Okay, you probably know what wine you like, but that’s where it ends for most of us, isn’t it? Can you tell your Shiraz from your Merlot? Or your Viognier from your Chardonnay? Most of us probably has a friend who thinks they know what they’re talking about, but nine times out of ten these people are charlatans – “booze bluffers”.
Our no-nonsense guide to the major grape varieties and their flavours will help you impress your relatives and shoot down your friends, especially if they’re the kind of pretentious know-nothings who come out with phrases like “this reminds me of mysterious French lady on a summer’s day, sunning herself by the fountain…”
(FLAVOURS: tobacco, green bell pepper, raspberry, new-mown grass)
Cabernet Franc is one of the major varieties of red wine grape in Bordeau. It is mostly grown for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Cabernet Franc is lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon (of which it is a parent), contributing finesse and a peppery perfume to blends with more robust grapes. Depending on the growing region and the style of wine, additional aromas can include tobacco, raspberry, and cassis, sometimes even violets.
(FLAVOURS: blackcurrants, eucalyptus, chocolate, tobacco)
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most widely recognized red wine grape varieties. It is grown in nearly every major wine producing country among a diverse spectrum of climates from Canada’s Okanagan Valley to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.
Cabernet Sauvignon became internationally recognized first through its prominence in Bordeaux wines where it is often blended with Merlot and Cabernet franc. From France, the grape spread across Europe and to the New World where it found new homes in places like California’s Napa Valley, Australia’s Coonawarra region and Chile’s Maipo Valley. For most of the 20th century, it was the world’s most widely planted premium red wine grape until it was surpassed by Merlot in the 1990s.
Despite its prominence in the world of wine, the grape is a relatively new variety being the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc sometime during the 17th century in southwestern France. Its popularity is often attributed to the ease of cultivating, with the grape’s thick skins and hardy vines being resistant to rot and frost.
(FLAVOURS: pomegranate, strawberry, red fruits)
Gamay is a purple-colored grape variety used to make red wines, most notably grown in Beaujolais and in the Loire Valley around Tours. Its full name is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc. It has been often cultivated because it makes for abundant production rather than due to the quality of the wine made from it, but makes wines of distinction when planted on acidic soils which help to soften the grape’s naturally high acidity.
(FLAVOURS: smoky, pepper, raspberry)
Grenache is probably the most widely planted variety of red wine grape in the world. It ripens late, so needs hot, dry conditions such as those found in Spain and in the south of France. It is generally spicy, berry-flavoured and soft on the palate with a relatively high alcohol content, but it tends to lack acid, tannin and colour, so it is usually blended with other varieties such as Shiraz, Carignan and Cinsaut.
Grenache is the dominant variety in most Southern Rhône wines, especially in Châteauneuf-du-Pape where it is typically over 80% of the blend. In Australia it is typically blended in “GSM” blends with Shiraz and Mourvèdre.
Grenache is also used to make rosé wines in France and Spain, notably those of the Tavel district in the Côtes du Rhône. And the high sugar levels of Grenache have led to extensive use in fortified wines, including the red vins doux naturels of Roussillon such as Banyuls, and as the basis of most Australian ‘port’.
(FLAVOURS: violet, fruit, beer)
Malbec is a dark-skinned variety of grape used in red wine. Malbec wines tend to have an inky dark colour and robust tannins. Long known as one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wine, the French plantations of Malbec are now found primarily in Cahors in the South West France region. It is increasingly celebrated as an Argentine varietal wine. It is also grown in Chile, on Long Island, New York, and in the cooler regions of California.
The name Malbec is reputed to come from the surname of a Hungarian peasant brought it to France.
(FLAVOURS: black cherry, plums, tomato)
Merlot is a red wine grape that is used as both a blending grape and for varietal wines. Merlot-based wines usually have medium body with hints of berry, plum, and currant. Its softness and “fleshiness”, combined with its earlier ripening, makes Merlot an ideal grape to blend with the sterner, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. This flexibility has helped to make it one of the most popular red wine varietals in the United States and Chile.
