- Dry vs sweet. Sweet mean just that, there is sugar left over after fermentation making the wine sweet. Dry means no residual sugar. However, your palate may think a fruity-tasting wine is sweet when it's actually dry (contains no sugar).
- Thick vs lean. Olive oil is thick (known as high viscosity). Other wines are thinner having less viscosity. Too lean might be called thin and can be seen as a wine flaw.
- Heavy vs light. Heavy might mean high viscosity, lots of dark fruit flavors, or tannins. Cabernet is a heavy wine; Pinot Gris a lighter wine.
- Tannin is found in black tea and that's what dries out your throat when you drink it. Tannin is naturally occurring in foods including grape skins. Usually some tannin in a red wine is good, but too much will be too drying and overwhelm the other flavors. Tannins will dissipate over time.
- Crisp, clean and refreshing are usually terms for higher acid wines, usually white wines. Think of a crisp apple--it's refreshing and more interesting to eat compared to one that is sweet, but tastes sort of mushy and is uninteresting. That's an apple without enough fruit acid left in it. While not enough acid can make a wine uninteresting, too much can make it taste bitter or even sour. If a wine is a bit on the lower acid side it's called soft.
Wine and Food Pairings
Not just the variety, but the style of the wine has a lot to do with the best food matches. You want dry wines for anything except dessert. Watch the alcohol level! In general, I'd say a white wine should be labeled below 14% alcohol, a red 14.5% or lower. The food pairings listed below are just suggestions.
Chardonnay is a softer white wine. It can have flavors of tropical fruit, nuts, butter, oak. Can be high viscosity (thick). But styles fall in two camps: the oaky, buttery, high viscosity, heavy Chards and a leaner, more fruity and refreshing style. How do you know which one you're buying? Well, that's an issue as you can't always tell. Sometimes the leaner style may be labeled as unoaked or naked Chardonnay. Many "experts" look down on the buttery, oaky ones, but drink whatever the heck you like, not what these experts tell you to like.
When to use Chardonnay: The lighter, leaner ones as more of a summer wine and a lighter food wine. The heavier ones are your winter white wine and with heavier foods, like something with a cream sauce.
This is a new, trendy wine. It's fruity, sweet, simple, and fun. Or at least we're told it's fun. Considered by those experts to be a wine for people who don't really like or understand wine because you might say it falls somewhere between soda pop and actual wine. Whatever. I'm not telling any personal stories about Green Hungarian and White Zinfandel -- we all have to start somewhere.
When to use Muscat: It's the college party wine!
Pinot Gris (or Grigio)
Another grape recently gaining popularity called Pinot Gris if you're in France or Pinot Grigio if you're in Italy so that names are used interchangeably in the U.S. A lighter, fruity, soft, easy-drinking wine. It's easier to drink than those heavy Chardonnays.
When to use Pinot Gris: A good sipper for a hot day. Good with lighter foods and mild cheeses if it's dry (has little or no residual sugar).
It's difficult to nail down because it can be dry (no sweetness) to a very sweet desert wine. Most of the best domestic ones are off-dry meaning just enough sweetness to really bring out the fruit flavors or are very sweet--these are usually labeled as Late Harvest or as a dessert wine. The off-dry ones can be nice summer wines and can pair well with some spicy food dishes. The ones with a good sugar / acid balance are what you are looking for (not syrupy sweet, but are crisp while being sweet).
Another grape semi-similar to Riesling is Gewurztraminer that's even less popular because, I'm guessing, it's tough to pronounce. Gewurz (geh-vurtz) is a nice off-dry wine or dessert wine, just like Riesling.
When to use Riesling: The dry ones with lighter foods or slightly spicy foods (such as some oriental dishes). The semi-sweet as a sipping wine. The really sweet ones as dessert. See, I said Riesling was a little complicated to nail down.
You can look at Sauvignon Blanc as the refreshing white wine (it's higher acid than most). It can be crisp, fruity, and even herbal. If you're a fan of Pinot Gris think of SB as a more flavorful version.
When to use Sauvignon Blanc: Having good acid and being more flavorful than many whites means it's quite versatile as a food wine pairing with salads to chicken, seafood, and pork. Yes, it's the one white wine that will actually stand up to a salad course. Nice by itself as a refreshing white on a warm day.
Something a Little Different
If you want to try something else in a white wine look for Viognier, Gruner Veltliner, or Chenin Blanc.