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Beginner's Guide to Red Wine Grapes
After the vineyard site has been chosen, the starting point for any wine is the grape variety selected by the winemaker. This alone is the most important factor determining the character of the liquid swilling around in our glasses. To the complete beginner the familiar names of Chardonnay or Shiraz may represent the first tentative steps into the world of wine - but do you know what tastes and aromas to expect from the bottle? Discovering your personal wine tastes and the art of matching food & wine all depend on a basic knowledge of grape varieties. A little background reading in this area should be the starting point for all newcomers to wine, and will soon reap its rewards...
Varieties of vine
There are 20 or so different varieties of vine within the genus Vitis, but only one, Vitis vinifera, is capable of producing decent wine with any regularity. Vitis lambrusca is a wilder variety that is grown in some parts of the Eastern USA but invariably produces disappointing wine. Vitis rupestris is a parent of many commercially important rootstocks due to its resistance to Phylloxera - the troublesome little bug that infests the roots of vines and decimated the French vineyards in the 1860s and Australian vineyards in the 1880s.
There are about 5000 varieties of Vitis vinifera. We are not going to describe them all - partly because we're lazy but mainly because only 60 or so of these varieties will produce wines with a recognisable and enjoyable flavour. Of all of the factors that can influence the character of a wine - such as soil type, viticulture, microclimate and time of grape picking - the most easily detected is the variety of grape. This guide aims to introduce you to some of the commoner grapes you are likely to encounter.
Common Red Grape Varieties
This is natively a Piemontese grape from the north-west of Italy, but is now just about the most prolific variety across the country. It has gorgeously round, plummy fruit but also shows a high level of natural acidity that has no doubt helped its popularity in warmer climates. Over-production on the vine encourages acidity, but top wineries with low yields are producing beautiful, balanced wines. Great examples of Barbera are now also coming from South America and certain Aussie producers, notably Brown Brothers. Barbera also blends nicely with Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese.
Most will have drunk Cabernet Franc without even realising it, as one of the five varieties legally allowed in Bordeaux reds (the others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot). Cabernet Franc suffers from an image problem in comparison to its cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon , which is a crying shame as it is capable of producing very attractive wines. Typically having lighter colour and less dominant tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc produces fragrant, slightly green wines with more than a hint of blackcurrant leaves. To taste pure Cabernet Franc at its best, head for the wine of Bourgueil, St-Nicolas de Bourgeuil, Chinon and Saumur in France's Loire Valley. These light wines have great berry flavours and are lovely served slightly chilled. The grape is rarely seen in New World varietal wines but often makes an appearance with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot in areas such as California or Australia's Margaret River.
This grape is planted just about everywhere that wines can be made (with the exception of really cool areas that don't provide this late-ripening variety with enough sun and warmth to ripen sufficiently). Cabernet Sauvignon (Cab Sav) grapes have relatively thick skins, which impart a deep colour and flavour to wines and give them a strong tannic backbone that can bend gracefully with age. The best examples have a distinct blackcurrant flavour, with hints of cedar wood, pencil shavings, cigar boxes, and violets. If grown in marginal, cool, areas the wines can have a hint of leafiness or green peppers. Cabernet Sauvignon seems to have a natural affinity for French oak, which brings out the fruit and spice nuances of the grapes, although certain Australian Cab Savs, notably those from the Barossa and Coonawarra may be aged in American oak, which gives them luscious vanillin smoothness.
Bordeaux is undeniably the home of Cabernet Sauvignon, where it is it blended with other grapes to a greater or lesser degree (the wines of Pauillac are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon). Other fine examples are available from Spain (Navarra), Bulgaria (Suhindol), California, South Africa, and Australia, where Margaret River is challenging Coonawarra for the title of best Cabernet Sauvignon region.
Although Cabernet Sauvignon is often drunk as a pure varietal, some examples are somewhat ‘hollow' in the middle palate and for this reason it is often blended with Shiraz or Merlot, both of which help to give add more character and complexity.
This is another Italian native of Piedmont but, unlike Barbera and Nebbiolo, both of which benefit from bottle aging, Dolcetto has light tannins and is meant to be drunk within a few years of vintage. An early ripening, low-acid red, it produces vibrantly soft and fruity wines with liquorice, bitter almond and black cherry flavours. As with many other Italian varieties, a number of Aussie producers are starting to have considerable success with this grape.
