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Different Wine Grape Varieties
Most wine is grape wine. The grapes come from one of two families. Wine making grape varieties vary greatly in tolerance to diseases. Disease resistance is an important consideration when deciding which varieties are suitable for a given site. Varieties which are more susceptible to disease will require more effort to keep disease under control. Before you buy wine grapes, educate yourself about the many different qualities of the grapes.
The wine grape variety in these two families is in the thousands.
There is one simple fact that all wine experts agree upon: grape variety (or blend of varieties), is, by far, the most influential factor determining the flavor and character of a wine.
In order to appreciate wine, it is important to understand the characteristics of the grapes. Wine characteristics vary greatly depending on the grape. Although Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel are all red grapes, individually their personalities are quite diverse. Even when grown in different appellations and vinified using different techniques, a varietal wine always displays certain qualities, which are inherent in the grape's personality. Muscat is probably the only grape that produces wine with the aroma of the grape itself. Sweet Muscats should always be spicy with flavors of raisins and oranges. Sauvignon Blanc a touch herbal. Sharp, tangy, gooseberry is the predominant flavor with undertones of grass, nettles, elderflower and asparagus. Zinfandel is zesty, with pepper and raspberry flavor. Cabernet Sauvignon is marked by plum, currant and black cherry flavors and with a hint of mint and cedar. Understanding what a grape should be as a wine is fundamental, and knowing what a grape can achieve at its greatest is the real meaning of fine-wine appreciation.
Most Europeans are used to wines with regional names because their finest wines are known principally by geographic appellation. However, this is changing. For example - the occasional French and Italian varietals. In the New World, as in America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, this is different since most wines are labeled by their varietal names and occasionally by grape combinations, like Cabernet-Shiraz. This is because in these countries, particularly the United States, the process of sorting out which grapes grow best in which appellations is ongoing and Americans were first introduced to fine wine by the varietal name. In Europe, with a longer history for matching grape types to soil and climate, the research is more definitive. For example, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the principal grapes of Burgundy. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot are the red grapes of Bordeaux and Syrah leads the northern Rhone reds. Barolo and Barbaresco are both made of Nebbiolo, but the different appellations produce different wine styles. In Tuscany, Sangiovese provides the backbone of Chianti.
Ultimately, the New World's appellation practice may well progress into one more like Europe's. California appellations such as Carneros and Santa Maria Valley are becoming tantamount with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Oregon's Willamette Valley is known for Pinot Noir and Australia's Hunter Valley has the famous Shiraz. Again in California, Rutherford, Oakville and the Stags Leap District are all associated with Cabernet-based red table wines. Successful wineries in these appellations and the marketing expertise to accentuate the distinguishing features of the wines grown in these areas will establish how the appellation system evolves and whether or not specific wine styles are revealed. The appellations themselves will also prove which grapes outclass others and deserve special recognition.
The descriptions we provide are of the most commonly used Vitis vinifera grapes. American wine is also made from native Vitis labrusca, especially the Concord grape. For definitions of wine-making terms mentioned, please see the wine glossary.
A white grape that is Spain's and the world's most widely planted grape variety. Airen blankets central Spain's hot, arid regions of La Mancha and Valdepenas and is used for both red and white wines. The Airen grape's reputation for creating dull white wines is still widely dependable but thanks to modern equipment and new wine making techniques these wines have recently gained a better image. There are now white Airen wines being produced that are light, crisp, fruity, and slightly aromatic. Airen is also known as Lairen, Manchega, and Valdepenera Blanca.
An extremely crisp grape, Aligote is known for producing wines with almost painful acidity. In warm years or in the right hands the best examples are balancing acts of citrus, hazelnuts and peaches. The Cote Chalonnaise of southern Burgundy is the traditional home of Aligote. It is also grown in California and Oregon, and is the base of many sparkling wines form eastern Europe.
This grape is very widely planted in Italy; more so than Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Barbera is known for its tarry character and low-tannins. It is the most successful grape in Italy's Piedmont region, where it makes such wines as Barbera d'Asti, Barbera di Monferato and Barbera di Alba. Its wines are characterized by a high level of acidity (meaning brightness and crispness), deep ruby color and full body, with low tannin levels; flavors are berrylike. However, plantings have declined sharply in the United States. A few wineries still produce it as a varietal (single grape) wine, but those numbers too are dwindling. Its main quality as a blending wine is its ability to maintain a naturally high acidity even in hot climates. The wine has more promise than is currently realized and may stage a modest comeback as Italian-style wines gain popularity.
This strain of Sangiovese is the only grape permitted for Brunello di Montalcino, the rare, costly Tuscan red that at its best is loaded with luscious black and red fruits and chewy tannins.
Recent studies in ampelography, using DNA fingerprinting, have determined that cabernet franc is one of the genetic parents of cabernet sauvignon (the other is sauvignon blanc). Both cabernet varieties are among the five major grapes of Bordeaux. The differences between franc and sauvignon become apparent when grown and fermented in close proximity. Cabernet franc vines bear thinner-skinned, earlier-ripening grapes with lower overall acidity, when put side by side to cabernet sauvignon.
