By Wine Varietal
With American and other "New World" wines, the varietal name comes first and then comes the appellation(locality).
If you know where something comes from, you know the thing?.... Sort of like your parents wanting to know about the other kids parents of the person you are dating? Once you know where the wine comes from, the more specific the location, the more you can pinpoint the location on a map, not only you will know everything about the grapes used, wine making practices, how it should taste etc. also the more the wine will cost you. Europeans used to drink the local wine and that kind of system was fine when you have to know a small number of local appellations for a similarly small number of local dishes which go with these wines. This system is not well adapted to the modern world which is more pluralistic and international tastes. At one distributor I worked for in Massachusetts we carried 12,000 wines from all over the world.
A total neophyte could cope with the varietal names. It took study to understand the appellation or Old World system Going varietal was a great boon to the New World. It was a great marketing move by New World Wineries. Is it easier to market thousand of brands from many entire countries as simply as chardonnay than as Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet or Chassagne-Montrachet, small places in a very limited production in Cotes-de-Beaune France which is, you guessed it, chardonnay. The snob factor, however, in knowing European wines is hard to resist?
With European wines the appellation (locality) is more important and the varietal second --whether a varietal or a percentage of a varietal is either allowed or not depends on the rule for that appellation (locality).
This appellation based system is better for people like me with an academic bent. It is like the old system of classification with index cards that every American child was taught to organize their thoughts, and then some. Think of classifying wine like I.France I.A Bordeaux I.A.1.Medoc 1.A .1.a Margaux Going back to chardonnnay from Puligny-Monrachet mentioned above, we would have France, then Burgundy, then Cotes-de-Beaune , then Puligny-Monrachet then there is the further classification of wines from that region into hierarchies of different levels based on the actual vineyards: Premier Grand Crus, Seconds Grands Crus and Troisiemes Grands Crus. In other words, the "government" guarantees that if you use a certain appellation on the level, you will abide by the rules of that appellation, but I digress.
To help you decide, here are some common varietals :
Body/“Mouthfeel” of the More Common Varietals – Lighter to Heavier
These are broadest of generalizations but at least it is a frame of reference for beginners. This is especially true if the wine is under $12.00 a bottle retail. Semillon, for example, is totally different if you are talking about an expensive French Sauternes. This is only a sketch to start building your wine knowledge.
Whites Lighter to Heavier
Red Lighter to Heavier