Most Important Grapes

Recognizing some of the more common varietals used for wine production is a very important part of experiencing all the wine world has to offer, and the number of possibilities are enormous. There are literally thousands of different varieties of grapes, each with its own character. In fact many experts estimate that there are thousands of varieties yet to be discovered and classified. Identifying the sheer number of grape varietals is beyond the scope of this site but there is a lot of Internet information on the subject if you so choose to pursue the subject in more depth.

I want to clarify some points about grapes because there seems to be some confusion on the subject. Nearly all of the world’s wine grapes are derived from the vine species known as Vitis Vinifera, which is thought to have originated in Europe. There is an Asian vine specie that is not significant for winemaking and North American vines are also not used for winemaking per se, but are grafted on to Vinifera rootstock because its properties enhance the plant’s resistance to vineyard disease and pests.

Within the Vinis Vinifera scope of grapes comes varieties such as Chardonnay or Malbec. Many wineries use clones to plant or replant their vineyards, which in the pure sense of the word, a clone comes from cuttings of a single plant. Sometimes what growers refer to as clones, are just ‘field cuttings’ that came from different vines of the same variety in the same vineyard, but they are not truly clones of the same plant. 

Some of our best varietals for wine have been traced by science to be the offspring of spontaneous genetic mutation, where different sub-species sexually reproduce to create new sub-species. An example of this type of ‘cross’ would be Cabernet Sauvignon, whose parents are identified as Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

I have intentionally not included a lot of flavor or aromatic profiles in the description of these grape varietals because there are so many variations, depending on terroir, varietal, winemaker, vintage, aging, and winemaking style. It would be a disservice to you for me to include such descriptions, and then have your experience be quite different from mine. I would say that checking out a lot of different wines from these most cultivated varietals will give you the best and most useful perspective. 

Many varietals have different names in different regions of the world, which certainly adds to the confusion of keeping things straight. One example is Zinfandel: in Italy it is known as Primativo. The following varietals are listed by the name most used in America:

WHITE 

Chardonnay 
[shahr-dn-NAY] One of the most widely planted white wine grapes, Chardonnay is planted in nearly every wine region in the world, although it performs best in cooler climates with limestone soil. Stylistically, there is a wide range of wines that can be made, from light bodied, crisp quaffs to heavy, big, long aging wines. California was known for over-using oak in their Chardonnays for what seemed like eternity. If you haven’t tried a California Chard lately, give it a shot; winemakers there finally dialed back the oak to produce this wine more in the traditional European style. Amongst the best in my opinion are white Burgundies (they come from the Burgundy region of France), which are made with 100% Chardonnay, as is Chablis, also part of the Burgundy region. Also used in Champagne and sparkling wines, this high production grape shows its versatility. These examples represent the finest expression of what Chardonnay can do.

Sauvignon Blanc 
[SOH-veen-nyaw(n) BLAHN(K)] As a distinctive alternative to Chardonnay, the light to medium bodied Sauvignon Blanc is generally quite dry and refreshing, unless blended with dessert wines such as the classic Sauternes [soh-TEHrN] from Bordeaux. This varietal has wonderful aromatics and can have high acidity. Care must be taken in the vineyard to ensure that the vine’s leaves don’t shade the grape – this vine is very vigorous (grows vegetation easily as opposed to growing fruit easily); if improperly maintained the fruit will produce pronounced flavors of asparagus, herbs, grass and bell peppers. In most opinions, France again represents some of the finest examples of this varietal in many regions such as the Loire’s Pouilly-Fumé appellation, and Sancerre. Also New Zealand produces an expressive Sauvignon Blanc that is stylistically racy with a clean finish. In the 1970’s Robert Mondavi’s marketing genius made Sauvignon Blanc and labeled it Fume’ Blanc which became a huge success. Today, as with California Chardonnay, oak used in producing Fumé Blanc is being dialed back to a less oaked version.

Chenin Blanc 
[SHEN-in BLAHN(K)] This perhaps lesser-known grape variety is very flexible in terms of winemaking possibilities: it can be used for dessert wines or be bone dry and is used to make both still and sparkling wines. Because it has substantial acidity, Chenin Blanc can often be expected to age for long periods. As with red wines, aging produces complexity of aroma and flavor, which are unattainable in younger, less developed wines. This grape fares better in moderate or cooler climates – warmer climate Chenin Blanc tends to produce simplistic wines. Chenin Blanc is indigenous to France and although South Africa and California have more Chenin Blanc acreage under vine than France, the Loire [LWAHr] region of France still produces the finest examples of this remarkably versatile variety.

Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio) 
[PEE-noh GREE or PEE-no GREEzjo] This variety certainly has its loyal fans, which may be due to the fact that at its best, Pinot Gris is a quaffable wine and provides a refreshing beverage that works well with many different foods. This grape is found to be a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, which then mutated into Pinot Blanc; it is genetically unstable to the point of producing gray-blue and gray-pink grape clusters on the same vine. The light-bodied Pinot Gris will have high acidity and be clean and crisp compared to the medium-bodied version that is rounder and lower in acidity but will usually have greater minerality. Some of the best regions for Pinot Gris are the Alsace region of France, northeast Italy, California and Oregon. 

Riesling 
[REES-ling] Most of us seem to think of Riesling as producing very sweet wines and we see them everywhere for $10 or $12 dollars a bottle. Unfortunately this is a gross misrepresentation of what this variety can do. There are a number of great Rieslings that sell for $600 a bottle or more and will last for decades, developing complexity with age. Most of these come from Germany and were meant to be collector wines. Balance is the key with this grape – acidity, which is what lets the wine age without spoiling, must be balanced with sweetness to produce long lived and complex Rieslings. In some German regions, this grape is grown on very steep hills filled with blue slate and high mineral content which is expressed in the wine itself. One of the most well known aromas from good Riesling is the slight smell of diesel fuel, which is considered an attribute, not a flaw. This wonderful variety is worth exploring on a deeper level once you get past the grocery store stock of lesser wines. 

Gewurtztraminer
[guh-VERTS-trah-mee-ner] It is believed that Gewurtztraminer originated in Italy and some very fine examples still come from there although it is also successfully grown in France’s Alsace region, Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe, the vine preferring a cooler climate. New Zealand is also producing wines from this grape but perhaps not quite as successfully. Some compare this grape to Riesling because both are capable of creating dry to very sweet wines. However, Gewurtztraminer has much spicier aromatics than Riesling similar to scents we would think of as being Asian. It also has less acidity than Riesling which means it will not age as long and must be consumed at a younger age.

Viognier

[vee-oh-NYAY] Pay attention to this variety – it is coming on strong and gaining popularity very quickly. This is one of the greatest white grapes, in my opinion, for any number of reasons. First, it is very aromatic with huge floral aromas. Second, it is blended with Syrah (red wine) from France’s Northern Rhone region to enhance the nose of these famous wines known as Côte-Rôtie [coht-roh-TEE], but get this: it also produces deeper colors for this red wine somehow by adding this white varietal! Perhaps the most pure expression of this grape comes from France’s Condrieu [kawn-DREE-yuh] appellation also located in Northern Rhone. Viognier is now grown in California, Italy, Spain, South Africa and South America, amongst other wine regions. The tricky part of growing this grape is knowing when to harvest. If picked to young, it will be grassy and aggressive. It needs to be picked from the vineyard on taste, not sugar/acid measurements. In the US, this variety can be produced in a semi-sweet fashion, which to me totally ruins the potential greatness of this amazing fruit.

Muscat
[MUS-KAHT, or MUHS-kuht] This is the motherload of all wine grapes: Muscat is believed to be the ancestor from which all wine grapes are derived and today comprises a source for wine grapes, table grapes and raisins, with hundreds of grape varieties, red and white, associated with its DNA. Muscat is perhaps one of the most important and versatile varietals in the world and produces wines from very dry, to dessert wines, to fortified wines (brandy and sherry styles). This grape is a low yield, small berry grape that likes warm to hot climates throughout the world.