Cabernet Sauvignon is being used in the U.S. to make some very interesting wines. Increasingly popular as both stand-alone varietal and blending grape. In Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc is used traditionally for blending, although it can rise to great heights in quality, as seen in the grand wine Cheval-Blanc. In France's Loire Valley it's also made into a lighter wine called Chinon. It is well established in Italy, particularly the northeast, where it is sometimes called Cabernet Frank or Bordo. California has grown it for over 30 years, and Argentina, Long Island, Washington state and New Zealand are picking it up.
As a varietal wine, it usually benefits from small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and can be as intense and full-bodied as either of those wines. But it often drifts away from currant and berry notes into stalky green flavors that become more pronounced with age. Given its newness in the United States, Cabernet Franc may just need time to get more attention and rise in quality.
Depending a great deal on vineyard practices, the flavor profile of Cabernet Franc may be both fruitier and sometimes more herbal or vegetative than Cabernet Sauvignon, although lighter in both color and tannins.
This sometimes causes confusion for the beginner. In the US, people refer to a wine as a Cabernet or a Pinot Noir. However, Cabernet Sauvignon is the variety of grape, or varietal. In France, wine drinkers refer to a nice Bordeaux, meaning a wine which is usually composed mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, but is grown in the region called Bordeaux. It is also the first grape to put California on the international wine scene.
The acknowledged king of red wine grapes, Cabernet is a remarkably steady and consistent performer throughout much of the state. While it grows well in many appellations, in specific appellations it is capable of rendering wines of uncommon depth, richness, concentration and longevity. Long thought to be an ancient variety, recent genetic studies at U.C. Davis have determined that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually the hybrid offspring of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
The berries of Cabernet sauvignon are small, spherical with black, thick and very tough skin. They are fairly resistant to disease and spoilage and able to withstand some autumn rains with little damage. It ripens in mid to late season. These growth traits, along with its flavor appeal help to make Cabernet Sauvignon one of the most popular red wine varieties worldwide.
Found almost everywhere in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon is just as likely to be bottled on its own as it is blended. But because Cabernet Sauvignon is fairly tannic, the wine is often blended with other grapes; usually Merlot - being less tannic - is considered an ideal partner. At its best, unblended Cabernet produces wines of great intensity and depth of flavor. Its classic flavors are currant, plum, black cherry, cigars, green peppers, chocolate and spice. It can also be marked by herb, olive, mint, tobacco, cedar and anise. The best Cabernets start out dark purple-ruby in color, with firm acidity, a full body, great intensity, concentrated flavors and firm tannins.
Also known as Carignane ( California) and Cirnano ( Italy). At one time a major blending grape for jug wines, Carignan's popularity has diminished. It still appears in some blends, and old vineyards are sought after for the intensity of their grapes. But the likelihood is that other grapes with even more intensity and flavor will replace it in the future, it currently tends to be progressively replaced by Shiraz.
Carignan requires a long growing season as it buds and ripens quite late, so is not prone to spring frosts. It is a vigorous, although not really hardy vine, sensitive to downy and powdery mildew. Carignan has but one characteristic and that is to recommend it for planting for high yields. An acre of Carignan may easily produce 10 to 12 tons of grapes.
The Californian spelling of the French grape carignan often blended with syrah, mourvedre, and grenache to produce high quality Rhone-styles blends.
Also known as Grande Vidure, this grape was once widely planted in Bordeaux, But when phylloxera swept through France's vineyards in the late 1800s, Carmenere didn't take well to grafted rootstock and was thought lost to history. It is planted primarily in Chile and other areas of the New World are planting it. Carmenere, along with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, was imported to Chile around 1850. According to Chilean vintners, Carmenere has been mislabeled for so long that many growers and the Chilean government now consider it Merlot.
An uncommon red-wine grape grown in small vineyards of California's Napa Valley and Mendocino County It is very much like Dolcetto, a grape found in northern Italy. Its stature as a wine was supported mainly by Inglenook-Napa Valley, which bottled a Charbono on a regular basis. Occasionally it made for interesting drinking and it aged well. But more often it was lean and tannic, a better story than bottle of wine. A few wineries still produce it, but none with any success.
This is a classic with grape grown around the world. As Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of reds, so is Chardonnay the king of white wines, for it makes consistently excellent, rich and complex whites. This is an amazingly versatile grape that grows well in a variety of locations throughout the world. In Burgundy, it is used for the exquisite whites, such as Montrachet, Meursault and Pouilly-Fuisse, and true Chablis; in Champagne it turns into Blanc de Blancs. Among the many other countries that have caught Chardonnay fever, Australia is especially strong.
Chardonnay was introduced to California in the 1930s but didn't become popular until the 1970s. Areas such as Anderson Valley, Carneros, Monterey, Russian River, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria Valley, all closer to cooler maritime influences, are now producing wines far superior to those made a decade ago.
