COMMON GRAPE VARIETALS
Of the approximately 10,000 documented grape varieties; 180 are made into wine. Out of those you’ve likely heard of a few varietal wines just by visiting your local supermarket. For those who haven’t, or those who want to learn more, here are some short definitions and defining characteristics for some of the more common varietals and grapes. Keep in mind, most American wines are identified by their varietal name, while in Europe, it is more common for wines to be associated with and named after the region in which they were produced.
Cabernet Franc [cab-er-nay frahnk] – Traditionally used as a blending grape in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cab Franc has recently come into its own as an exceptional stand-alone varietal. It benefits from some oak aging and aging in general.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Floral, red and black fruits, plum, spice, coffee/tea, oak.
TASTE: Medium to full body. Firm but round tannins with generally a slightly softer palate than Cabernet Sauvignon.
NOTE: Cabernet Franc is known for lending a liveliness to both the color and nose of Cabernet Sauvignon blends.
Cabernet Sauvignon [cab-er-nay so-vin-yon] – Cabernet Sauvignon is a red wine known for its depth of flavor, aroma and ability to age. It is full-bodied and intense, with cherry, currant and sometimes herbal flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon may have noticeable tannins and definitely benefits from oak aging (and aging in general).
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Red (cherry, raspberry) and black (blackberry, wild berry) fruits, currants, black pepper, spice (cloves), chocolate, oak.
TASTE: Medium to full body, tannic (astringent) and usually complex.
NOTE: Considered to be “King” and most noble of all grapes. Is one of the red grapes permitted to be used in American red Meritage wines.
Grenache [greh-nahsh] – Grenache comes in both red-wine and white-wine varieties. Red Grenache wines are usually blended with those made from other varieties; 100 percent Grenache wines are rarely found.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Blackberry yam, raisins, tobacco.
TASTE: Grenache wines are sweet, fruity, and very low in tannins.
NOTE: Grenache Noir (Red Grenache) is one of the world’s most widely cultivated red grapes.
Merlot [mur-low] – Merlot is a red wine with medium to full body and herbaceous flavors. Merlot is typically softer in taste than Cabernet Sauvignon and can be found on its own (usually with a little cab) or used as a blending varietal. It benefits from oak aging and aging in general.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Blackberries, backed cherries, plums, spice, coffee/tea, chocolate and mocha.
TASTE: Medium to full body. Mild tannins with generally a softer, fleshier palate than Cabernet.
NOTE: Merlot is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux and is the fastest growing varietal wine in the United States (no matter what “Sideways” says).
Pinot Noir [pee-no nwahr] – Pinot Noir is a red wine of light to medium body and delicate, smooth, rich complexity with earthy aromas. It is less tannic than a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot. Pinot noir is a very delicate grape, so winemaking has to be gentle. Benefits from oak aging.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Raspberries, baked cherries, plums, spice, earth (mushrooms), cedar, cigars, and herbal.
TASTE: Light to medium body, good acids, mild tannins, complex.
NOTE: Pinot noir means “Pine Cone Black.” Considered to be the most demanding grape to grow and make into wine.
Sangiovese [san-gea-vehsay] – An important red grape grown in the Tuscany region of Italy. Used as the primary grape in Chianti, it’s blended with a variety of other red Italian varietals. In the “Super Tuscans” (and in California wines) it’s blended with cabernet sauvignon and benefits from some oak aging. Sangiovese wines are high in acid, with moderate to high tannins, and medium levels of alcohol. The flavors have a hint of earthiness and are usually not boldly fruity.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Blackberries, cranberries, medium spice, green wood, leather, vanilla and milk chocolate.
TASTE: Medium to Full Body, firm acids, medium tannins.
NOTE: Its name literally means “Blood of Jove” or “Blood of Christ.”