Sémillon
[say-mee-YOHN] This variety is grown throughout most of the world but by itself, does not produce a grand wine. It is more suitable for and is normally used as a blending variety, especially with Sauvignon Blanc. Sémillon produces high alcohol levels along with low acidity and textured wines and also works very well with oak barrels. Dessert wines from the Bordeaux appellation of Sauternes and Barsac are some of the most revered, expensive, long-lived and delicious wines in the world – made from a blend of Sémillon. This grape fares very well in regions that have fog and humidity early in the day and then dry out with sunshine later. This condition in southern Bordeaux produces fungi known as botrytis cinerea (also known as Noble Rot), which actually punctures the skin of the grape and allows water content to evaporate, thereby concentrating sugar levels. There probably is not a greater dessert wine than those that come from Sauternes. Sémillon also produces wonderful dry white wines made in Bordeaux (the finest examples being grown and produced in the sub-appellation of Graves [GRAHV], known as Pessac-Léognan [peh-SAK leh-ohn-YAWn]) which is of course, home to legendary estate of 1st Growth Haut Brion. With age, its distinctive flavor profile emerges from that of mineral and citrus to honey and nuts. Australia, amongst other regions, is also growing this varietal but often uses it as a white blending grape, mostly with Chardonnay.

RED

Cabernet Sauvignon
[cab-er-NAY saw-veen-YAWN] I think whole volumes are written on this varietal alone and for good reason. Wines from this grape are considered some of the best examples of what can be accomplished with a grape. This is considered the ‘noble grape’ – the ‘king of all grapes’. What is particularly special about this varietal is that if properly managed in the vineyard and properly made into wine, this amazing grape has the potential to produce wines that can age for over a century! The benefit to bottle age is that layers upon layers of complexity develop in the wine’s aromas and flavors over time and unfold on your palate and olfactory senses when eventually consumed. Understand, however, that not all wines are meant to be aged and this includes wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon. That said, if you want a decades-old wine that is still drinkable, it will almost surely be a Cabernet Sauvignon or at least blended with a fairly large portion of this most fantastic grape. This varietal is one of the four most tannic grapes produced in commercial production and as such, tannin is the substance in red wine (this is the element that dries out your mouth, like when you drink strong tea) that is also an anti-oxidant and allows the wine to age. It has been determined that this grape originated in Bordeaux, but is grown in virtually every wine region of the world, and is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon requires a long ‘hang time’ on the vine to properly ripen, which can be challenging for growers in frost-prone areas. Regardless of the region, Cabernet Sauvignon retains its flavor characteristics but because it often delivers unmanageable tannins when young, it tends to be blended with other grapes to soften it a bit. At Left Bank Bordeaux estates, Cabernet Sauvignon is typically the major grape but blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and a small amount of Petit Verdot (which is used the same way a world-class chef would use a spice like pepper or salt) or sometimes Malbec, although there is not a lot of Malbec in Bordeaux currently. Even so, in a very good to great vintage, a 1st Growth Bordeaux (and even some lesser Classified Bordeaux) should be allowed to age at least 15 years before enjoying – to age it for less time only means you will miss the amazing layers the wine is capable of giving to you. Conversely, California and other wine regions tend to successfully make Cabs more approachable at a much younger age and can be fantastic – not everyone enjoys fully mature Cabernet Sauvignon and some prefer to drink it on the young side, which can be very fruit driven at that point. Although price is not always an indicator of quality, if you are spending less than around $60 to $80 for a California Cab, chances are it will not be necessarily great – as always, there are exceptions to this rule. Still $80 is a long way from the amazing 2005 Bordeaux vintage as release prices for Classified Bordeaux were extremely high and then, you still have to wait many years for this wine to age and enjoy all its benefits. 

Merlot
[mehr-low] Just like Napster totally annihilated the music industry, the cult movie “Sideways” single-handedly and completely destroyed the credibility of Merlot in America. Prior to “Sideways”, the US just enjoyed the soft, round and gentle aspects of this fine varietal. While Merlot has the ability to produce spicy, distinctive wines as a stand-alone varietal, many estates use it for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and other varietals. Merlot at its best can be a fruit-driven wine but regardless of the price or score, I have yet to find a Merlot with a lengthy finish; this is not a flaw but only a characteristic of the grape itself. There can be excellent fruit with a very nice aroma but kind of like the Beatles, the sum of a Merlot blend can be greater than its individual parts. Amongst the finest of Merlot-driven blends includes Bordeaux Right Bank wines such as Château Cheval Blanc and Château Petrus from the sub-appellations of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol respectively. These wines, especially Château Petrus, are very expensive with Petrus being quite rare because of its extremely high quality and low production. California Merlot is still consumed and is generally decent but has lost some of its luster over the years. It is used too in California, to emulate the Bordeaux blends and is often referred to as a ‘Meritage’.