Though there is a Maconnais village called Chardonnay, no one agrees on the grape's origin--it may even be Middle Eastern.
Chardonnay takes oak well, and many higher priced Chardonnays are typically fermented and/or aged in oak barrels. When Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, it may pick up vanilla overtones in its aromas and flavor. When well made, Chardonnay offers bold, ripe, rich and intense fruit flavors of apple, fig, melon, pear, peach, pineapple, lemon and grapefruit, along with spice, honey, butter, butterscotch and hazelnut flavors.
Winemakers build more complexity into this easy-to-manipulate wine using common vinification techniques: barrel fermentation, sur lie aging during which the wine is left on its natural sediment, and malolactic fermentation which reduces crispness and brings out a rich, buttery taste. This usually shortens the life of the wine as far as aging is concerned. No other white table wine benefits as much from oak aging or barrel fermentation. Chardonnay grapes have a fairly neutral flavor, and because they are usually crushed or pressed and not fermented with their skins the way red wines are, whatever flavors emerge from the grape are extracted almost instantly after crushing. Red wines that soak with their skins for days or weeks through fermentation extract their flavors quite differently. Chardonnay also ages well in the bottle, though it will not age as long as many red wines.
Because Chardonnay is also an inexhaustible producer that can easily yield 4 to 5 tons of high-quality grapes per acre, it is a cash cow for producers in every country where it's grown. Many American and Australian Chardonnays are very showy, well oaked and pleasing on release, but they fall short of the richness, depth and concentration needed to age. It evolves rather quickly, often losing intensity and concentration within a year or two. Studied by many vintners who recognize this flaw, are now sharply reducing crop yields, holding tonnage down to 2 to 3 tons per acre in the hopes that this will lead to greater concentration. The disadvantage to this approach is that the smaller crop will lead to significantly less wine to sell, resulting in higher prices as well.
This is a native of the Loire valley in France and also grown in northern California. It has two personalities. For your home it's the foundation of such famous, long-lived whites as Vouvray and Anjou, Quarts de Chaume and Saumer, but on other soils it becomes just a very good blending grape. It is South Africa's most-planted grape, with about thirty percent of her vineyards producing Chenin Blanc and there it is called Steen. Both in South Africa and in California it is used primarily as a blending grape for generic table wines.
It can yield a pleasant enough wine, with subtle melon, peach, spice and citrus notes. The great Loire whites vary from dry and fresh to sweet, depending on the vintage and the producer. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is also used for fortified wines and spirits. The lively fruit and mouth-watering acidity make this the perfect oyster wine .
A close relative of Pinotage. It does well in Southern France, Lebanon, Australia and South Africa, and is used most commonly for blending with more robust grapes to change the character of the wine.
Called America's original dessert wine, Concord is famous for its deep purple color and classic sweetness. Concord grape wine has an intense fruity flavor. It is perfect as an after-dinner sipping wine. Grown on a greater variety of soils and under a wider range of climatic conditions than any other variety of American grape. This is a variety of Vitis Labrusca,and is resistant to many of the diseases which destroy the European grape, Vitis Vinifera. Concord Grapes were the first onto which Vinifera cuttings were grafted to combat insects and disease and the first to be successfully cross-pollenated with European stock to produce hybrids. The most prominent of these hybrids are French-American, but crossings were also made with German, Spanish, Portuguese, Lowlands, and Baltic grapes. The resulting vines are hardy and produce good yields.
Its vine is vigorous and productive, ripening in early to mid-October in New York. The suitability of Concord fruit for multiple purposes gives it a large market potential. It is the most important variety for sweet juice, jelly, and preserves, and it is also used in quantity for wine production and fresh market sales.
However, the Concord, even its hybrids, seldom contain the elevated amount of natural sugar that pure Vinifera varieties contain. The grapes also hold more pectin and acid, so their wines may emit a musky smell distasteful to some. Therefore, their juice is always reinforced with added sugar, nearly always thinned with water to balance the acid, treated with pectic enzyme to ensure that it clears, and may be flavored to some extent with certain aromatic herbs or spices to counter the natural muskiness.
The wine made from Concord grapes makes a sweet after dinner dessert wine with a fresh fruit flavor.
The name means "little sweet one," though it is nearly always a dry wine. Almost exclusive to the Piedmont area of northwestern Italy, this produces soft, round, fruity wines fragrant with licorice and almonds. It's used as a safety net for producers of Nebbiolo and Barbera wines, which take much longer to age. There are seven DOCs: Acqui, Alba, Asti, Dinao d'Alba, Dogliani, Langhe Monregalesi and Ovada.
Dolcetto has changed remarkably over the past decade, and not only in terms of a general rise in quality and a much larger number of good bottles. It was once thought of as a simple gulping wine, best drunk in its youth and an ideal accompaniment to a typical meal. Dolcetto is now being taken much more seriously. In fact, it is rich in extract, and in well made bottles, can age without the slightest problem. Dark in color, fragrant and plumy on the nose with attractive almond notes, Dolcetto is ample and round on the palate, long and smooth on the finish.