Syrah [sih-rah] – Syrah generally produces hearty red wines with strong tannins and complex combinations of flavors including berry, plum and smoke. In the United States, it’s sometimes blended with small amounts of zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon. Is not the same grape as Petite Sirah, although both wines can be similar in flavor and texture. Syrah is capable of aging a while in oak.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Blackberry, currants, spice, truffles, dried meat, violets and herbs.
TASTE: Full body, good tannins, low acids, big red wine with a lingering finish.
NOTE: It’s known as Shiraz mainly in Australia and South Africa.
Zinfandel [zin-fan-del] – Primarily thought of as a Californian varietal due to its partiality toward warmer weather, Zinfandel is a red wine with light to full body and berry-like or spicy flavors. Pairs well with moderately spicy meat dishes and casseroles.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Black currants, cooked plums, bananas and pepper.
TASTE: Full body, big red wine with a lingering finish.
NOTE: The Zinfandel grape is also widely used in the popular off-dry blush wine known as White Zinfandel.
Chardonnay [shar-dun-nay] – Usually 100% varietal, Chardonnay is a white wine, which can range from clean and crisp with a hint of varietal flavor to rich and complex oak-aged wines. Chardonnay typically balances fruit, acidity and texture. Most Chardonnays spend time in oak, either barrel fermented and/or aged. This varietal goes well with everything from fish and poultry to cheeses, spicy foods and nut sauces.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Tropical fruit (pineapple, papaya, mango), apple, pears, honeydew melon, citrus, fig, vanilla, butter/butterscotch and oak.
TASTE: Medium to full body, good acidity.
NOTE: Chardonnay is the most popular wine in the United States. It is even preferred more often than White Zinfandel.
Gewurztraminer [gah-vertz-trah-mee-ner] – Gewurztraminer is a white wine that produces distinctive wines rich in spicy aromas and full flavors, ranging from varying degrees of sweetness-dry, medium-sweet, and late harvest. Because of the grape’s pinkish (sometimes yellow) pigment, Gewurtztraminer wines are some of the more deeply colored of the whites, many have gold or peach tones. It is often a popular choice for Asian cuisines and pork-based sausages.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Litchi, roses, cloves, gingerbread, vanilla, apple, grapefruit, honeysuckle, pepper and pine.
TASTE: Medium to full body, good acidity.
NOTE: The German word gewürtz means “spiced,” and these wines are known for their crisp, spicy attributes.
Pinot Gris [pee-noh gree] – The color of this grape can vary substantially, producing wines that range from white to slightly pink. The style of wines ranges from crisp, light, and dry-such as those produced in northern Italy (where Pinot Gris is called Pinot Grigio), to the rich, fat, honeyed versions from France’s Alsace region. The color of this grape can vary substantially, producing wines that range from white to slightly pink, but often ending up more colorful than other whites. Pinot Gris is usually delicately fragrant and mildly floral with lightly lemon-citrus flavors.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Pear, lemon-citrus, apple, floral, spice, vanilla and roasted hazelnuts.
TASTE: Tangy and light, or quite rich, round and full bodied (depending on ripeness at harvest).
NOTE: French for “gray,” which presumably refers to the grayish hue of this member of the Pinot family.
Riesling [rees-ling] – Rieslings are white wines known for their floral perfume. Also known as Johannisberg Riesling and White Riesling. Depending on where they’re made, they can be crisp and bone-dry, full-bodied and spicy or luscious and sweet. Most are fermented and aged in stainless steel. Some see oak aging. Pairs well with duck, pork, and roast vegetables.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Grapefruit, peaches, apricots, pear, honeydew melon, apples, floral and perfumy.
TASTE: Light to medium body when dry. Medium to full body, rich and viscous when made as a sweet dessert wine.
NOTE: The principal grape of Germany.
Sauvignon Blanc [sah-vin-yon blahnk] – Sauvignon Blanc is a white grape used to make sweet or dry white wine, best known for its grassy, herbal flavors. Most Sauvignon Blanc wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel. Some see a little oak aging. It can also be called Fume Blanc, and is a popular choice for fish and shellfish dishes.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Citrus (lemon/lime, grapefruit), gooseberry, melon, grassy, straw, bell pepper, floral and spring flowers.