(FLAVOURS: thyme, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, violet, blackberry)
Mourvèdre, is a variety of red wine grape grown around the world. In Portugal and the New World it is known as Mataró, whilst in some parts of France it is known as Estrangle-Chien (“dog strangler”)… sorry to all you puppy lovers out there.
(FLAVOURS: leather, tar, stewed prunes, chocolate, liquorice, roses)
The Nebbiolo (Italian), or Nebieul (Piedmontese) is one of the most important wine grape varieties of Italy’s Piedmont region.
Petite Sirah (Durif)
(FLAVOURS: earthy, black pepper, dark fruits)
Durif is a variety of red wine grape primarily grown in California, Australia, France, and Israel. It produces tannic wines with a spicy, plummy flavour.
(FLAVOURS: violets, leather, banana, pencil shavings)
Petit verdot is a variety of red wine grape, principally used in classic Bordeaux blends. It ripens much later than the other varieties in Bordeaux, often too late, so it fell out of favour in its home region. When it does ripen, it is added in small amounts to add tannin, colour and flavour to the blend. It has attracted attention among winemakers in the New World, where it ripens more reliably and has been made into single varietal wine. It is also useful in ‘stiffening’ the mid palate of Cabernet Sauvignon blends.
When young its aromas have been likened to banana and pencil shavings. Strong tones of violet and leather develop as it matures.
(FLAVOURS: raspberry, cherry, violets, truffles)
The name “pinot noir” is derived from the french words for “pine” and “black” alluding to its tightly clustered dark purple pine cone shaped bunches of fruit.
Pinot noir grapes are grown around the world, mostly in the cooler regions, but the grape is chiefly associated with the Burgundy region of France. It is widely considered to produce some of the finest wines in the world, but is a difficult variety to cultivate and transform into wine.
(FLAVOURS: smoky, earthy, bramble fruits, banana)
Pinotage is a red wine grape that is South Africa’s signature variety. It was bred there in 1925 as a cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut. It typically produces deep red varietal wines with smoky, bramble and earthy flavors, sometimes with notes of bananas and tropical fruit, but has been criticized for sometimes smelling of acetone. Pinotage is often blended, and also made into fortified wine and even red sparkling wine.
(FLAVOURS: herbs, black cherry, strawberry, leathery, earthy)
Sangiovese is a red wine grape variety originating in Italy whose name derives from sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jove”. It is most famous as the main component of the Chianti blend in Tuscany, but winemakers outside Italy are starting to experiment with it. Young Sangiovese has fresh fruity flavours of strawberry and a little spiciness, but it readily takes on oaky, even tarry, flavours when aged in barrels.
Sangiovese is becoming increasingly popular as a red wine grape in Australia, having been introduced by the CSIRO in the late 1960s. This is part of a growing trend in Australia to use a wider range of grape varieties for winemaking. Some wineries also use Sangiovese to make rosé wines.
(FLAVOURS: tobacco, black/white pepper, blackberry, smoke)
Syrah is a dark-skinned variety of grape, is grown in many countries and is primarily used to produce powerful red wines, which enjoy great popularity in the marketplace, relatively often under the synonym Shiraz. Syrah is used both for varietal wines and in blended wines, where it can be both the major and minor component. It is called Syrah in its country of origin, France, as well as in the rest of Europe, Argentina, Chile, and most of the United States. The name Shiraz became popular for this grape variety in Australia, where it has long been established as the most grown dark-skinned variety. In Australia it was also commonly called Hermitage up to the late 1980s, but this naming practice caused problem on some export markets and was dropped.
As of 2004, Syrah was estimated to be the world’s 7th most grown variety at 142,600 hectares (352,000 acres), after having enjoyed a strong growth in plantings for several years.
Syrah should not be confused with Petite Sirah, a synonym for Durif.
(FLAVOURS: vanilla, strawberry, plum, tobacco, leather)
Tempranillo is a variety of black grape widely grown to make full-bodied red wines in its native Spain. It is the main grape used in Rioja, and is often referred to as Spain’s “noble grape”. Its name comes from the Spanish word temprano (“early”), a reference to the fact that it ripens several weeks earlier than most Spanish red grapes.
Tempranillo wines can be consumed young, but the most expensive ones are aged for several years in oak barrels. The wines are ruby red in colour, with aromas and flavors of berries, plum, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herb.
