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Grapes


Classic Grape Types

The aromas and flavours of a wine come in many different forms, and very rarely does a wine smell or taste of grapes. Nevertheless, the grape variety employed is probably the single most important determinant of the taste and aroma characteristics of the final wine. Since the widespread use of varietal labelling (placing the name of the grape on the label), many wine grapes have achieved a degree of fame previously unimaginable. Below are thumbnail guides to what we consider the most prevalent grape varieties. Some will be familiar to even the novice wine drinker, although others have spent less time in the limelight.

Each profile contains information on:

Spiritual home - The Old World locations where the grape has its home. Most grape varieties have just one or two locations in the Old World where they are traditionally cultivated. This section tells you where.

Grown elsewhere - Some grapes have found a niche in the New World, and may have gained considerable fame as a result, such as Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. Others are almost ubiquitous, whereas some have travelled little. This section gives you a brief one-liner as to where the variety is found, with more detail in the profile.

Keywords - This section gives just one or two words that give some idea as to the intrinsic flavour of the grape. It is merely a quick note to 'hang your hat on', so to speak, and is by no means comprehensive. Much more detail is given in the profile.

Profile - A guide to the growing requirements or preferences, taste and aroma, ability to age and so on.

Classic White Wine Grapes

Chardonnay

Spiritual home: Burgundy, important in Champagne.

Grown elsewhere: Ubiquitous.

Keywords: Tropical fruits, citrus fruits, other white fruits.

Profile: The seemingly ubiquitous Chardonnay seems to be planted everywhere. There are multiple reasons for this, but they include the grapes ability to cope with varied climes, its fame as the grape behind great wines such as Chablis and other white Burgundy, and also the wines produced have a great aptitude for taking on flavours from oak. The variety itself is thin-skinned and gives good yields, another feature that appeals to the winemaker. Other than Burgundy and Champagne, the grape has found fame on the labels of wine from Australia, New Zealand, California, South Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, Southern France and even Italy. It would have been quicker to list where the grape isn't extensively cultivated! The characteristics of the wines produced vary considerably, and many aromas an flavours to be found are often down to oak ageing rather than the grape variety (especially in the new world). These include, butter, vanilla, spice, toast and mealiness. The grape itself can give rise to a buttery feel, but also flavours of apples, lemons, melon, pineapple and other tropical fruits, particularly from warmer climes. Other characteristics include wet wool (especially Burgundy) as well as minerals and flint (especially Chablis).

Sauvignon Blanc

Spiritual home: Loire Valley, Bordeaux.

Grown elsewhere: Has found fame in New Zealand.

Keywords: Green fruits, tropical fruits.

Profile: This grape is responsible for some of the fine wines of the Loire Valley, with such well-known names as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fum�. To the modern wine drinker, however, it is probably better known as the grape behind the richly flavoured wines that have put New Zealand on the wine map. It also, however, has an important role to play in Bordeaux where, together with Semillon, it is used to produce Sauternes, the fine botrytis-influenced dessert wine of the region. This is a thin-skinned variety, and is therefore susceptible to botrytis infection (although less so than Semillon). Characteristics of the grape when used to produce a dry wine include cut grass, minerals (especially Sancerre), gunflint and cordite (especially Pouilly-Fumé), gooseberries, tropical fruits, (especially Menatou Salon), foliage and even cats urine!

Riesling

Spiritual home: Germany.

Grown elsewhere: Widely planted in Alsace, also Australia.

Keywords: Limes, minerals.

Profile: This grape, which will grow in a wide range of conditions, is most famous for producing some of the finest white wines in the world when it is grown on the steep, slate vineyards that lie on the banks of the Mosel in Germany. This is still the case today, although thanks to the marketing of sickly sweet, non-Riesling derived, fruitless sugar-water concoctions under such fine German names as Piesporter and Niersteiner, German wine has hit a low in terms of public regard. Seek out wines from top producers to find fine Rieslings from Germany often at a bargain price. This grape is also grown in Alsace, where although produced in a very different style it is also responsible for some very fine wines. Characteristics include floral aromas, fruit blossom, apples, limes, other citrus fruits, tropical fruits, as well as slate, minerals (especially Germany).

Semillon

Spiritual home: Bordeaux.

Grown elsewhere: Success in Australia.

Keywords: Honey and buttered toast.

Profile: One of two grapes, together with Sauvignon Blanc, that is responsible for Sauternes. Like Sauvignon, Semillon is thin-skinned and thus susceptible to Noble Rot (botrytis) infection. Unfortunately it is also susceptible to Grey Rot, which does not have the beneficial effects of the more noble infection. Other than in Bordeaux, Semillon is little grown. Characteristics from dry wines include a waxy texture, butter, honey, toast, lanolin, limes and citrus fruits, lemon curd or meringue. Typical Sauternes often tastes of pineapple, quince and other rich fruits, alongside the botrytis.

Viognier

Spiritual home: Condrieu (Northern Rhône).

