If you are going to learn very much about wine, you need to learn about — and get to know — the so-called "Big Six" wine or grape varieties. The Big Six wine grapes are: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. These six wine grape varieties make up about 80% of all wines made around the world, so familiarity with the flavors and aromas of these six grapes means you'll be familiar with most of the wines you will encounter.
Big Six Grapes as a Map of Wines
There is so much variety of wines out there that it's difficult for many people to know where to start and what to try drinking. It's not surprising for people to feel a bit overwhelmed, but there is a good place to start: the so-called "Big Six" grape varieties used for making wine. These grape varieties are not only used for about 80% of all the world's wines, but they also represent the range of wine styles and feels that you will encounter with the other wines as well.
Mapping the Big Six grapes:
- Riesling, Light Bodied White
- Sauvignon Blanc, Medium Bodied White
- Chardonnay, Full Bodied White
- Pinot Noir, Light-to-Medium Bodied Red
- Merlot, Medium Bodied Red
- Cabernet Sauvignon, Full Bodied Red
One of the things which can be difficult for many people to get used to is how different wines compare in "body" — how, exactly does the feel of a light bodied wine really differ from a full bodied wine? The easiest way to get started appreciating and understanding these differences is to compare them with each other. Once you are able to perceive the differences when the wines are next to each other, you will begin having an easier time recognizing which is which when you are drinking the wines alone.
Once you are familiar with wines created from the six grape varieties listed above, you have a solid foundation for exploring other types of wines. It will help you to be able to say that a wine is similar in body to a Merlot — or perhaps that it seems to you to fit between a Pinot Noir and a Merlot. It can be difficult to find the adjectives to describe a new wine, but a good starting point is to compare a new wine with wines which you can expect others to be familiar with — and the Big Six grapes definitely qualify.
The Big Six Plus Four
The Big Six grapes are obviously not the only grapes used for wine; indeed, there are grape varieties that are planted more widely than some of the big six. Some people thus argue that the list should be expanded a bit to include at least these four grapes:
Experience with wines made from these four grape varieties would certainly be a good idea, but they wouldn't expand the "map" created by the Big Six of the different bodies which wine can have. Because of this, it's probably not useful to add anything to that original list. It would, however, be reasonable to created a secondary list to work through after you're familiar with the first.