Dolcetto needs to be carefully watched and tasted and, above all, cellar racked at the proper time to avoid reduction and off-odors. Interesting experiments with wood aging have also begun, and it seems safe to say that Dolcetto is heading for a new golden age in which all of the inherent promise of the grape and its wines will be fully realized.
See Sauvignon Blanc.
Grown mainly in Burgundy, France. This grape conveys a cherry and candy flavor with a hint of raspberry.
Low in alcohol and relatively high in acidity. It is fermented quickly under a protective layer of carbon dioxide. The wines are meant to be drunk soon after bottling; the ultimate example of this is Beaujolais Nouveau, stocked everywhere almost overnight. It is also grown in Ardeche and Loire, but it makes no remarkable wines. The Swiss grow it widely, for blending with Pinot Noir; they often chaptalize the wines.
In the meantime, California grows a variety called Gamay Beaujolais, a high-yield clone of Pinot Noir that makes run-of-the-mill wines in most places where it's grown. In the United States the grape is used primarily for blending, and acreage is declining, as those vineyards who are really serious about Pinot Noir are using superior clones and planting in cooler areas.
The name means "spice" in German. Gewurztraminer can yield magnificent wines, as is best demonstrated in Alsace, France, where it is made in to a variety of styles from dry to off-dry to sweet. It grows best in cooler climates where good acidity plays a significant role. It's a fickle grape to grow and vinify, as its intense spiciness can be overbearing when unchecked. Its styles vary from dry to richly sweet. At its best, it bursts with flavors producing a floral and refreshing wine with crisp acidity that pairs well with spicy dishes. When left for late harvest, it's unusually rich and complex, a great dessert wine.
This grape originated in Germany and Austria. it is also grown in Italy, California, Niagara Canada and Australia. It is popular in eastern Europe, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest.
Also known as Garnacha Tinta in Spain. It is often used for rose wine, and is common in France, Spain and California. This grape is very tolerant of drought and heat. It yields a fruity, spicy, medium-bodied wine with supple tannins. The second most widely planted grape in the world, Grenache is widespread in the southern Rhone. At its best when blended, (although there are some pure varietals) especially with Shiraz. It is famous when blended to produce Chateauneuf-du-Pape and used on its own for the roses of Tavel and Lirac, In addition, it is used in France's sweet Banyuls wine.
In Spain, it is especially noteworthy in Rioja and Priorato. Grenache used to be popular in Australia, but has now been surpassed by Syrah; a few vineyards in the Barossa Valley in southern Australia are making wines similar to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. In California it's a industrious blending grape, though sometimes an old vineyard is found and its grapes made into a varietal wine, which at its best can be good. It may make a comeback as devotees of the Rhone seek out cooler areas and a suitable blending grape.
In the southern Rhone it is used for blending in France's Rousillon and the Languedoc, and in various Spanish whites, including Rioja.
Also known as Veltliner. The most widely planted grape in Austria, it can be found to a lesser extent in some other parts of eastern Europe. It achieves its qualitative pinnacle in the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal regions along the Danube River west of Vienna. Gruner, as it's called for short, shows distinct white pepper, tobacco, lentil and citrus flavors and aromas, along with high acidity, making it an excellent partner for food. Gruner is singularly unique in its flavor profile, and though it rarely has the finesse and breeding of the best Austrian Rieslings (though it can come close when grown on granite soils), it is similar in body and texture.
Thrives in well irrigated sandy soils, but not very hardy. Increasingly Merlot and the two Cabernets are substituting for the Malbec grape particularly in Bordeaux and the Loire in various blends. However, Argentina is markedly successful with this varietal. In the United States Malbec is only used as a blending grape, and an insignificant one at that, but a few wineries use it. The most understandable reason is because it's considered part of the Bordeaux-blend recipe.
Popular in the Rhone (along with Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier). Australia, especially in Victoria, has some of the world's oldest vineyards. At its best, Marsanne can be a full-bodied, moderately intense wine with spice, pear and citrus notes.
Merlot became hugely popular in the 1990s and its popularity has climbed along with its acreage. Even beginner wine lovers can't drink enough of it. It dominates Bordeaux, except for the Medoc and Graves. Though it is mainly used for the Bordeaux blend, it can stand alone. In St. Emilion and Pomerol, especially, it produces noteworthy wines, culminating in Chateau Petrus. In Italy it's everywhere, though most of the Merlot is light, unremarkable stuff. But Ornellaia and Fattoria de Ama are strong exceptions to that rule. Despite its popularity, its quality ranges only from good to very good most of the time, though there are a few stellar producers found around the world.
Several styles of Merlot have become known. For instance, one is a Cabernet-style Merlot, which includes a high percentage (up to 25 percent) of Cabernet, comparable currant and cherry flavors and firm tannins. Another style is less reliant on Cabernet and is softer, more supple, medium-weight, less tannic and features more herb, cherry and chocolate flavors. A third style is a very light and simple wine stimulating Merlot's overall growth.
