#SommNextDoor: About the Grapes

Our new weekly editorial that answers questions from our community by our resident girl-next-door who happens to be a certified level 2 Sommelier Alex Sanchez. Send us your questions! Twitter, Facebook, or email [email protected]

This week’s question via email from Robert from Palm Springs, CA

What’s the difference between a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon? Is it a style? The grape? The winemaking process?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the differences from one wine to another. I hear this question all the time! In this post I’ll be covering the most common varietals seen in the marketplace and what they taste like. We all know wine is made from grapes, but it isn’t made from table grapes found in grocery stores. Wine is made from winegrapes from the Vitis vinifera species. There are between 5-10k different varieties within this species. That’s where we get Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and so on. When you see a bottle of Merlot, that is the type of grape the wine was made from. There are red and white grape varieties that give us red and white wine. Not one single varietal is better than another. It’s all about your preference. Below are descriptions and flavor profiles of the most common varietals seen in restaurants and wine shops.


Description: White, thin-skinned grape; wine is a golden yellow color. Full-bodied white wine (click here to find out about body in the last post); moderate to elevated acidity

Flavors: buttered popcorn (if aged intensely in new oak), baked apple pie, pineapple, banana, butterscotch, minerality, green apple, pear, citrus, baking spices

Try a California Chardonnay for a riper, richer, oaked style. If citrus and minerality interest you try a Chablis from France.

Sauvignon Blanc

Description: White, thick-skinned grape; wine is a straw color. Light to medium bodied; high acidity.

Flavors: grass, grapefruit, green bell pepper, lemon, lime, gooseberry, white flowers

Sauvignon Blanc is made in many different styles, ranging from grassy New Zealand styles to creamier, tropical styles from California and mineral-driven styles from France.

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

Description: White variety with grayish to pink fruit; thin-skinned grape, wine is a pale straw color. Light bodied; moderate acidity.

Flavors: citrus, green apple, stonefruit, minerality, peanut shell, white flowers

Pinot Grigio from Italy is lighter and more neutral in flavor. Pinot Gris from Alsace is usually fruitier with layers of complex flavors like ginger, honey, wax and spices.


Description: White grape variety; wine is a straw to yellow color. Medium bodied; high acidity.

Flavors: petrol, white flowers, stonefruit, tropical fruit, honey, wax, ginger

Riesling has searing acidity with a perfumey and fruity flavor profile. It’s made in a bunch of different styles ranging from dry to off-dry, sweet, and even sparkling.

Pinot Noir

Description: Red grape variety, thin-skinned grape; wine color is pale ruby red. Light to medium bodied; moderate to elevated acidity.

Flavors: strawberry, raspberry, cherry, baking spices, cola, mushroom

Often considered one of the most ethereal and elegant red varieties among sommeliers and wine enthusiasts because of its sexy, subtle character layered with interesting flavors.


Description: Red variety with dark thin skin; wine color is between a dark ruby red and purple. Medium bodied; moderate acidity.

Flavors: jammy and candied blueberry, black cherry, blackberry, black pepper, raisin, vanilla

Zin is a party in your mouth with its sweet and bold flavors. It’s so approachable for people just starting to drink red wines and is the perfect wine for BBQ’d meats.


Description: Red variety with dark skin; wine color is purple. Medium bodied; moderate acidity.

Flavors: black plum, blackberry, fig, licorice, prune, black cherry

Merlot has been sadly dismissed in the past but this variety has a uniqueness about it that’s valued and used as a blending grape in the most expensive red wines of the world. It has a soft and inviting character and has a similar flavor profile to Cabernet Sauvignon without as much of the green, herbaceous notes.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Description: Red variety with black, thick skin; wine color is purple. Full bodied; moderate acidity.

Flavors: black plum, blackberry, black currant, green bell pepper, tobacco, pencil shavings, violets, peppercorn

Cab is one of the most recognized varieties in the world. It’s a big wine with a lot of tannin and diverse flavors. This is a great wine to enjoy with a steak.

Keep the questions coming! Cheers.