Pinot Noir
[PEE-noh NWAHR] A spectacular grape that can be consumed when young or age for decades, Pinot Noir has somewhere between 200 and 1000 clone variables (depending on who you ask) and greatly expresses its growing conditions and locations it its wines. For this reason, Pinot Noir can be fantastic or just okay. The finest examples without question hail from the Burgundy region of France and in fact other than Beaujolais, which is derived from the Gamay grape, Pinot Noir is the only significant red varietal from the Burgundy region; also used in Champagne for that region’s great effervescent wines. California, Oregon and Washington are also producing very fine Pinot Noirs but are different in many respects from Burgundies. The general characteristics of this amazing grape are pronounced and ‘terroir’ driven aromatics with good acidity (freshness) and somewhat low tannins. These grapes are difficult to grow and ferment: coming from cooler regions they typically are processed using a ‘cold soak’ technique that extracts color and tannin prior to fermentation. Not everyone buys into this style of Pinot Noir, as it can seem that such wines are over-extracted. This varietal in Germany is known as Spätburgunder and is that nation’s most widely plated red grape. Pinot Noir, or more accurately red Burgundy, is the ultimate collector’s wine with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti DRC being the most collectable, valuable, and perhaps the most expensive wine on the planet today. 

Zinfandel
[ZIHN-fuhn-dehl] Zin, as it’s sometimes referred to, is a fabulous grape that makes a high octane (high alcohol), huge, full-bodied, beautiful wine with a substantial depth of extract and is primarily grown in California – the state’s second most planted red grape after Cabernet Sauvignon. To experience the difference in terroir, pick up some Primitivo from Italy, which is actually Zinfandel and also wonderful. This variety’s origin has been traced to Croatia and is not widely planted around the globe, unlike other varietals. This should not be confused in any way with ‘White Zinfandel’, which is also made from this grape but in a polar opposite style. As you may know, red grapes can make white wines too; what color a wine is, is a function of whether or not the grape skins make contact with the grape juice during the winemaking process. Please do not dismiss this fabulous red because of what you may have experienced or heard about concerning lame White Zinfandel wines, which are made exclusively for people that don’t like wine! This variety likes cool, sunny climates or high altitudes and the vines can still produce great fruit long after many other varietals have to be ripped from the soil and replanted (which translates into ‘old vines’ or ‘ancient vines’ although those terms have no legal meaning if you see them on a wine label). It also does well with oak aging, especially American oak.

Syrah (Shiraz)
[sur-RAH] There is substantial debate about the origins of this fantastic variety, but regardless this fruit has the potential for true greatness in winemaking. I won’t get deeply into the debate but we know for certain that the grape in all wine regions is named Syrah except in Australia where it is referred to as Shiraz (Australians pronounce the grape as sheer-RAYZ) – its most widely planted vine), presumably because Australians argue that the grape originated near a city in modern-day Iran, named Shiraz. The French vehemently deny this claim and have DNA proof that it originated in France – game over. Syrah can oxidize easily and does well with cool fermentation along with some oak thrown into the mix. This variety can produce so very fabulous wines, coming from both the Northern Rhone region of France in the form of Côte-Rôtie [coht-roh-TEE] and a very famous blend from Southern Rhone known worldwide as Chateauneuf-du-Pape [shaht-toh-nuhf-doo-PAHP]. These are in my experience, the very finest examples of Syrah although this varietal has been coming on very strong in California with small cult producers like Terry Hoage and others. Also Penfolds Grange is a remarkable and usually collectable Aussie Shiraz with great depth and character. If you have been put off by this varietal because you haven’t come up with the right dollar combination, spend some more dollars on your next Syrah/Shiraz purchase and you’ll be amazed at how incredible this grape really is.