Just like Cabernet, there is an advantage to blending Merlot. Cabernet can give it backbone, color and tannic strength. It also marries well with oak. Merlot is relatively new in California, only dating to the early 1970s, and it is a difficult grape to grow, as it sets and ripens unevenly. Many critics believe Washington State has a slight quality edge with this wine. As a wine, Merlot's aging potential is fair to good. It may be softer with age, but often the fruit flavors fade and the herbal flavors dominate.
Mourvedre is native to Spain, where it is known as Monastrell. It was brought to Provence in the late Middle Ages where, prior to the phylloxera invasion (a serious pest of commercial grapevines worldwide) at the end of the 19th century, it was the dominant varietal.
Mourvedre is a late-ripening varietal that flourishes with hot summer temperatures, likes a wide variety of soils and does not need a great deal of care. It's popular across the south of France, especially in the regions of Provence and the Cotes-du-Rhone, and is often used in Chateauneuf-du-Pape; Languedoc makes it as a varietal. Spain uses it in many areas, including Valencia. In the United States it's a minor factor now, pursued by a few wineries that specialize in Rhone-style wines. The wine can be pleasing, with medium-weight, spicy cherry and berry flavors and moderate tannins with aromas of black fruits, licorice. It ages well.
Also known as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, its full name, and Moscato in Italy, Moscatel in Iberia. Probably the only grape that produces wine with the aroma of the grape itself. Sweet Muscats have flavors of raisins and oranges. Muscat Blanc is marked by strong spice and floral notes and can be used in blending to increase complexity and flavor, its primary function in California. This grape can turn into anything from the low-alcohol, sweet and frothy Asti Spumante and Muscat de Canelli to bone-dry wines like Muscat d'Alsace. In addition, it produces fortified wine such as Beaumes de Venise.
The great grape of Northern Italy (the Piedmont area,) which excels there in Barolo and Barbaresco, strong, ageable wines. Mainly unsuccessful elsewhere, Nebbiolo also now has a small foothold in California. So far the wines are light and uncomplicated, bearing no resemblance to the Italian types.
A native American (Labrusca) variety, successfully grown in many districts throughout New York, it is a floral, strongly flavored white grape used for juice, wine and fresh consumption. It ranks below Concord in cold hardiness and ripens somewhat earlier. On favorable sites, yields can equal or surpass those of Concord. Acidity is lower than for most other American varieties. Native American grape varieties have strikingly different physical and flavor characteristics than their European counterparts. A Niagara grape cluster is large with loose, individual berries. The grape skin is thicker and the inside of the grape is fleshy.
Known for its dark hue and firm tannins, Petite Sirah has often been used as a blending wine to provide color and structure, particularly to Zinfandel. On its own, Petite Sirah can also make intense, peppery, age worthy wines, but few experts consider it as complex as Syrah itself.
Just over 3,200 acres of grapes identified as Petite Sirah are presently planted in California. Although only a portion of these vineyards have been surveyed, recent DNA evidence from research led by Dr. Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis has confirmed most plantings to be the same grape as Durif, a minor red grape variety first grown in southern France in the late 1800s. Durif is a cross between Peloursin and Syrah. About 10% of Petite Sirah however, is Peloursin, which, observed in the field, is practically indistinguishable from Durif, even by expert ampelographers.
Just to make things more confusing, in France, growers refer to different variants of Syrah as Petite and Grosse, which has to do with the yield of the vines.
Pinot Blac is sometimes referred to as a poor man's Chardonnay because of its similar flavor and texture profile, Pinot Blanc is used in Champagne. Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, Italy and California and can make a terrific wine. With wine making expertise, it can be intense, concentrated and complex, with ripe pear, spice, citrus and honey notes. Pinot Blanc can age, but is best drunk early while its fruit still shines through. It is related to the Pinot Gris.
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are in fact the same white grape. Pinot Gris is known as Pinot Grigio in Italy and as Ruländer in southern Germany, producing quite a lot of undistinguished dry white wine and Collio's outstanding whites. As Pinot Gris, it used to be grown in Burgundy and the Loire, though it has been supplanted, but it comes into its own in Alsace, where it's known as Tokay. When good, this varietal is soft, gently perfumed and has more color than most whites.
This is the great and world-renowned red grape of the eastern French region of Burgundy and is a touchy variety. The red is lighter in color than most red wines. The best examples offer the classic black cherry, spice, raspberry and currant flavors, and an aroma that can resemble wilted roses, along with earth, tar, herb and cola notes. It can also be rather ordinary, light, simple, herbal, vegetal and occasionally weedy. It can even be downright funky, with overwhelming barnyard aromas. In fact, Pinot Noir is the most fussy of all grapes to grow. It responds strongly to environmental changes such as heat and cold spells, and is notoriously difficult to work with once picked, since its skins are thin and easily bruised and broken, allowing the juice the freely flow. The vine itself is very slow to mature with low yields and early-ripening fruit. Even after fermentation, Pinot Noir can hide its weaknesses and strengths, making it a most difficult wine to evaluate out of barrel. In the bottle, too, it is often changes color, showing poorly one day, brilliantly the next.