Grown elsewhere: Plantings are increasing.

Keywords: Peaches and pine kernels.

Profile: In recent years Viognier was at risk of extinction, with just a few hectares maintained in the fine Northern Rhône appellation of Condrieu. These wines were not widely appreciated despite, in some cases, being extremely fine. In recent years though, many wine makers in Languedoc-Roussillon and the New World have latched on to this grape and plantings are increasing dramatically. Many have hailed the grape as the 'new Chardonnay' and I would not be surprised if it becomes as well known, even if it is more difficult to pronounce! Characteristic flavours and aromas include peaches, apricots, musk, pine nuts and kernels. Problems with some New World wines include lack of balance due to excessive alcohol.

Chenin Blanc

Spiritual home: Loire Valley.

Grown elsewhere: Also planted in South Africa.

Keywords: Acidity.

Profile: As with Viognier, many wine experts might raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Chenin our list of classic grapes. Nevertheless, if we define classic grapes as those capable of producing a fine, age worthy wine without being blended, then Chenin is most definitely in. This grape is responsible for some of the finest dessert wines in the world, from numerous appellations in the Loire Valley, including Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume, Vouvray and Coteaux du Layon. It also produces some dry wines in the Loire, and is also widely planted in South Africa, where it is known as Steen, although these wines are of much less significance. Typical characteristics of the sweet wines of the Loire include quince, honey, herbal tea and minerals.

Muscadet

Spiritual home: Loire Valley.

Grown elsewhere: Also planted in Burgundy & California.

Keywords: Acidity.

Profile: This coastal area, the "Pays de Nantes" is the home of Muscadet. The Muscadet grape makes a "neutral" wine. In cool years it can be rather tart. The better Muscadets come from Sèvre-et-Maine to the east of the city of Nantes. When choosing a Muscadet, perhaps the most important thing to look out for on the label is the term "Sur Lie". This means that the wine has been aged on its "lees", the mix of yeast cells and grape fragments that remains after fermentation. Sur Lie wines are bottled directly off the lees without filtration and have added fruitiness, a nutty quality and sometimes a little hint of sparkle on the tongue. Originally from Burgundy, it is now almost entirely grown for producing the dry, crisp white Loire wine of the same name. Apparently, much of the Pinot Blanc grown in California is actually Muscadet. The Muscadet wines of the Loire are produced entirely from the Muscadet grape and of particular note are Muscadet de Sevre-et-Maine and Muscadet des Coteaux de la Loire.

Other White Grapes

There are tens of thousands of grapes suitable for viticulture, although only a few are capable of making great wine. Here are a few of the other important white grapes.

Gewurztraminer:

A superb grape which produces fine wines in Alsace. Some love it, some hate it. There has been limited success in the New World, particularly New Zealand. Characteristics: spice, bacon, banana, floral elements, sometimes troubled by low acidity.

Pinot Gris:

Another of the top grapes of Alsace (where it is often called Tokay Pinot Gris), this also produces fine, spicy wines, with better acidity than Gewurztraminer. Also found in Italy (as Pinot Grigio) and Eastern Europe. Characteristics: spice, bacon, tropical fruits.

Muscat:

The final variety in this trio of Alsatian grapes. Also found in the Southern Rhône where it is used for dessert wines, as well as Bulgaria, where some exceptionally fine wines are made. Characteristics: musk, sometimes grapey, orange and citrus peel, floral and aromatic.

Classic Red Wine Grapes

What I consider to be the six classic red grapes are detailed here, together with further details on a number of other varieties at the foot of the page. Some of the grape varieties mentioned here, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, will be familiar to even the novice wine drinker. Others, however, such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, will be much less familiar, as outside of the regions of northern Italy where these grapes have their home they are not, as yet, extensively planted.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Spiritual home: Bordeaux.

Grown elsewhere: Widely cultivated throughout the world.

Key flavour: Blackcurrants.

Profile: Renowned for the wines it produces on the well-drained, gravelly soils on the left bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon has been a natural choice for New World winemakers wishing to emulate the fine wine that is claret. It is a robust grape that has travelled well, and is now cultivated in Australia, South Africa, North America and South America, but has also been put to use in Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe. It has small, blue-black berries which have thick skins, providing necessary tannin, colour and flavour. Characteristics aromas and flavours are blackcurrants, cedar, old furniture and cabinets, coffee, tobacco, violets, minerals, green pepper, chocolate and so on. Young wines start off intensely fruity, whilst the more complex aromas will develop with age.

Merlot

Spiritual home: Bordeaux.

Grown elsewhere: Important in Italy and California.

Key flavours: Chocolate, fruitcake.

Profile: Whereas Cabernet Sauvignon has its spiritual home in the left bank communes of Bordeaux, Merlot is most famous for the wines from the right bank, especially from Pomerol and St Emilion. Although somewhat less widely travelled when compared to Cabernet, this thin-skinned, large-berried variety has found a new home in California. It is also important in some of the top wines of Italy, and can also be found in Australia and Eastern Europe. Spicy fruitcake, Christmas cake and chocolate characteristics will often give Merlot away, although it may also display blackcurrant, black cherry and plums. It is less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, and is often used in clarets when they need to be 'fleshed out' in weaker vintages.

