In order to fully appreciate your wine experience, it's extremely important to understand the characteristics of grapes and how they create a wine's overall personality. After all, a red grape does not just make a red wine. One can certainly see this effect when tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon next to a Pinot Noir. We say a wine is varietally correct when a grape's typical characteristics shine through no matter the production process. Understanding the characteristics of a grape is a very basic part of learning about wine and I’m surprised at myself for not addressing it earlier.
In Europe, wine is generally categorized by appellation, so instead of calling a wine a Cabernet like we do over here in the states, they would call it Bordeaux. This is due to the long history of European wine-making where they've matched successful grape growing to soil and climate, i.e. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Burgundy, Sangiovese for Chianti, and Nebbiolo for Barolo. There are literally hundreds of different grape varietals, but I've taken the liberty of selecting a handful of the more popular grapes and have made up a sort of general descriptor guide to make it easier for people to understand individual a grape characteristics and thus their wine's general personality. Think of it as a wine horoscope.
Perhaps the most well known varietal in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon is responsible for making up the bulk of Bordeaux wines, is used for blending with Sangiovese in some of Italy’s top Chianti Classicos and has been proven to be a huge success in California as well. With its ability to produce rich wines with great depth and complexity, Cabernet at its best, is ripe with black fruits, currants and spice.
From its home in the hills of Burgundy's Cote d'Or, to Oregon's new found glory and Champagne's entirely unique interpretation, it is said that Pinot Noir's charms are decidedly sensual and act as a vehicle for communicating local geography, the characteristics of the individual site and the terroir on which it was planted. Perhaps the only characteristic that Pinot Noirs of the world share are their sweet berry notes and elegant tannin of which only the most ambitious and experienced wine maker is capable of crafting.
Wines made from Syrah are typically full bodied and robust. Although this grape produces wines that can vary greatly in flavor notes depending or production methods and climate, typical Syrah characteristics include pepper and blackberry notes, along with leather and earth.
The Nebbiolo grape is what's behind the great wines of Piedmont, most notably Barolo. This noble grape makes wines that are big, bold, and tannic, with ability to age for a notably long time. Smelling often of violets and truffles, Nebbiol, ranges in character from licorice, anise and tar to ripe cherries and blackberries.
Easy to grow, easy to make and easy to drink. Merlot is known for its ripe fruits and easy drinking lack of tannin. Similar to Cabernet Sauvignon 1 , Merlot tends to be less distinctive and slightly more herbaceous. Merlot has slightly lower natural acidity than Cabernet and generally less astringency, therefore usually a more straight-forward lush mouth-feel.
Genetically linked to Italy’s Primitivo and Croatia’s Crljenak Kaštelanski (don’t ask me how to pronounce that mouthful), Zinfandel is known in the US as a robust fruit bomb, with jammy blueberry and raspberry notes. Maybe more notable in the US though is the White Zinfandel, where higher levels of residual sugars result in a sweet wine. However it should be noted that a cooler climate will create a more acidic wine with hints of anise and pepper.
Originating from Tuscany and the main ingredient in the world renowned wines of Chianti, Sangiovese has too many clones to keep track of (not including Grosso) and is the number one planted grape in Italy. The grape makes a wine that is firm in structure and on the higher side as far as alcohol levels go. Cherry, plum, strawberry, cinnamon and vanilla flavors are dominate depending on production styles.
The king of whites, Chardonnay is known for its richer whites with buttery smoothness. Incredibly versatile, well made Chardonnay has outstanding tropical, nectar and melon flavors, along with rich nutty, spice and butterscotch notes.
Originating in France, Sauvignon Blanc is now planted in many of the world's wine regions. Often described as crisp, racy, tangy, the grape can produce a wine with notes of tropical, citrus fruits (often from New Zealand) or herbs and grass (think Loire Valley). It's an extremely versatile wine that can easily be paired with any food.
A versatile wine that originates from the Rhine Valley in Germany, Riesling is known for its floral bouquets and high acidity. It is used to produce sweet, semi-sweet dry and off dry wines. Even though it is mostly grown in Germany, the grape has been planted widely throughout the world. Notes of peaches, pears, apricots and apples as well as roses and violets are often detected.
Most successfully grown in Alsace, France, this grape is known for the heady, aromatic wines that it produces. It matures early in the season and is therefore harder to grow, but is known for its extreme, floral bouquets, with notes of peaches, mango and lychee.
Another extremely versatile white wine, Gruner easily pairs with many different foods. With the bulk of its production coming for Austria, Gruner Veltliner is typically a fuller bodied dry wine with a high alcohol content and firm mineral backbone. Typical characteristics include peach and citrus flavors with notes of spice and sometimes pepper.