There are many different clones grown, developed to suit the different climatic and soil conditions as the variety generally benefits from a cool climate rather than a hot, dry one. Today there is also a greater understanding and appreciation for varying approaches to Pinot Noir wine, even if there is less agreement about those styles--should it be rich, concentrated and loaded with flavor, or a wine of elegance, finesse and delicacy? Or can it, as in the traditional Pinot Noir, be both? Even varietal character remains under discussion. Pinot Noir can certainly be tannic, especially when it is fermented with some of its stems, a practice that many vintners around the world believe contributes to the wine's backbone and prolonged existence. Pinot Noir can also be long-lived, but predicting with any accuracy which wines or vintages will age is often the decisive test in forecasting.
It is also of great importance in the Champagne region of North Eastern France where it is pressed immediately after picking in order to yield white juice and blended with Chardonnay to produce the famous sparkling wine of the region. It is just about the only red grown in Alsace. In California, it excelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is on the brink of further progress. California and Oregon certainly have a legitimate claim to producing world-class Pinot Noir.
It is a medium-bodied and more complex wine with a cherry/strawberry aroma and palate which with age may develop characteristics more reminiscent of Burgundy with the fruit becoming more like plums and with a longer palate. Whether the wine is bone dry or rich and spicy, it has a hint of honey.
Developed in the early 1900s and used principally in South African wines. Pinotage is a blend between the Pinot Noir and Cinsault varieties. Pinot Noir is very difficult to grow successfully, whereas Cinsault is sturdy and resistant to most vine ailments. It was hoped, by crossing these two, the new variety would gain the good points of both parents - classic Pinot Noir taste with a large crop from easy-growing vines.
The grape makes a wine that is hearty, with a fruity and spice taste. Some tasters remark on a banana-like taste.
The Riesling grape is believed to be indigenous to Austria and Germany, and has been planted there for almost 1,000 years. One of the world's greatest white wine grapes. Riesling does best in cool climates and is very resistant to frost. It is planted very widely in the northern European growing regions but is less popular in other areas of the world. Because the variety excels in cooler climates, its tendency is to ripen slowly makes it an excellent source for sweet wines made from grapes attacked by the noble rot Botrytis cinerea, which withers the grapes' skin and concentrates their natural sugar levels.
Riesling is considered on of the 'noble' grape varieties for wine making. It is best known for producing the wines of Germany's Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Pfalz, Rheinhessen and Rheingau wines, but it also achieves brilliance in Alsace and Austria. While the sweet German Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines, along with Alsace's famed Selection de Grains Nobles, are often celebrated for their high sugar levels and ability to age almost endlessly, they are rare and expensive.
Riesling has the ability to produce wines that range from bone dry to very sweet but are usually made in dry of semi-dry styles. Its high acidity and distinctive floral, citrus, peach, honeysuckle and mineral accents have won dry Riesling many fans.
The wines from Germany's Mosel region are perhaps the most genuine expression of the grape, offering lime, pie crust, apple, slate and honeysuckle characteristics on a light-bodied and racy frame. Germany's Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Pfalz regions produces wines of similar characteristics, but with increasing body and spice. In Alsace, Riesling is most often made in a dry style, full-bodied, with a distinct gasoline aroma. In Austria, Riesling plays second fiddle to Gruner Veltliner in terms of quantity, but when grown on favored sites it offers wines with great focus and clarity allied to the grape's typically racy frame.
In other regions, Riesling struggles to maintain its share of vineyard plantings, but it can be found (often under synonyms such as White Riesling, Rhine Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling) in California, Oregon, Washington, New York's Finger Lakes region, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and Canada. Riesling deserves another try. Look for the resurgence of this fine varietal, especially out of Canada.
This red-wine grape originated in the Tuscan area of Italy. In some ways sangiovese is to Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino as cabernet sauvignon is to Bordeaux. Both form the base of wines normally blended with other varietals and both by themselves share a certain distinctive elegance and complexity, when well-made. The grape is slow to mature and late-ripening. It has relatively thin skins and a tendency to rot in dampness. It does not mature well if planted above an elevation of 1,500 feet. However, vineyards with limestone soil seem to produce wines with more forceful aromas. Sangiovese is distinctive for its supple texture and medium-to full-bodied spice, raspberry, cherry and anise flavors. When blended with a grape such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese produces red wine of excellent quality.
It is a bit surprising that Sangiovese wasn't more accepted in California given the strong role Italian settlers played in the state's winemaking heritage, but now the grape appears to have a bright future in the state, both as a stand-alone varietal wine and for use in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and maybe even Zinfandel. Expect sweeping stylistic changes as winemakers learn more about how the grape performs in different locales as well as how it marries with different grapes. It is definitely worth watching.
"[Sauvignon blanc] bangs you in the mouth - like an old peasant with his wooden shoe......The Sauvignon is the whipper-snapper. It's not solid enough. It's violent, it's sharp, it bites, it cries, it's like a ferocious dog you keep on a leash."