(FLAVOURS: spices, chocolate, red fruits)
Teroldego is a red Italian grape variety grown primarily in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol.
(FLAVOURS: black cherry, pepper, mixed spices, mint)
Zinfandel is a variety of red grape planted in over 10 percent of California wine vineyards. DNA fingerprinting revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, and also the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in the ‘heel’ of Italy (Puglia).
It is typically made into a robust red wine, but in the USA a semi-sweet rosé (blush-style) wine called White Zinfandel has six times the sales of the red wine. Zinfandel has such high sugar levels that it was originally grown for table grapes in the USA, and this sugar can be fermented into high levels of alcohol, sometimes 15% or more.
The taste of the red wine depends on the ripeness of the grapes from which it is made. Red berry fruits like raspberry predominate in wines from cooler areas such as the Napa Valley, whereas blackberry, anise and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas such as Sonoma County, and in wines made from the earlier-ripening Primitivo clone.
(FLAVOURS: lemon, minerals)
Albariño is a variety of white wine grape grown in Galicia (northwest Spain) and northern Portugal, where it is used to make varietal white wines.
Its name “Alba-Riño” means “the white from Rhine” and it has locally been thought to be a Riesling clone originating from the Alsace region of France, although it should be noted that the earliest known records of Riesling as a grape variety date from the 15th, rather than the 12th, century.
It should not be confused with the Alvarinho Liláz grape of Madeira.
(FLAVOURS: apple, pear)
Breidecker is a German style light white wine with apple and pear flavours. It can currently be found in limited areas on the south island of New Zealand where it is mainly used for producing somewhat neutral varietal and blend white wines. Resistant to Bunch Rot and Downy Mildew fungus diseases. [Breidecker] was named after Heinrich Breidecker, one of NZ’s pioneer grape growers.”
(FLAVOURS: butter, melon, apple, pineapple, vanilla)
Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape variety used to make white wine. It believed to have originated in the Burgundy wine region of eastern France but is now grown wherever wine is produced, from England to New Zealand. For new and developing wine regions, growing Chardonnay is seen as a “rite of passage” and an easy segue into the international wine market.
The Chardonnay grape itself is very neutral, with many of the flavors commonly associated with the grape being derived from such influences as terroir and oak. It is vinified in many different styles, from the elegant, “flinty” wines of Chablis to rich, buttery Meursaults and New World wines with tropical fruit flavors.
Chardonnay is an important component of many sparkling wines around the world, including Champagne. A peak in popularity in the late 1980s gave way to a backlash among those wine drinkers who saw the grape as a leading negative component of the globalization of wine. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most widely-planted grape varieties, with over 400,000 acres (175,000 hectares) worldwide, second only to Airén among white wine grapes and planted in more wine regions than any other grape – including Cabernet Sauvignon.
(FLAVOURS: wet wool, beeswax, honey, apple, almond)
Chenin blanc, or Pineau de la Loire, is a variety of white wine grape from the Loire valley of France. Its high acidity means it can be used to make everything from sparkling wines to well-balanced dessert wines, although it can produce very bland, neutral wines if the vine’s natural vigor is not controlled. Outside the Loire it is found in most of the New World wine regions; it is the most widely planted variety in South Africa, where it is known as Steen.
(FLAVOURS: rose petals, lychee, spice)
Gewürztraminer, sometimes referred to as Gewürz, is an aromatic white wine grape variety that performs best in cooler climates. The variety has high natural sugar and the wines are usually off-dry, with a flamboyant bouquet of lychees. Dry Gewürztraminers may also have aromas of roses, passion fruit and floral notes. It is not uncommon to notice some spritz (fine bubbles on the inside of the glass).
Its aromatic flavours make Gewürztraminer one of the few wines that is suitable for drinking with Asian food. It goes well with Munster cheese, and fleshy, fatty (oily) wild game. Smoked salmon is a particularly good match.
(FLAVOURS: green apple, citrus)
Grüner Veltliner is a variety of white wine grape widely grown primarily in Austria and widely also in the Czech Republic, but almost nowhere else. It has a reputation of being a particularly food-friendly wine.