Gamay will never make a massive tannic beast of a wine but produces deliciously vibrant, pear-drop scented, light reds. Gamay is the sole red grape of Beaujolais in
South Burgundy. Here the grapes undergo carbonic maceration (fermentation takes place in whole bunches of grapes, under a carbon dioxide seal and in the absence of yeast) to produce wines with very little tannin and smooth fruit flavours of berries and even bananas that are best-drunk young. For better wines head for the 38 communes grouped under the Beaujolais Villages appellation or step even further up the ladder for one of the 10 Beaujolais crus (Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié and St Amour). Other good Gamay wines are produced in California, South Africa and Australia.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is the world's second most widely planted grape variety, growing across huge areas of southern France, Spain (where it is called Garnacha) and Australia. This is a very high-yielding variety, and if over-cropped, can produce thin wines with little character. However, if subjected to fairly heavy pruning and even bunch-thinning the vines produce fruit that makes dense, peppery, earthy wines. In Rioja, Garnacha is blended with the more austere Tempranillo, and in nearby Navarra it is by the far the dominant grape variety and is used to make much lighter styles. In France, Grenache appears in two guises - in age-worthy vin doux naturels such as Banyuls and Rivesaltes, and in the spicy wines of the southern Rhône and Midi. In the Rhône valley, Grenache is used, either as a varietal or blended, to produce reds such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueras and also rosés in Lirac and Tavel.
Due to its affinity for warm climates, Grenache is often grown in the New World but is typically over-cropped and under-rated. Only recently have a handful of Australian vignerons paid due attention to their gnarled old Grenache vines and are making some great wines such as Charles Melton's NinePopes and Rose Of Virginia. Grenache tends to produce wines with high alcohol content.
Malbec is officially one of the five Bordeaux red grape varieties but is playing an increasingly smaller part in the blends. This is largely because it is prone to poor fruit set and is susceptible to rot, frost and downy mildew (the same difficulties are encountered when growing Merlot). It is, however, also widely planted in Argentina, the Loire (where it's known as Côt), Cahors (known as Auxerrois) and Australia. The wines have a spicy, earthy, almost rustic quality, and can be particularly dark in colour.
Merlot, when grown under decent conditions, has an inherent plummy, silky suppleness that can make great varietals or else is blended, typically with Cabernet Sauvignon, to produce less aggressively tannic wines that are more approachable when young. However, as with Malbec, Merlot is very sensitive to growing conditions (and as such it seems crazy that so much Merlot is being planted on unsuitable land in California's Central Valley).
Merlot dominates Bordeaux blends in all appellations except the particularly well-drained soils of the Médoc and Graves, and is especially prominent in the silky wines of Pomerol and St-Émilion. There are huge amounts of Merlot planted in northern Italy, where is produces thin, vaguely fruity wines. The variety is also important to Italian vignerons in Switzerland but quality is highly variable. Other notable growing regions
include Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. Outside of these traditional strongholds winemakers have been slow to utilise Merlot, particularly in warmer Mediterranean areas where the lack of acidity in the grapes can tend to produce flabby wines. That said, Merlot produces some lovely plummy wines in Chile and is starting to look interesting in New Zealand.
Also known as Spanna, Inferno and Grumello. This small, thick-skinned Piemontese grape from northwest Italy produces the famously individual, tannic, acidic and brutish wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Notably late ripening, this is often left on the vine well into October. These wines are almost undrinkable when young but after 4 years in bottle they mature into perfumed (roses, bitumen, roasting meat), complex, full-bodied and expensive reds (Barolo is the ‘larger' of the two wines). There are experimental plantings in the New World regions, though for now Nebbiolo remains an Italian classic.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two grapes of Burgundy, but whereas Chardonnay is kind to both producers and drinkers, Pinot Noir can be a nightmare to cultivate - growing well on one hill but failing miserably on the next. In Burgundy the main problem tends to be a lack of sufficient warmth, resulting in thin wines with little tannin to help them age gracefully. The opposite problem can afflict New World producers - excessive heat can lead to jammy, characterless wines. However, if you find a good bottle of Pinot Noir it can entirely seduce you with its velvety, berry-fruit flavours and farmyard/undergrowth/game undertones! Burgundy produces some beautiful wines but you will have to pay dearly for the quality. Elsewhere in France, head for the Loire (Sancerre rouge or rosé) or Alsace. Italy makes a few good examples, otherwise try Australia (Mornington Peninsula, Gippsland, Yarra Valley - best are Bass Philip and Mount Mary), New Zealand (Martinborough), Oregon and Chile.
