Wine styles 101

In an assault on his highly tuned, highly practised drinking senses,

A little wine knowledge goes a long way: teach your staff the basics and watch customer satisfaction skyrocket.

A little wine knowledge goes a long way: teach your staff the basics and watch customer satisfaction skyrocket.

 discovers too many wait staff don’t know the basics about what your customers are drinking. Let his challenge begin.

Students attending hospitality colleges have never had so much information. Australian society, as a whole, has more interest in food and wine than ever. Yet, despite it all, there’s still a shift or two in nearly every venue every week when the level of food and beverage knowledge is less than ideal. The fact that staff turnover rates are staggeringly high in hospitality doesn’t help this problem, either. And a lack of expertise—particularly wine expertise—on the floor helps no-one. Especially not your till.

Wine knowledge is, of course, a real concern for your operation, particularly because so many customers still find ordering wine a bit scary. If your customers don’t know the wine secrets—if your customers don’t know how to pronounce the wine styles you are offering, like viognier, for instance—then you have to make sure your staff do. With a working knowledge of the wine list, some basic information about wine styles, regions, and wine and food matching, you can help your customers relax—and learn a couple of things about the wine they are drinking on the way. If you and your staff can do this, there’s a chance the customer might trade up, or even come back more often.

So here’s a primer for the top 12 wine styles going around at the minute. Leave it out in the staff amenity centre and see what happens.


Still our most popular white wine. Tropical fruit flavours are typical and, in the better examples, some citrus flavours, too. Vanilla smells are from oak barrels, but you won’t smell that in an unwooded chardonnay. Margaret River, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania are good spots for it. It is a versatile white with simple salads, fish and white meat dishes.

Sauvignon blanc

Chasing chardonnay’s popularity. A strident, grassy, herbaceous white with enough unmissable flavour to match spicy foods. Great with Thai or Vietnamese dishes. New Zealand’s Marlborough region is world famous; in Australia, look to the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania.

Semillon/Sauvignon blanc

(Semillon is pronounced sema-lon.) Based on a French blend, this white comes most prodigiously out of Western Australia’s Margaret River. It should have sauvignon blanc’s punch with something of semillon’s apple, citrus and lime flavours. Rounder than straight SB, this is also very versatile food wine.


Imagine a fruit salad that The Wiggles would like; that’s the flavour you get in verdelho. This is a ripe and lush white wine, and the more popular ones come from WA and the Hunter Valley. Its richness can be a good foil to hot and spicy foods, and it can be a good basis for your bar’s white wine spritzers. Sell it; serve it; and do so with a fixed smile. In all honesty, it is pretty awful wine; but customers seem to like it.

Viognier (Pronounced: vee-on-ya!)

Viognier is from France’s Rhône Valley and was planted in Australia as the new chardonnay. It isn’t. It’s worse than that. Full flavoured with plenty of lush apricot notes, it is good with richer fish dishes. It is trendy, however; and marginally better than verdelho.

Pinot gris

Another trendy white wine. Pinot gris is the same as pinot grigio; in Australia, gris is rich and slippery and often high in alcohol, whereas grigio is pert and playful-—and less obvious. No wonder gris is more popular. Good with terrines, smoked fish and smoked meats. Try examples from Victoria and Tasmania.


Australia’s most popular red. We have peppery styles from Victoria and NSW; and rich and full styles from South Australia. Shiraz flavours are plummy and earthy, so they suit char-grilled meats and pies. Regions such as the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Central Victoria are worth pushing. But this stuff should sell itself.

Cabernet sauvignon

Cabernet sauvignon is dominated by tannins—those things in red wine that are like sucking a tea bag. It has blackberry flavours and often the cedary and toasty smells of oak barrels. Margaret River, Coonawarra and Central Victoria are all good spots for it. Great with fattier dishes, sausages and juicy steaks.


A red grape often added to cabernet sauvignon in order to inject some raspberry and redcurrant flavours. Merlot is an inoffensive, mid-weight red that’s made reliably enough in most wine regions. It is a red that can be sold to customers who are not feeling up to fighting a shiraz or cabernet to death. Good with steak sandwiches or pizza.


The best grenache comes from South Australia’s McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley. It is an earthy and mouth-filling red with plenty of juicy-fruitiness. Which is why it is a great red wine with meat curries. Its fruitiness helps overcome the curry’s heat and spice. Eat curry with cabernet, for instance, and everything just tastes metallic.


(Pronounced: sahn-geo-vay-zah). The Italian variety that makes chianti—the red wine of Tuscany. Our examples have black cherry and herbs and spice flavours, and the fine tannins that help the wine stay very dry. King Valley and McLaren Vale make good versions. Naturally enough, serve sangiovese with pasta and meat sauces, or Italian sausages, rabbit stews, and so on.

Pinot noir

(Pr: pee-no nwa) Pinot noir is the red grape of France’s Burgundy region, and burgundy is considered the greatest red wine in the world. Pinot can run an incredible gamut of smells and flavours, including strawberries, blackberries, herbs and plums. It is a very drinkable red that doesn’t hit you over the head too much. Great for summer, for lunch, and very versatile with food. Some people can drink it all day. Gosh, there’s an idea.

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