It is made into wines of many different styles – much is intended for drinking young in the Heuriger (bars serving new wine) of Vienna, a little is made into sparkling wine, but some is capable of long ageing. The best has proven to be world-class in blind tastings against chardonnays.
The steep, Rhine-like vineyards of the Danube west of Vienna produce very pure, minerally Grüner Veltliners intended for laying down. Down in the plains, citrus and peach flavours are more apparent, with spicy notes of pepper and sometimes tobacco.
(FLAVOURS: almond, honeysuckle, marzipan)
Marsanne is a variety of grape, most common in the northern Rhône, where it is often blended with Roussanne. It is also grown in Switzerland where its name has the synonyms Ermitage Blanc or Ermitage, and the Goulburn Valley region of Australia. In Savoie it is known as Grosse Roussette.
Melon de Bourgogne
(FLAVOURS: lime, salt, green apple)
Melon de Bourgogne is a variety of white grape grown in the Loire Valley region of France and best known through its use in the wine Muscadet.
As its name suggests, the grape originated in Burgundy and was grown there until its destruction was ordered in the early 18th century. In the vineyards around Nantes, however, the harsh winter of 1709 destroyed so many vines that a new variety was needed, and the Melon grape was introduced. Melon is distinguished by its great resistance to frost.
Since then it has been used solely in the production of the light dry white wine Muscadet, which is made entirely from the Melon grape. The grape is so associated with this popular appellation of the western Loire that the grape itself is often known as Muscadet. In terms of flavour it is an undistinguished grape with few strong features.
(FLAVOURS: honey, grapes, lime)
The Muscat family of grapes is widely grown for wine, raisins and table grapes. Their color ranges from white to near black. Muscat almost always has a pronounced sweet floral aroma. Muscat grapes are grown around the world in Romania, Bulgaria, Israel, France, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Australia, California, Hungary, Canada, Italy and Turkey and other places. The breadth and number of varieties of Muscat suggest that it is perhaps the oldest domesticated grape variety, and there are theories that most families within the vitis vinifera grape family are descended from the Muscat family.
(FLAVOURS: honeydew, citrus, raw nuts)
Palomino is a white grape widely grown in Spain and South Africa, and best known for its use in the manufacture of sherry.
Also found in Australia and California where it is also used mainly to produce fortified wines, the grape was once thought to be the Golden Chasselas, a grape grown in California. The wine-must has tendency to oxidise quickly, a characteristic that can be ignored when used for sherry production.
In Spain, the grape is split into the sub-varieties Palomino Fino, Palomino Basto, and Palomino de Jerez, of which Palomino Fino is by far the most important, being the principal grape used in the manufacture of sherry. The wine formed by fermentation of the grape is low in both acidity and sugar which, whilst suitable for sherry, ensures that any table wine made from it is of a consistently low quality, unless aided by acidification.
Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio)
(FLAVOURS: white peach, pear, apricot)
Pinot Gris is a white wine grape variety of the species vitis vinifera. Thought to be a mutant clone of the Pinot noir grape, it normally has a grayish-blue fruit, accounting for its name (“gris” meaning “gray” in French) but the grape can have a brownish pink to black and even white appearance. The word “Pinot”, which means “pine cone” in French, could have been given to it because the grapes grow in small pine-cone-shaped clusters. The wines produced from this grape also vary in color from a deep golden yellow to copper and even a light shade of pink. The clone of Pinot Gris grown in Italy is known as Pinot Grigio.
(FLAVOURS: apple, honey, musk, citrus)
Prosecco is a variety of white grape grown in the Veneto region of Italy, and also gives its name to the sparkling wine made from the grape.
The grape is grown in the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene wine-growing regions north of Treviso. Its late ripening has led to its use in dry sparkling (spumante) and semi-sparkling (frizzante) wines, with their characteristic bitter aftertaste.
Like other sparkling wines, Prosecco is served chilled. Most commonly it is served unmixed, but it also appears in several mixed drinks. It was the original main ingredient in the Bellini cocktail, and it can also replace champagne in other cocktails such as the Mimosa. Prosecco also features in the Italian mixed drink Sgroppino (with vodka and lemon sorbet).