Pinot Noir also makes an appearance in Champagne, where it is often used to add length and body to the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
As Italy's most common grape, this is responsible for many of the wines of Tuscany (particularly Chianti), Brunello di Montalcino, Emilia-Romagna and a host of popular Vino da Tavola wines. Sangiovese can produce lightly fragrant wines with a distinct bitter cherry taste, tight tannins (best enjoyed with food) and the capacity to age. Blending often softens its austerity. Varietal Californian examples are a bit disappointing but Australia is doing well, particularly in warm areas such as McLaren Vale (where it is sometimes blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon).
There are two main strongholds for this stunning grape: The Rhône Valley, where it is known as Syrah, and Australia, as Shiraz. In both areas Syrah is famous for producing big spicy blockbusters, exemplified in the Rhône by Hermitage and Côte Rôtie (sometimes blended with up to 20% Viognier (a white grape) to give a hedonistic perfumed nose of orange peel, cinnamon and plums). These wines tend to have an intense, almost inky black colour, and are capable of considerable aging.
It was fortunate that one of the founding fathers of the Australian wine industry, James Busby, visited the Rhône in the early 1800's as Shiraz loves the warm Australian climate and is now the country's most planted variety (though Chardonnay produces a higher volume of wine). Some table wine was made with the early Shiraz plantings although the majority was used to produce fortified wines such as port. When Australia's fortified wine exports declined in the 1950's and 1960's there was such a glut of Shiraz grapes that many old vines were torn from the ground and grapes were even made into muffins! Then people started to clamber over the handful of Shiraz wines that had been produced during the difficult periods and a new style was born. The really big Australian Shiraz wines hail from Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, and Clare Valley, with slightly more elegant wines coming from Coonawarra, Margaret River, the Grampians, Bendigo and Langhorne Creek (among others).
Shiraz can produce far more than spicy fruit-bombs - it also produces some leaner reds with white-pepper characters in cooler areas and is also used to make superb sparkling reds that are great partners for chocolate, fruit desserts or duck. Shiraz has a great affiliation with American oak, giving the wines an unctuous vanilla richness and full mouthfeel. French oak can also be used and this tends to let the fruit shine through, exaggerating the spice notes.
South Africa produces a few good Shiraz wines, as does California, but neither of these areas have been able to produce wines that have the concentration or character of the Australian wines. New Zealand is starting to produce some very interesting examples.
Grown throughout Spain under various pseudonyms (Cencibel, Tinta de Toro), this grape forms the backbone of famous Iberian wines such as Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Its ability to thrive in the most unfavourable climates has led to Tempranillo now being cultivated in nearly all major red wine producing regions. A versatile grape, Tempranillo can produce light, early drinking wines right through to full-bodied, age-worthy styles. Its thick skin is largely responsible for the latter, giving deep coloured, tannic wines with tobacco, spice and strawberry flavours. It is most often found in blends with juicier varieties (commonly Grenache) and takes well to oak giving the smooth vanilla notes commonly found in the wines of Rioja.
The origins of American Zinfandel are unclear, though DNA testing has shown it to be related to Italy's Primitivo variety from the southern region of Puglia. It has now become California's very own grape variety, producing port-style fortified wines, sweet ‘blush' rosés (produced by blending with white Muscat) and big ‘Zins' red-berry, blueberry-fruited reds. Many everyday wines hail from Central Valley, with the finest bottles being produced in Sonoma. Since the 1980's there has been a considerable improvement in the quality of red Zinfandels and many are capable of medium term cellaring. Cape Mentelle, in Australia's Margaret River region, produces a dark, rich, fruitcake Zinfandel and fledgling plantations are appearing in South Africa and South America.
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Beginner's Guide to White Wine Grapes
Common White Grape Varieties
This ubiquitous, fashionable white grape is now found growing in almost every wine producing country. However, this popularity can make it hard to define due to the myriad variations in soil type, climate, clone and viticulture that influence the final wines. Chardonnay is particularly user-friendly to the winemaker, growing almost anywhere and able to be moulded into various styles ranging from classy long-lived white Burgundy, to Champagne, to rich buttery Aussie whites. The flavours associated with Chardonnay depend upon the winemaking. While there is an enormous amount of non-descript peachy, oaky dry white made from the grape, better examples taste of lemon, green apples and grapefruit in unoaked and lightly oaked styles, through to melon, white peach and cashew nuts in medium-bodied wines, and on to rich butter and toast in the barrel-fermented or barrel-aged wines. Chardonnay may also be put through malolactic fermentation - when harsh malic acid (think green apples) is converted to lactic acid - thus giving the wine a more creamy finish. While many Chardonnay aficionados look to Burgundy for their tipple, there are a number of producers in other countries that arguably make wines of similar complexity at more reasonable prices. South African stars include Vergelegen, Rustenberg, De Wetshof, Hamilton Russel, and Bouchard Finlayson, while great Aussie wines are made by Leeuwin Estate, Petaluma and Coldstream Hills, among numerous others.