The Muscat grape is one that tends to give its particular flavor to its wine no matter where it's planted. You can find it on labels as Muscat, Muscatel, Moscatel or Moscato, but it's the same grape. It has an aromatic quality that most commonly is put to good effect in sweet dessert wines, but the range of wine types produced by the Muscat grape is large, from the very sweet to very dry. But whatever the style, the essentially floral, almost orangey, flavor of the grape will always be present in the wine.
Callie Exas has just launched her wine career at New York Wine Co. in Manhattan. So far so good!
Callie's Grape Guide
- Blog comment by AdamL, Oct 6, 2008.
Thanks for the background info, Callie. What about Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris?
- Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Oct 6, 2008.
How about Grenache & Tempranillo?
- Reply by zufrieden, Jan 9, 2010.
Nice work on educating us on the various alluring aspects of these grape varieties. Jancis Robinson has an excellent book covering almost all varietals of oenological interest you might point people towards.
Of course, you'll never satisfy everyone with the listing, but why not add to it? For example, you might want to add Viognier for those of us who like certain Rhône whites. I was going to add a bit of jocularity by suggesting some French hybrids, but these are dead except in the snow-swept environs of my homeland...
Cheers, and keep up the good work!
- Reply by gregt, Jan 10, 2010.
Come on guys, Callie is learning and she's sharing what she's learned. Encourage her. Cheers all!
- Reply by napagirl68, Jan 10, 2010.
- Reply by dmcker, Jan 10, 2010.
"Merlot(:) Easy to grow, easy to make and easy to drink."
Is that true? I've heard several growers/winemakers claim differently for the first two, than there's Paul Giamatti/'Miles' on the third claim....
- Reply by gregt, Jan 10, 2010.
dm - !
True? Of course not. Pretty much nothing in that paragraph is, but one has to start somewhere. I think she's pretty new to wine. Quite enthusiastic though.
- Reply by dmcker, Jan 10, 2010.
I'm all for syntheses in the wine dialectic, as in any other, and for devouring knowledge as a way to speed up the learning curve. So where is she now, as opposed to a year and a half ago?
- Reply by supay, Feb 15, 2010.
I am new to wine but am enjoying each individual characteristic that I encounter. I am attempting to gather dialect for my taste buds and found this excerpt of a 'daily person' enlightening. The one thing I can attest to: merlot is easy and anyone can grow and wine it. The experience is very typical of a "boxed wine". Boring. Though close, I've grown close to cabernet sauvignon from many vinyards. I have slight experience and, I guess, a lack of interest in the blanc but after reading this I will further my experience to the white wines for a change of pace just to see what counters the red.
- Reply by gregt, Feb 15, 2010.
I'm not completely sure what you mean when you say that merlot is easy and anyone can grow it, but I don't know anyone who would say that merlot is easier to grow than something like cabernet sauvignon, for example. Quite the opposite actually. It has thinner skin, which makes it more susceptible to damage and to disease, it is finicky about temperature and does not do well if the weather gets too hot, it does not do well if it does not have moist clay soil, and because it is starts earlier in the season than cab, it is susceptible to frost and rain at flowering and sometimes has a bad fruit-set.
I'm not sure it's altogether boring either. If I'm not mistaken, there is almost twice as much merlot planted in Bordeaux than there is cabernet sauvignon, unlike Napa Valley, where the opposite is true.
People grow it because it produces very wonderful wine. Because it produces big berries and if planted in rich soil, can produce a lot of them, people planted it in a number of places where it should not have been planted, and then they did not apply the high level of care required to produce great wine from it. But it is not a "lesser" grape than something like cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir.
- Reply by napagirl68, Feb 15, 2010.
Thank you, Callie! Great work and research!
I think we are ALL in the stage of learning and growing, and anyone who thinks differently is really missing out...
I have decided to take a local college course next fall. It was recommended to me by friends and tasting room folk... called wines of the world. It is a fully accredited course, with LOTS of homework (and a big lab fee!). But supposedly, one will learn to discern different regions/ learn how to verbalize what they taste/smell, etc, etc. One woman I spoke with said her husband took the course. He was one to always pile on salt/pepper on his food. After the course, he would concentrate on what he was tasting, and really judge what seasoning might be needed.. In other words, it matured his palate!
I am excited about this, and about learning about wines I have not been exposed to much, especially the bordeauxs.
- Reply by dmcker, Feb 16, 2010.
So how much are the 'lab' fees? Depending on the amount I might want to choose the wines myself... ;-)
Anyway, sounds good. Think we're going to have to help you get a leg up before then!