A Primer on Grapes and Varietals

By Ryan Snyder

Category: Wine for Newbies

Now it’s time to play the name game. Our first couple of jaunts through the wine store often end up being more confusing than enlightening. Bottles displaying foreign names and labels with monkeys and elephant butts line the shelves, and some are even on sale, but how do we know what’s good? Even true winegeeks find themselves stumped every time they enter a wine shop, running into a region or grape they’ve never heard of. But knowledge is power, and soon you’ll walk confidently amongst the wine racks knowing more than even the salesperson.

Grape Species

Grapes used in winemaking are divided into two different species: Vitis vinifera – Originating in Europe and Western Asia, these are the primary grapes used in making wine. Vitis labrusca – Originating in North America, these grapes are typically used for grape juice and jelly, and are occasionally used to produce wine.

Nearly 10,000 varieties of grapes exist within the vinifera species alone. Fortunately for us winemakers over the last 2,000 years have tried and tested most of these grapes, and through trial and tribulation discovered the 50 or so grapes that make the best wine.

Where Wines Get Their Names

As we walk through the local wine shop, we’ll notice that many of the wines are named after the primary grape used in the wine. These are called varietals. Most New World wines, meaning wines from Australia, New Zealand, North America, South Africa and South America, use varietals for the title of their wines. For example, a wine labeled as a California Chardonnay is made from Chardonnay grapes, while a wine labeled New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

European winemakers strongly believe that the land on which the grapes are grown is the most important facet of their wine, and they believe their land is superior to all other regions that grow that grape. Instead of naming their wines after the grape, they name their wines after the region the grapes are grown in. A wine produced in the Chianti region of Tuscany, Italy is called Chianti, while a wine produced in the Chablis region of Burgundy, France is called Chablis. It is up to us as consumers to know the types of grapes used in each region – in the previous examples, Chianti wines are made from Sangiovese grapes, while Chablis wines are made from Chardonnay grapes.

You may ask, “Why do I need to know anything about French or Italian wines?” Well, simply put, you don’t. But most wine drinkers tend to develop a particular affinity for one grape or another and enjoy comparing the differences between wines made from the same grapes grown in different areas of the world. A Chardonnay produced in California will have a vastly different taste than Chardonnay grown in Burgundy. Maybe you’ll like one better than the other – or maybe you’ll simply appreciate a change in scenery.

White Grapes

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is arguably today’s most popular grape. Able to adapt to a variety of climates, the chardonnay grape exhibits green apple and citrus notes in cooler climates, and baked pineapple and tropical fruits in hotter climates. Chardonnay wines are typically dry with a medium to high acidity and a full body. Chardonnay is almost always fermented in oak barrels, which richens the fruit characteristics, imparts a vanilla flavor and gives the body a creamier texture. Chardonnay is also one of the three accepted grapes used in producing Champagne.

The best expression of Chardonnay can be found in Burgundy, France. Other regions producing good examples of Chardonnay are Argentina, Austria, Australia, Chile, France (Champagne and Langedouc-Rousillon), Italy (Tre Venezie and Tuscany), New Zealand, South Africa and the United States (primarily California and Oregon).

Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris

Grown all over the world, this grape has as many flavor profiles as it does names. Italian Pinot Grigios are often light-bodied and rather dry, with notes of citrus fruit zest. In the Alsace region of France, the Pinot Gris produces thought-provoking, spicy wines. In Oregon, these wines are laced with pear and spice cake, while in California they are crisp, yet bitter.

The name used for this grape depends on the region in which it is grown – Italians call it Pinot Grigio, the French Pinot Gris in Alsace, while in Oregon and California wineries can’t make up their minds, some calling it Gris and others Grigio. The Germans prefer not to call anything Pinot and instead call this the Grauburgunder or Ruländer grape. This grape is most successful in Alsace, Northeast Italy and Oregon.