Widely grown in California and South Africa (where it is also known as Colombar), the origins of this grape stem from its' distillation for the famous brandies of Cognac and Armagnac in France. Its susceptibility to rot in France's moderate climate led to the decline in plantings for still wine production. However, the hot climates of California and South Africa have welcomed the grape, where it produces plain, crisp, dry whites. These are often blended with Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay.
Chenin blanc is one of the mainstays of the Loire Valley in France, and is the most widely planted variety in South Africa (where it is occasionally called Steen), with a few wines hailing from California, Australia, and New Zealand. When made well, Chenin Blanc wines can taste superb, but often they are unripe, flabby, or over-sulphured. The grape has a naturally high acidity and thus lots of sun is required to bring out the fruit
flavours. Chenin Blanc is very versatile and can be used to produce sparkling wines or dry, demi-sec and sweet still wines. The latter wines from Vouvray, Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume, Jasnières and Coteaux du Layon in France's Loire Valley, can have incredible sublime flavours of beeswax, marzipan, honey, pralines and spice with a tremendous capacity to age. South Africa also occasionally makes great long-lived sweet wines. In the New World Chenin is often used to bulk up blended white wines, as it is often fairly neutral, fruity stuff.
One of the most easily recognised grapes, both on the vine and in the glass. The grapes are characteristically pink while the wines have an unmistakable aroma of flowers and spice (in German Gewürz means spice), flavours of lychees, rosewater, ginger, and cinnamon, and an oily mouthfeel. Good Gewürztraminer is so obvious that people either love it or hate it. Unfortunately, most Gewürz is drunk as a sweet blend with Riesling and, while this is a fabulously easy-drinking style, it does not let the true nature of the grape shine through. The best examples, from Alsace and Germany's Pfalz region, are dry wines that combine the amazing perfume with a complex spicy palate, and make perfect partners to Asian food. To experience truly outstanding Gewürztraminer wines, try a late harvested (vendange tardive) or botrytised example (sélection des grains nobles) from Alsace, both of which are unctuously sweet. Outside these regions, Gewürztraminer is also grown widely in Italy and Austria, with New World plantings in California, Chile and New Zealand.
The white grape sister of the red-skinned Grenache Noir. While originally a Spanish variety (where it still play a role in north-eastern whites from Rioja, Navarre, etc.) this grape is now most widely planted in France's Rhône Valley (especially as the most important grape in white Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and Languedoc-Roussillon. Frequently blended with other southern French varietals such as Marsanne and Viognier, the grape can produce good quality, fat, richly flavoured wines.
Not one of the most widely-seen varieties, but justifies inclusion due to its importance as a key grape in the white wines of the Rhône Valley. It has a floral, herby, limey flavour and is quite aromatic (again floral). In the Rhône, Marsanne is usually blended with a host of other white grapes, as in the long-lived Hermitage wines, or may even be blended with Syrah to give red wines a floral lift. Marsanne may also be encountered as a varietal, especially from Aussie producers in the Goulbourn Valley (Chateau Tahbilk or Mitchelton), and in this guise it can age well to produce wines with intense honeysuckle aromas.
The dead-giveaway for wine made from grapes of the Muscat family is that they actually smell of grapes. In those areas where Muscat is made into dry table wines - northeast Italy, Southern France, and Alsace - flavours and aromas of grapes, apples and mandarins may be encountered. Muscat grapes are also used to produce fizzy styles of wine, as in Asti, Moscato d'Asti and Clairette de Vie. However, to my mind, the
most exciting Muscats are the sweet ones. There are two styles of sweet Muscat - the unfortified, as in Moscatel de Valencia (Spain), and the many fortified wines of Australia, the Rhône (notably Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise) and Southern France. The Australian examples in particular can taste strongly of raisins and Demerara sugar, while French vins doux naturels may have more barley sugar and orange character.
Pinot Blanc could perhaps be likened to a light, unoaked Chardonnay, without the upfront fruit. If over-cropped it can produce very neutral, acid wines - a perfect base for sparkling wines such as Crémant D'Alsace. However, good examples of still Pinot Blanc wines from Alsace or Italy (where it is known as Pinot Bianco) are attractively creamy, often with a nutty flavour. Germany also produces some Pinot Blanc, known as Weissburgunder, but the majority of Californian Pinot Blanc is actually Muscadet.