This grape is very easy to identify in a blind tasting. But what is difficult is finding the right words to describe it. In France this variety may be known as Petit Sauvignon or Sauvignon Jaune in the Gironde region of South West France and Sauvignon Fume or Blanc Fume in West and Central France. It is another white with a notable aroma, this one with a herbaceous or musky nose. The pure varietal is found mainly in the Loire, at Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, As part of a blend, the grape is all over Bordeaux, in Pessac-Leognan, Graves and the Medoc whites; it also shows up in Sauternes. New Zealand has had overwhelming triumph with Sauvignon Blanc, producing its own perfumed, fruity style that spread across North America and then back to France.
Sauvignon Blanc has been used for many years in France. In the United States, Robert Mondavi rescued the varietal in the 1970s by labeling it Fume Blanc, and he and others have enjoyed success with it. The key to success seems to be in taming its overt varietal intensity, which at its extreme leads to pungent grassy, vegetal and herbaceous flavors. A popular alternative to Chardonnay, employing barrel fermentation, sur lie aging and malolactic fermentation. It is also a popular wine to produce because it is an exceptional producer and a highly lucrative wine to make.
It can be crisp and refreshing, matches well with all types of foods. It costs less to produce and grow than Chardonnay and it sells for less too. It also gets less respect from vintners than perhaps it should. Its popularity rises then diminishes, at times appearing to challenge Chardonnay and at other times appearing to be a cash-flow afterthought. Even at its very best, it does not reach the kind of richness, depth or complexity Chardonnay does and in the end that alone may be the essential difference.
It is usually best drunk young, as it does not particularly benefit from ageing. The one exception is sweet white Bordeaux, typically made with Sauvignon blanc as a major component.
Golden and thin-skinned, it is the primary grape in White Bordeaux wines. On its own or in a blend, this white can age. However, when used to make wines on its own, Semilllon is almost always disappointing, producing a dull, tasteless drink that is only really good for distilling to brandy. Even in Sauternes its usage is only assured by the intervention of the botrytis fungus. It is thus almost always used in blends. With Sauvignon Blanc, its traditional partner, make rich, honeyed wines,
Semillon is relatively disease resistant, however it is susceptible to Botrytis cinerea (bunch rot). Botrytis infects the grape during autumn causing it to shrivel and dry up. By harvest time the juice is extremely concentrated and honey sweet. Australia's Hunter Valley uses it alone to make a full-bodied white that used to be known as Hunger Riesling, Chablis or White Burgundy. In South Africa was once so prevalent that it was just called "wine grape," but it has declined drastically in importance there.
In the United States, Semillon enjoys only humble success as a varietal wine in California and Washington state, but it continues to become less prevalent in California. It can make a wonderful late-harvest wine, and those wineries that make it the center of their attention can make well balanced wines with complex fig, pear, tobacco and honey notes. When blended into Sauvignon Blanc, it adds body, flavor and texture and adds grassy herbal notes. It can also be found blended with Chardonnay, more to increase the volume of wine than to add anything to the package.
Seyval is popular on the east coast of the US and Canada, and is one of the most widely planted grapes east of the Rocky Mountains in the US. Wines from this grape can have melon-like flavors, as well as grassy/hay overtones.
Syrah or Shiraz
Shiraz is the name of an old city in Iran ( Persia). It is known in France and California as Syrah, and in Australia as Shiraz. It is the most widely planted red grape in Australia. Red Hermitage and Cote-Rotie in France, Penfolds Grange in Australia--the epitome of Syrah is a majestic red that can age for half a century. The grape seems to grow well in a number of areas and is capable of rendering rich, complex and distinctive wines, with pronounced pepper, spicy blackberry, plum, black cherry, tar, leather and roasted nut flavors, a smooth, supple texture and smooth tannins. In southern France it finds its way into a variety of blends such as in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Languedoc-Roussillon. Known as Shiraz in Australia, it was long used for bread-and-butter blends, but an increasing number of high-quality wines are being made, especially from old vines in the Barossa Valley. In the new world, it is often a mixing partner with Cabernet Sauvignon.
In the United States., Syrah's rise in quality is remarkable. It appears to have the early-drinking appeal of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel and few of the peculiarities of Merlot, and may well prove must less difficult to grow and vinify than any other red wines aside from Cabernet.
If you happen to come across a bottle of Petite Sirah, it is not related to the Syrah/Shiraz grape at all. See our description for Petite Sirah.
The word 'Tempanillo' in Spanish quite literally means "early". But don't be fooled. This black grape still has enough time on the vine to produce deeply colored purple and intense wines. Tempanillo is Spain 's major contribution to red wine. It is indigenous to the country and is seldom grown anywhere else. It is the principal grape in the red wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, which are two of Spain's most important wine regions.
In Rioja, Tempranillo it is often blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo and a few other minor grapes. When made in a traditional style, Tempranillo can be garnet-hued, with flavors of tea, brown sugar and vanilla. When made in a more modern style, it can display aromas and flavors of strawberries, blackberries, red and black stone fruit like plums and prunes, minerals, licorice, tobacco and leather with velvety spice accents and hints of vanilla and chocolate. An easy drinking wine! Riojas tend to be medium-bodied wines, offering more acidity than tannin.