TASTE: Light to medium body. Crisp acids.
NOTE: Name means “savage” or “wild white.”
Semillon [sem-ee-yon] – The principal grape of white Bordeaux and Sauternes. Used to make sweet or dry white wines. Usually blended with Sauvignon Blanc, and sometimes with Chardonnay, but can also stand on its own as a single varietal. Mostly fermented and aged in stainless steel, some wines see oak.
AROMAS/FLAVORS: Figs, citrus, peaches, honey, floral and nutty.
TASTE: Light to medium body, medium to strong acids. Full-bodied when made sweet.
NOTE: In Australia it is also known as Hunter Riesling.
NON-VARIETAL AND BLENDED WINES
Blush Wine – An American generic term given to wines that are light pink to light apricot in color. The wines are generally produced from red grapes in which the skins are removed from the juice soon after pressing. Longer skin contact will produce a darker color and more tannins.
Bordeaux Blend [bohr-DOH] – A term used for wines blended from two or more of the traditional Bordeaux grape varieties. The most common red Bordeaux varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec. White Bordeaux varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Meritage wines typically contain less than 75% but may not contain more than 90% of a single variety.
Chablis [sha-BLEE] – Chablis is actually not a varietal at all- it is a growing region in France. In the U.S. the term Chablis refers to ordinary white table wines blended from various grape varieties. These generic wines are usually light and sweet to semi-sweet.
Champagne/Sparkling Wine – These wines are made effervescent in the wine-making process. Champagnes and sparkling wines range in style from very dry (Natural), dry (brut) and slightly sweet (extra Dry) to sweet (sec and Demi-Sec).
Late Harvest – Wines made from grapes (commonly Riesling) that are picked toward the end of the harvest when the very ripe grapes have a high sugar content. Because of the high sugar content (Brix) they usually make very sweet, highly alcoholic wines. Late Harvest Rieslings, which are usually sweet and fruity with intense flavors of honey, peaches and apricots, are most often used as dessert wines.
Meritage [MEHR-ih-tihj] – Pronounced like “heritage”, it is an American trademarked name used to designate wines made with traditional Bordeaux grape varieties. Vintners may use this term only if they are members of the Meritage Association, otherwise wines are sometimes simply referred to as Bordeaux blends. The most common red Bordeaux varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec. White Bordeaux varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Meritage wines typically contain less than 75% but may not contain more than 90% of a single variety.
White Zinfandel – Not a varietal by any means- it is made from the (red) Zinfandel grape and gets it’s pale pink (blush) color by quickly removing the skins from the juice after the grapes are pressed. White Zinfandels are usually somewhat sweet but may be produced in a semi-dry style. These wines often exhibit flavors of strawberries, raspberries and cherries and may have a floral bouquet. Because of it’s popularity among novice wine drinkers, many people believe the Zinfandel grape is white. Editor’s note: shame on all those waiters that have served me “White Zinfandel” when I ordered “Zinfandel.”
Port – A sweet wine that is fortified with a neutral grape alcohol that is added part way through fermentation. The added alcohol stops fermentation while the wine is still sweet and increases the alcohol level to 18 to 20 percent.
Vintage Ports – Generally the best, as they are made from a single vintage and can age for up to 50 years years.
Tawny Ports – Made from grapes from different years and can be aged in wood for as long as 40 years.
Ruby Ports – Generally made from lower quality batches of wine which are aged for about two years, is the least expensive. Ports can be made of several varietal wines including Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Because of the sweetness and high alcohol content, Ports are usually served after a meal.
Sherry – A fortified wine that is made in several styles and can take of various characteristics. Sherries are often deep gold to brown in color and are highly aromatic with flavors described as nutty or raisiny. Sherries are most often served before or after dinner, with the dry sherries served chilled and the sweet sherries served at room temperature.