Riesling

Rieslings are high in acidity with a light body and relatively low alcohol level. Grown in the proper conditions, they can be intensely flavorful, with apricot, melon and/or peach flavors. Rieslings often display mineral or floral notes and can range from sweet to dry, depending on how and where they were produced. Some German riesling wine labels describe the sugar level of the wine with words such as Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese. Beerenauslese wines develop a honey-like sweetness and are often enjoyed for dessert.

The best rieslings come from all over Germany, but primarily the regions of Mosel-Saar-Ruwers and Rheingau. Riesling grows best in cooler climates and is also successful in Austria, the Alsace region of France, as well as Washington and New York in the United States.

Sauvignon Blanc

High in acidity, Sauvignon Blancs are crisp, light to medium-bodied, and have melon and dried fig flavors. They are distinguishable for their herbaceous characteristics; most often described as grass, these notes can display fresh herbs, hay, meadow and straw.

The Loire Valley in France has two regions, Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, that produce wonderful Sauvignon Blancs. Meanwhile, New Zealand has earned quite a reputation in recent years. Other good regions for Sauvignon Blanc include Chile, France (Bordeaux), Italy, South Africa and the United States (California, Texas and Washington).

Black Grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon

Arguably the greatest of the black grapes, the Cabernet Sauvignon produce wines that have the distinct flavors of blackcurrant and cassis, as well as cedar, leather and plum. They are medium- to full-bodied, rich and high in tannins, which help Cabernet Sauvignon wines to age better than most wines – well made Cabernet Sauvignons can be aged ten years or more. Cabernet, as its friends call it, is often mixed with Merlot to help soften the tannins, making the wine easier to drink and ready at a younger age.

The best Cabernet Sauvignon wines come from California and the Médoc region of Bordeaux in France. It is grown in many other places, including Argentina, Australia, Chile, France (Bordeaux and Langedouc-Rousillon), Italy, New Zealand and Washington in the United States. A word of note: Cabernet Sauvignon prefers hotter climates, and when grown in cooler climates it does not fully ripen and exudes a bitter bell pepper flavor.

Merlot

Close your eyes and sip a Merlot, and you’ll probably have trouble telling whether it’s Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon – their flavors are quite similar. However, Merlots tend to have a deeper color, and often have integrated flavors of baked cherry and mocha to help you tell the difference. They also have softer tannins, which is why many people find Merlot's silky texture more palatable than cabernet sauvignon.

Merlot excels in the Pomerol and St.-Émilion, two regions in the so-called "Right Bank" of Bordeaux, France. It is also grown in Argentina, Australia, Chile, France (Langedouc-Rousillon), Italy and the United States (California, New York, Virginia and Washington).

Pinot Noir

Lighter in body, color and tannins than most of its red wine counterparts, Pinot Noir is usually described with adjectives. Supple. Round. Silky. Beautiful. It lacks the firm edge of other red wines but make up for it with finesse. Pinot Noir exudes baked cherry and plums, and is a sponge for the land in which they are grown, picking up flavors of whatever is nearby such as cedar, pristine forest and wild mushrooms. It is also one of the three accepted grapes used to produce Champagne.

The Pinot Noirs of Burgundy, France are renowned throughout the world as being some of the most elegant wines available on the market. Pinot noir grows well in a few other climates, including New Zealand, the U.S. (Oregon and California), Italy, Austria and Germany, where it is known as Spätburgunder.

Syrah / Shiraz

Almost black in color, most Syrahs are rather imposing upon first glance. In this case you can judge a book by its cover, as its imposing nature is also realized on the palette. Following the taste of fresh berries, Syrah offers notes of meat, pepper, smoke and spices, as well as a full body and firm tannins. Also, when you’re in the wine shop you may notice bottles labeled Petite Sirah, however this is a different grape altogether.

The Rhône Valley in Southern France has long been a hot spot for Syrah. Some Rhône appellations, such as Hermitage, allow only the Syrah grape to be used in its wines, while others, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, allow it to be used in blends. Outside of France, Syrah is grown in the United States (California and Washington). It is also grown with great success in Australia and South Africa, where it is called shiraz.