In Ribera del Duero, wines are also divided along traditional and modern styles, and show similarities to Rioja. The more modern styled Riberas, however, can be quite powerful, offering a density and tannic structure similar to that of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tempranillo is known throughout Spain under different names such as Cencibel, Tinto del Pais, Tinto Fino, Ull de Llebre and Ojo. It's also grown along the Douro River in Portugal under the monikers Tinta Roriz (used in the making of Port) and Tinta Aragonez.
Trebbiano and Ugni Blanc
Tremendously prolific in Italy where it is known as Trebiano and in Ugni Blancin France where it is called Ugni Blanc. This grape is low in alcohol but high in acidity. The Trebbiano varietal is traditionally blended with varieties that exhibit more predominate traits and is found in almost any basic white Italian wine. It is so ingrained in Italian winemaking that it is actually a sanctioned ingredient of the blend used for (red) Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. In Tuscany, the Trebbiano is blended with the Malvasia varietal in the production of Chianti.
The grape produces neutral, light, dry, white wines that are high in acid and moderate in alcohol. The flavor and aroma is practically undistinguishable. The wine is very pale in color and, at times, exhibits an attractive, bitter almond note in the finish. It is best drunk immediately.
Viognier, the rare white grape originated in Condrieu in France's Rhone Valley, is one of the most difficult grapes to grow but seems to be recovering worldwide in both popularity and acreage. Crucially it must be picked at optimum ripeness. When harvested too early and under-ripe the resulting wine can be thin, dilute and unbalanced, while if picked too late then the wine will lack the grape's distinctive peach and honeysuckle aroma.
The main appeal of Viognier is its potentially powerful, rich, and complex floral and spicy aroma that often seems like overripe apricots mixed with orange blossoms or acacia. It has a distinctive and sweet aroma. Nevertheless, Viognier is usually made in a dry style and seems to attract more of the typical Chardonnay drinker.
It is used in the Condrieu's rare whites and sometimes blended with reds in the Northern Rhone. There are also a variety of wines available from southern France, most of them somewhat light.
The origins of this tremendously versatile and popular grape are not known for certain, although it was thought to have come from Southern Italy as a cousin of Primitivo. However, recent research in Croatia and at the University of California at Davis, using DNA profiling, has proved Zinfandel is a clone of the Croatian variety Crljenak. The Italian Primitivo,also originally mutated from Crljenak. Further research may indicate the very first plantings migrated from Albania or Greece. In April, 2002, the TTB ( Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) announced they are considering ruling Zinfandel and Primitivo synonymous for use on wine labels. Producers of California Zinfandel will probably object, anticipating that Italian producers with a bountiful supply would then be able to undercut the market with inexpensive Primitivo wine labeled "Zinfandel".
It was a popular variety with home winemakers during the American prohibition era because its thick skins allowed the grapes to ship without damage. It later (late 1970's and early 1980's) became popular for the wines produced from it with forward fruit flavors and spicy overtones. Zinfandel declined in popularity in the mid 1980's and became unprofitable to grow until "White Zinfandel" was introduced. White Zinfandel is a blush-colored, slightly sweet wine.
Real Zinfandel, the red wine, is the quintessential California wine. It has been used for blending with other grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. It has been made in a claret style, with berry and spicy flavors, mild tannins and pretty oak shadings. It has been made into a full-bodied, ultra-ripe, intensely flavored, lively, complex and age worthy wine. Sometimes it is made into late-harvest and Port-style wines that feature very ripe, raisin-like flavors, alcohol above 15 percent and chewy tannins.
Zinfandel's popularity among consumers fluctuates. In the 1990s Zinfandel is enjoying a miniature revolution of popularity, as winemakers took renewed interest, focusing on higher-quality vineyards in areas well suited to Zinfandel. Styles emphasizing the grape's zesty, spicy pepper, raspberry, cherry, wild berry and plum flavors, and its complex range of tar, earth and leather notes. Zinfandel lends itself to blending.
Zinfandel is a challenging grape to grow: its berry size varies significantly within a bunch, which leads to uneven ripening. Water management is also particularly critical to raising Zinfandel. Under stress from lack of moisture, it is prone to raisining. It also ripens more unevenly than most other varieties and it is not uncommon for green and raisined berries to occur within the same cluster. Closer attention to viticulture and an appreciation for older vines, which tend to produce smaller crops of uniformly higher quality, account for better balanced wines.
Or "Blauer Zweigelt" is a red varietal that originally comes from Austria. A full bodied wine with light spice, firm tannins and light acidity. This hybrid is a 20th century cross of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. Zweigelt, like Zinfandel, is a grape of real potential. Both are cultivated primarily in one part of the world but could do as well elsewhere. Niagara Canada is starting to produce Zweigelt wines and should do well, given that their climate is similar to Austria's.
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