Sangiovese
[san-joh-VAY-zeh] This important variety is what Chianti [kee-YAHN-tee] is mostly comprised of, which of course is the most exported wine from Italy. Such Italian reds are best when aged and California tried to replicate this well respected grape, but largely without success; Luna is one of the few California wineries that has done a great job with Sangiovese, even if it is fairly far away from the characteristics of the Italian original. The variety thrives in much of Italy although the most famous Sangiovese-based wines come from the Tuscany region. In addition to Chianti, some of the other wines from Italy based on Sangiovese include Brunello di Montalcino [broo-NEHL-oh dee mawn-tahl-CHEE-noh] and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano [VEE-noh NAW-bee-lay dee mawn-teh-pool-CHAN-oh], which are in their best forms, highly respected collector wines. Both of the latter wines are derived from Sangiovese strains – all from the great region of Tuscany. Many of the best of these from Italy should be drunk after eight to ten years of bottle age to tame the huge tannins and acidity of their younger versions; many of which will then be capable of producing a fabulous floral and earthy nose with multiple flavor layers and a long finish.

Gamay
[ga-MAY] This varietal is what produces the perennial popular Beaujolais [boh-zjoh-LAY] wines from the Burgundy region of France. Light to medium in body, this fruit driven wine from the Gamay grape is meant to be drunk young and can even be served a bit more chilled than most other reds. Interestingly Beaujolais bypasses traditional fermentation techniques in favor of carbonic maceration, which involves whole berry and cluster fermentation. Wines made in this process usually are lower in tannins and color pigmentation but from this varietal, one can expect a nice nose along with bracing acidity. Gamay vines are also found in other regions of France such as the Loire [LWAHr] and the region of Languedoc-Roussillon [lahng-DAWK roo-see-YAWN] region of southern France.

Grenache
[gruh-NAHSH] Originating in Spain, Grenache is both a red and a white wine varietal but this description focuses on the red whose full name is Grenache Noir (Grenache Blanc being the white). It is the most widely cultivated wine grape in the world and grown in many regions, although it prefers warm and dry climates. It will typically be low in tannins and can produce quite impressive alcohol numbers and is almost always used in a blend; it’s very rare to find this as a stand-alone variety, which, in my opinion is because it lacks dimension and character by itself.

Barbera
[bar-BEHR-ah] This grape produces wines that can be found as a single varietal or used in blends, and its level of quality is mostly related to the winemaker’s efforts. Barbera’s characteristics include high acidity, moderate tannins and high pigments. Although the grape is grown worldwide and can withstand hot climates, it produces its best example of fine wine when grown in cooler climates such as Italy’s prestigious Piedmont region in the northern area of that country. This grape is prone to oxidation so even the best Barbera’s should be generally consumed within three to four years of the vintage date.
 
Cabernet Franc 

[KA-behr-nay FRAHNk] Native to Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc is used extensively in Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends, and can also be found as a stand-alone varietal. Its body, fruit, tannins and acidity are less than that of its offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon, however, its aromatics are more earthy and organic, sometimes displaying herbaceous quality on the nose. It is successfully grown in both New World and Old World wine regions and adds structure and interest to red blends.

Nebbiolo
[nehb-YOH-loh] The name of this grape is derived from the Italian word for fog, (nebbia), which is what rolls into the famed Piedmont region of Northern Italy and contributes to the fruit ripening late in the growing season. The vine prefers a cool climate but also loves to bask in the afternoon sun of a southern-facing slope. Amongst the highest quality wines from this region, many are from the Babaresco and Barolo appellations of Piedmont and are highly sought after and collectable wines. Wines made from this varietal have long aging potential and in fact, will shear your palate with tannins if consumed too young. Eight to ten years of bottle age is the minimum for this very fruit-driven, full-bodied varietal to reveal everything it has to offer. Even though this is considered one of the world’s finest grapes for wine, there has been very little planting outside of Italy’s Piedmont region. If aged properly, this will give immense pleasure in the nose and mouth, just like fine mature Bordeaux.

Tempranillo
[tem-prah-NEE-yoh] The Tempranillo grape is native to Spain and is grown widely there for some of its most renowned and age-worthy reds. Other regions this variety does well in include Argentina, which outside of Spain has the most acres of Tempranillo under vine, and also Portugal, in which this grape is used for production of Port. In addition to dark fruit flavors, often Tempranillo wine produce beautiful aromas of leather, earth and vanillin and visually, can reveal the most beautiful hues of purple you have ever imagined. Unfortunately, this fine varietal is also known around the world by other names, which can make it confusing to find and buy true Tempranillo. The finest examples come from the Rioja [ree-OH-hah] and Ribera del Duero [ree-BEHR-ah del DWAY-roh] regions of Spain and are certainly worth seeking out. 

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