Pinot Noir

Spiritual home: Burgundy, important in Champagne.

Grown elsewhere: Some success in New Zealand, California, Australia.

Keywords: Summer berry fruits (primary characteristics).

Profile: Without doubt, although many winemakers of the New World have tried their hand at cultivating this variety, none have come close to emulating the fine wine that can be produced in Burgundy. This variety is thin skinned, grows in small bunches, and is prone to problems with yields. Accepted wisdom states that consistently low yields are necessary to maintain quality, and although high-yield clones have been developed the final product lacks the necessary quality. When discussing Pinot Noir, it is also worth remembering that it plays a vital role as one of the three grapes widely planted in Champagne. Primary aromas and flavours (those present when young) are redcurrants, cranberries, strawberries, blackberries and chocolate. The secondary aromas (those that develop with age) include horsehair and animal fur, farmyard aromas, manure and compost. Lovely!

Syrah/Shiraz

Spiritual home: Rhône Valley, particularly the north.

Grown elsewhere: Australia, but many other countries also.

Keywords: Black fruits & black pepper.

Profile: Syrah is the grape behind fine wines of the Northern Rhône, not only Côte Rôtie ("roasted slope") and Hermitage, but also Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage. Nevertheless, most wine drinkers are familiar with it as Shiraz, the name by which it is known in Australia. This thick-skinned grape may produce potentially tannic and long-lived wines. It is also late-ripening, explaining why it has gravitated towards warm regions such as the Rhône and Australia. Typical descriptors include black fruits and black pepper, but more intriguingly raspberries, spice, herbs, grilled meats, charcoal, smoke and tar may be found. When aged it may develop rubbery aromas, particularly when from the Northern Rhône.

Sangiovese

Spiritual home: Chianti/Emilia Romagna

Grown elsewhere: Not extensively.

Keywords: Black cherries.

Profile: This variety enjoys a warm climate, and is capable of producing great wines in such conditions. A cooler environment may result in excessive acidity. Despite this, Sangiovese has not been the focus of the attention of new World winemakers in the same way as Cabernet or Pinot. Sangiovese is also the grape behind other classic wines of Northern Italy, such as Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Typical characteristics include slightly bitter, mouth-watering sour cherry and black cherry aromas, with spices, herbs and tobacco.

Nebbiolo

Spiritual home: Barolo.

Grown elsewhere: Not extensively.

Keywords: Black cherries.

Profile: Like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo is another of Northern Italy's classic grapes which, despite great potential, and being responsible for some of Italy's finest wines, has not been widely planted in the New World. It's home is not just in Barolo, but also nearby Barbaresco, where fine wines are also produced. It would seem ideally suited to planting in warmer climes, as this thick-skinned variety is late ripening. There are small plantings, however, in California, Australia and Argentina. Typical adjectives used to describe the wines of the Nebbiolo grape include black cherries, liquorice, tar, hung game and chocolate.

Other Red Grapes

There are tens of thousands of grapes suitable for viticulture, although only a few are capable of making great wine. Here are a few of the other important red grapes.

Gamay:

The grape of Beaujolais. Like Tempranillo, many of the flavours associated with this grape are not from the grape itself. In Beaujolais, the winemaking technique carbonic maceration is more the culprit. Certain yeast strains have also been implicated as being responsible for some flavours, particularly banana. Characteristics: red fruits, bananas, bubblegum.

Grenache:

Important in the Southern Rhône, where it dominates. Nevertheless, in almost all cases in is blended with other varieties such as Syrah and Mourvèdre, which is standard practice in this region. It may also be found in Spain and Australia. Characteristics: raspberries, white pepper.

Mourvèdre:

Also important in the Southern Rhône, but also Bandol in Provence where it produces some classic wines. Also known as Monastrell or Mataro, and may be found in Spain and California. Characteristics: tannic, long ageing wines. Black fruits.

Cabernet Franc:

Dominant grape in the Loire Valley, but also extremely important in Bordeaux where it is general used as a minor component of the blend by most châteaux, although by itself it is the grape behind the wine from one of the regions top estates, Cheval Blanc. Characteristics: blackcurrants, blackcurrant leaves, green/bell peppers, smoke, spice.

Tempranillo:

The grape of Rioja. Many of the characteristics of Rioja are derived from the long oak-ageing. Characteristics: vinified without oak, you might find strawberries and soft spices.

Malbec:

Like Cabernet Franc, this is used as part of the blend by some Bordeaux estates. It is also the grape behind Cahors, a southern French appellation. It is becoming more widely known, however, for the steadily improving wines it is producing in Argentina. Characteristics: intense summer fruits, spice.

Our thanks to Chris Kissack the 'Wine Doctor' for this overview.