This grape is also known as Tokay Pinot Gris, but bears no relation to the Tokay found elsewhere in the world (Hungarian Tokaji being made from a variety of grapes, while Australian Tokay is Muscadelle). In Italy, Pinot Gris (called Pinot Grigio) is used to made light-bodied, fairly neutral wines that are good partners for seafood. Alsace vignerons make an entirely different beast of a wine - most is dry, full-bodied, aromatic, spicy stuff, while some is beautiful, sweet late harvested (vendange tardive) or botrytised (sélection des grains nobles) with a characteristic smoky smell. A number of wineries in Oregon, Australia and New Zealand are experimenting with this variety.
Without doubt the king of white grapes, and one that best reflects terroir (the special vineyard combination of soil, climate, aspect etc. that gives a wine its' particular character). Yet despite this it remains surprisingly unpopular on the world market. The grape has a high acidity and is best without the influence of oak. It can be grown in a wide variety of climatic conditions and is susceptible to infection by Botrytis, thus leading to a huge variety of different styles. The best examples hail from Germany, usually from the slate soils of the Mosel and Rhine. These typically have a low alcohol (~8%) and very fresh taste of crunchy green apples, lime, flint, and floral notes. The advanced honeyed fruit flavour (and occasional petrol nose - not a fault!) of mature German Riesling is deliciously memorable. New World examples from hot climates have noticeably higher alcohol levels and much bolder fruit flavours of lime and passion fruit, though easily become too fat. Australian examples often develop a very strong kerosene nose after a few years in bottle - a trait not to everyone's liking. Irrespective of its origin, all Riesling should have a racy balanced acidity, which confers good quality wines with substantial capacity to age.
If you like really fresh and clean wine then you'll love Sauvignon Blanc - the perfect antidote to fat, over-oaked Chardonnay. The best Sauvignon Blanc is produced in cool areas, where the grapes retain enough acidity to make great crisp, zingy whites. The two main strongholds are the Loire Valley in France, and New Zealand (Hawkes Bay
and further north in the North Island and Wellington regions in the South Island). Wines from North Island New Zealand tend to be richer, with more passionfruit and gooseberry character whereas those from the South Island, particularly Marlborough, are often ‘greener', with blackcurrant leaf aromas and flavours of green pepper and cut grass. The Loire wines, such as those of Sancerre and Tourraine, are typically more subdued, displaying flavours of nettles and asparagus, and often smelling quite strongly of cat's pee on a gooseberry bush (a classic description - just try to imagine it!) South Africa and Chile also make some nice wines. While most Sauvignon Blanc is drunk as an unoaked varietal, it may also be encountered as an oaked varietal or as a blend. The oaked wines, such as Cloudy Bay's Te Koko are slightly softer, with a smoky edge and creaminess. Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with Sémillon and has become a regional speciality for Margaret River in Western Australia. The grape may also be blended with a range of other varieties, such as Chardonnay and Viognier, in Southern France.
There are two main homes for this variety. In Bordeaux it is used both for dry wines (often blended with Sauvignon Blanc) and sweet botrytised Sauternes (blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle). Secondly, in Australia, where it is also used for dry wines, both oaked (Barossa Valley) and unoaked (Hunter Valley), and for amazing botrytised styles from Riverina. The thin skin of this grape makes it particularly susceptible to Botrytis cinerea infection, making it the perfect starting point for some of the world's finest dessert wines. Good sweet Bordeaux and Aussie Sémillons are bursting with flavours of candied peel, but many suffer from being over-sulphured. The hallmark flavours of dry Sémillon are lemon, beeswax and honey. The unoaked Australian wines of the Hunter Valley are especially noteworthy, which, although taking between 10 and 20 years to develop, can show incredibly complex flavours of toast, lanolin and honey - almost tasting oaked.
Pronounced vee-yon-ee-ay, this grape is an absolute stunner. Originally hailing from the tiny Northern Rhône appellations of Condrieu and Château Grillet, Viognier produces rich, memorable wines bursting with musky peach blossom aromas and a palate of apricots and spice. The vine is a poor yielder and difficult to grow. This, coupled with demand for wines from these two appellations, makes for rare and expensive wines. Luckily Viognier is rapidly becoming fashionable and is now grown in a whole host of countries such as Australia, California, Chile and South Africa. Unfortunately, a lot of these wines are pretty plain. To be guaranteed a decent, affordable example, try Fairview from South Africa, Yalumba from Australia, Chile's Cono Sur, or Fetzer from California.
© 2001 James Warbrick-Smith & Edward Fitzgerald Oxford University Wine Society