Sweet wines have been out of fashion for a long time; why, we can’t understand. The range of tastes is simply amazing, but there is one factor that sorts the good from the bad; acid. A good sweet wine should have sufficient acid so that, when you swallow it, the back of your mouth tastes fresh, not cloyingly sweet. All sweet wine is made by getting the water out of the grape juice. Sauternes, the most famous and costly of all sweet wines, uses a natural ‘noble rot’, Botrytis cinerea, to concentrate the sweetness of the grape juice. Ice wine is made from frozen grapes where iced water is removed leaving a concentrated, sweet pulp. Most sweet wine however is made using heat; letting the grapes hang on the vine for longer than usual; or leaving them spread out in the sun on bales of hay.
Explore our collection of sweet wines here.
In 1678, a Liverpool wine merchant sent two buyers to the Douro Valley where they fell in love with the smooth, fortified wine being produced there. They bought all that was available, and the English love affair with Port was underway. This passion was fueled in 1703 with the signing of the Methuen Treaty between Portugal and England. Also known as the Port Wine Treaty, it guaranteed low tax rates on wine imported from Portugal. This was reinforced during the Napoleonic wars when, of course, no wines came to England from France.
This class of wine is “fortified” during fermentation with the addition of brandy while the wine still has a residual sugar of around 10%. The high alcohol in the spirit kills the yeast (stopping fermentation) and raises the alcohol content to between 18 and 20%. Fortified wines are produced in most wine regions.
To be called Port, the wine must be produced in the Douro Valley near the city of Oporto. There are two broad categories of Port, bottle-aged and wood-aged.
Bottle-aged Ports have a vintage date that is “declared” by producers only in exceptional years; on average about three times every decade. Almost all the aging is done in the bottle (at least ten, and up to fifty years) after about two years in large wooden casks. LBV or late bottled vintage ports spend four or five years in the casks before bottling which increases their complexity and depth.
Wood-aged Ports have several categories, primarily ruby and tawny. Simple ruby and tawny Ports are aged in large oak casks for two to three years before bottling. Ruby Ports are just that in color, while tawny Ports have an amber or brick hue. They are inexpensive and lack the complexity and longevity of vintage and aged tawny Ports.
Aged tawny Ports are incredible, and spend ten, twenty or even forty years in barrels before being bottled. They are aged and blended through a unique process called the “solera system”. See our notes on Sherry below for how this works.
Explore our collection of ports here.
There are two basic styles of proper sherry (neither of which bear any relation to the sweetened-up popular brands of old).
Fino and the similar Manzanilla - pale, delicate, bone dry and tingling with life and zest, an ideal palate-reviver thould be drunk well chilled. These types sherry are like normal table wine and rapidly lose their appeal if kept in an opened bottle for longer than a few days.
The other major style of sherry is dark, nutty and complex with its subtle shadings of mahogany and nuances that are the direct and delicious results of extended ageing in oak. Dry Amontillado and, even deeper, dry Oloroso seem tailor-made for staving off the chills of winter.
Sweet sherry, Pedro Ximénez, is also a delight to accompany mince pies and christmas pudding but also poured over vanilla ice cream.
What makes sherry unique is the way that it is produced - the “solera system”; a system of blending wines from different vintages so as to achieve complexity and consistency.
Imagine a row of barrels of wine on the floor of the aging cellar. This is the solera, which literally means “on the ground”. It is the “starter” and the oldest wine in the blend. A row of barrels on top of these is called the 1st criadera, the second oldest wine in the blend. On top of that is the 2nd criadera, the next oldest, and then the 3rd criadera. There may be as many as 8 or 9 criaderas, with the youngest wine on top.
When it comes to bottling, they remove 1/4 to 1/3 of the oldest wine from the solera or bottom-most barrels. This is then replaced with wine from the 1st criadera, and that replaced that with wine from the 2nd criadera and so on to the top-most youngest wine. This is called “fractional blending”. The oldest barrels, the soleras, might be 40-50 years old.
Explore our collection of sherries here.