The Italian Prosecco should not be confused with Dalmatian Prosecco, which is actually called Prošek, and made out of dried grapes.
(FLAVOURS: citrus fruits, peach, honey, petrol)
Riesling is a white grape variety which originates in the Rhine region of Germany. Riesling is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery, almost perfumed, aromas as well as high acidity. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling white wines. Riesling wines are usually varietally pure and are seldom oaked. As of 2004, Riesling was estimated to be the world’s 20th most grown variety at 48,700 hectares (120,000 acres), but in terms of importance for quality wines, it is usually included in the “top three” white wine varieties together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling is a variety which is highly “terroir-expressive”, meaning that the character of Riesling wines is clearly influenced by the wine’s place of origin.
(FLAVOURS: gooseberry, lime, asparagus, cut grass, grapefruit, passionfruit)
Sauvignon Blanc is a green-skinned grape variety which originates from the Bordeaux region of France. The grape gets it name from the French word sauvage (“wild”) and blanc (“white”) due to its early origins as an indigenous grape in southwestern France. It is now planted in many of the world’s wine regions, producing a crisp, dry, and refreshing white varietal wine. Conversely, the grape is also a component of the famous dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac. Sauvignon Blanc is widely cultivated in France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, California, and South America.
Depending on climate, the flavor can range from aggressively grassy to sweetly tropical. Wine experts have used the phrase “crisp, elegant, and fresh” as a favorable description of Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley and New Zealand. Sauvignon Blanc, when slightly chilled, pairs well with fish or cheese, particularly Chèvre. It is also known as one of the few wines that can pair well with sushi.
Along with Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc was one of the first fine wines to be bottled with a screwcap in commercial quantities, especially by New Zealand producers. The wine is usually consumed young, as it does not particularly benefit from aging. Dry and sweet white Bordeaux, typically made with Sauvignon Blanc as a major component, is the one exception.
(FLAVOURS: honey, orange, lime)
Sémillon is a golden-skinned grape used to make dry and sweet white wines, most notably in France and Australia.
(FLAVOURS: lime, herbs)
Trebbiano is a grape variety that probably makes more white wine in the world than any other. It gives good yields, but makes undistinguished wine at best. It can be fresh and fruity, but doesn’t keep long. Its high acidity makes it important in cognac production. Also known as Ugni Blanc, it has many other names reflecting a family of local subtypes, particularly in Italy and France.
(FLAVOURS: apple, minerals, citrus)
Verdicchio is a variety of white grape grown in the Marche region of Italy and gives its name to the varietal white wine made from it. The name is a derivative of the word “verde” which means green due to its slight green/yellow hue.
Its high quality white wines are produced around the area of Castelli di Jesi and Matelica, and are noted for their high acidity and a characteristic nutty flavour. The grapes are also used to make sparkling wine.
(FLAVOURS: pear, cream, green fruits)
Vermentino is a late-ripening white grape originating in Spain or Madeira, or perhaps Portugal, and now widely planted in Corsica, Sardinia, and the coastal arc running from Tuscany through Liguria and into southern France, around Nice (where it is known as Rolle). It is thought to be related to the Malvasia variety and to have been have been brought to Italy in the fifteenth century during the period of Spanish domination.
(FLAVOURS: peach, pear, nutmeg, apricot)
Viognier wines are well-known for their floral aromas, due to terpenes, which are also found in Muscat and Riesling wines. There are also many other powerful flower and fruit aromas which can be perceived in these wines depending on where they were grown, the weather conditions and how old the vines were.
Although some of these wines, especially those from old vines and the late-harvest wines, are suitable for aging, most are intended to be consumed young. Viogniers more than three years old tend to lose many of the floral aromas that make this wine unique, and aging these wines will often yield a very crisp drinking wine which is almost completely flat in the nose.
The color and the aroma of the wine suggest a sweet wine but Viognier wines are predominantly dry, although sweet late-harvest dessert wines have been made. It is a grape with low acidity and it is sometimes used to soften wines made predominantly with the red Syrah grape. In addition to its softening qualities the grape also adds a stabilizing agent and enhanced perfume to the red wine.