There are literally thousands of grape varieties in existence. Most wine grapes are made from the European species, which is considered to be superior to the American vine species. The reason for the numerous varieties is that grape vines have a tendency to mutate and cross breed with ease. Advances in genetic technology have allowed scientists to determine the origins of many well-known grape varieties. The following will give you an introduction to the world of most common grape varieties.
Cabernet Sauvignon requires care and attention in the vineyard, with fruit exposure and yield directly related to fruit quality. However its thick skin makes it incredibly resilient to adverse climatic conditions. In the winery, winemakers often age Cabernet Sauvignon in a mixture of French and American oak.
Climate has a significant impact on the sensory characteristics of the variety. In cooler climates, minty and leafy characters are intermingled with blackcurrant and red berries. In warmer climates, chocolate and tobacco characters express themselves.
Cabernet Franc is a component of Bordeaux blends and Loire Valley reds. It has leafy red-berry characters.
Malbec is a successful varietal in Argentina. Also used in Bordeaux blends.
For Merlot to be good, it must be picked at optimum ripeness, to avoid the presence of herbal characters. Flavors of plums, red currant, mint, pimento, game, earth and leather can be found. Its tannins are invariably soft, making Merlot a good early drinking style, but this does limit its aging potential.
Merlot is most famous in its homeland of Bordeaux in France, where it is used to make some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines. Over the last ten years, plantings have rapidly expanded across the globe, most notably into California, South America, Italy, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Petit Verdot is a red grape variety that is traditionally used in Cabernet Sauvignon based blends. It is known for its intense color, vibrant flavors and firm tannin structure making it a good choice for true red wine drinkers.
Petit Verdot has an interesting flavor profile. It can be incredibly perfumed, having aromas of blueberry and violet. Sometimes it has an attractive herbaceous and spice element, giving the variety complexity. The acidity is often prominent and due to the thick skins of the grape, the color is very dense and the tannins are firm. Structural wines with intense flavors can age well in the mid term. Due to its strength of character, Petit Verdot can have a significant impact on a blend, even when used in small proportions.
Pinot Noir originated in the French region of Burgundy, where it is most renowned and revered. The true character of Pinot Noir is expressed when it is grown in a cool climate. In fact, its early ripening nature makes it able to withstand some of the cooler areas.
Wines made from Pinot Noir are typically lightly colored, with cherry-to-plum red hues. The aroma, which is often highly fragrant, can be composed of cherries, red berries, violets and spice when young, transforming into gamey, leathery, mushroomy characters with age. The palate is light-to-medium bodied with fine silky tannins.
As complexity is a vital attribute of good Pinot Noir, the winemaking process is very detailed. Some winemakers choose to include whole berries in the fermentation to increase the fragrance of the wine. Others allow crushed grapes to macerate prior to fermentation to increase the depth of color and flavor. Some choose to do this after fermentation. Oak is used as an important element in both the sensory and structural aspects of the wine, however due to the delicacy of the variety, care must be taken to ensure that it doesn’t dominate the wine. It is not unusual for a single batch of grapes to be processed in different ways to give a range of blending options for the final wine.
The beauty of Syrah is that it can flourish in a range of climates. Syrah can be made into a range of styles, defined by the terroir of the region and the winemakers’ artistry. With its soft ripe tannins, black cherry, pepper and spice characters, it can be crafted into wines suitable for immediate consumption.
Substantial plantings in both California as well as Italy. In Italy it is known as Primitivo. It produces full-bodied and richly flavored wines.
The popularity of Chardonnay quickly rose, due to its generous flavors and its ease to grow and make into wine. In fact, it is often called a viticulturalist’s dream, as it is early ripening, naturally vigorous and is relatively resistant to disease. Most importantly, it can be grown in a wide range of climatic conditions, leading to a vast array of styles.
The base flavor of Chardonnay is generous, but relatively neutral thus the winemakers’ individuality can be expressed through the winemaking techniques used. Oak usage, yeast lees contact and malolactic fermentation are just some of the ways a winemaker can influence the style of Chardonnay.
Chenin Blanc is a classic French variety. The basis of some of the world’s greatest and long-living sweet wines.
Gewurztraminer is a spicy, aromatic variety. Its style ranges from the flavorsome and fruity, to fine and delicate.
There are many synonyms for Pinot Gris. In Alsace, it is known at Tokay Pinot Gris. In Italy, it is commonly referred to as Pinot Grigio and in Germany it is known as Ruländer or Grauburgunder.
Gris, meaning grey in French, refers to the color of the Pinot Gris grapes. As a result, wines made from Pinot Gris often have a slight coppery hue. They have a delicately perfumed aroma with flavors stretching from fresh pear through to tropical fruits. Pinot Gris is similar to Chardonnay in that it has good palate weight and flavor.
Riesling is an aromatic variety that produces intensely fragrant and flavored wines of exceptional character. Notes of citrus, honeysuckle, blossoms, green apple and mineral are commonly seen. With concurrent high acidity and comparable low alcohol, the wines retain an enviable freshness which many other varieties lack. Oak is not used and the wines are very pure and clean.
Riesling is a variety that is much loved by winemakers and wine connoisseurs due to its intense flavors and its defined palate structure. Riesling is delightful when it is consumed young and fresh. However it is one of the few white wines that has the ability to age.
Sauvignon Blanc is a variety with increasing popularity in Australia. Although its plantings are quite small, they are expected to significantly increase over the next ten years. Sauvignon Blanc is used to make fresh, vibrant wine styles with none of the heaviness of Chardonnay or the floral tones of Riesling. Its flavor profile is in harmony with Semillon and consequently these varieties are often blended together.
The flavor spectrum of Sauvignon Blanc is quite diverse. Upon a backbone of herbaceousness lie tropical fruit, passion fruit and gooseberry. Look a little closer and you may see tomato leaf, spice and flint. The stronger styles have elements of asparagus, capsicum and gun smoke. And winemaking can add tones of oak, butter and yeast. They are a feast for the senses, especially during the heat of summer where their defined acidity adds freshness to the palate.
Semillon is a unique minerally, lemony style, which is crisp and lean when young and is made without the influence of oak or malolactic fermentation. However the wine undergoes a transformation with age, evolving into a complex, nutty, honeyed wine of great depth and complexity.
Semillon is often seen blended with Chardonnay, particularly in mass-market wine styles. The freshness of Semillon provides a necessary balance to the often overly rich Chardonnay. It is a blend that has been very successful.
The most distinctive attribute of Viognier is its stone fruit character, most notably that of apricot. It can also show considerable floral and spice tones. In cooler climates you can see citrus whilst in warmer areas there is more honeysuckle. It has good viscosity due to generous alcohol levels and is similar to Chardonnay in that it has a weighty mid-palate and generous flavour, making it a good alternative to this ubiquitous variety.
[Mr Zimmerman owns and operates Liquors Galore, 1418 Avenue J (between 12th and 13th Streets); Brooklyn, NY 11230-3702; Telephone: 718.338.4166. The above post is the lastof a multi-part series we have been posting once a week on these pages]