A General Overview of the Characteristics of the most Common Grape
Varieties Used in Red Wine Production
BARBERA [bahr-bair-uh; It. bahr-be-rah]
Plummy and cherry-like grape; undertones of sweet vanilla. The high-in-acid Barbera grape of northwestern Italy is a chameleon-like grape which changes considerably according to yield. As an everyday variety, it is a juicy “porch pounder” but it can metapmorphose into a concentrated, rich, plummy and cherry-like wine with undertones of sweet vanilla and spice when aged in small new oak casks. In Argentina, it tends to the former style with a little less acidity thanks to plentiful Andean sunshine.
CABERNET FRANC [kab-er-ney frangk]
Grassy and raspberryish ; aroma of lead pencil shavings. Cabernet Franc, the distant relative of Cabernet Sauvignon, can produce deliciously perfumed, supple, raspberry and black currant-infused red wines in Bordeaux, while further north in the cooler regions of the Loire Valley and in northeastern Italy, it produces a wine which is more herbaceous in style. It is often described as having the aroma of pencil shavings.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON [kab-er-ney soh-vin-yohn;Fr. ka-ber-ney soh-vee-nyawn]
Capsicum (green pepper) and black currant; a range of cedar, vanilla and coffee notes. Cabernet Sauvignon covers a wide spectrum of aromas and flavors. It tends towards herbaceousness when not fully ripe with capsicum and grassy undertones, but as it ripens it develops flavors of black currant and, when very concentrated, cassis. In California and Chilean Cabernet, you can often spot mint or eucalyptus. Its affinity with oak lends secondary characters with a range of vanilla, cedar, sandalwood, tobacco, coffee, musk and spicy notes.
GAMAY [ga-mey, gam-ey]
Strawberry and banana ; cherry and strawberry flavors . Gamay, the Beaujolais grape, is the most quafable all grape varieties, partly because of the carbonic maceration or whole berry fementation method used, which helps preserve the naturally refreshing juiciness of the variety. Carbonic maceration is a technique in which whole berries are fermented in closed tanks. It is responsible for a variety of aromas and flavors ranging from bubblegum and banana through to strawberry and cherry.
White pepper and raspberry; thyme and rosemary scents. The light-colored Grenache is a quintessentially Mediterranean red variety and as a result it often mingles the classic Mediterranean garrigue scents of thyme, fennel and rosemary with white pepper and its warming, raspberryish fruit flavors. It tends to be low in tannin and hence soft and supple and, at its apogee in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it takes on heady aromas and spicy, robust fruit flavors which can border on the raisined.
Mulberry and blackberry flavors; tarry and leathery. Harsh and rustic in its homeland of southwest France, the malbec grape is often improved in Cahors by the addition of the softening merlot grape. It really comes into its own however in Argentina, where it becomes altogether smoother and lusher with all sorts of plummy, red berry and earthy fruit flavors like raspberry, mulberry and blackberry allied to tar, leather and game-like characters.
MERLOT [mur-loh; Fr. mer-loh]
Bell pepper, underbrush and black currant; chocolate and spice-like characters. Merlot’s soft texture helps to give it a deliciously plummy, almost fruitcake-like flavor and a mellow smoothness which makes it more approachable than its sister grape, the cabernet sauvignon. Like cabernet, it can be a little grassy and bell-pepper-like from cool climate regions and it develops black currant, blackberry, blueberry, chocolate and spice-like characters when fully ripe. Chilean merlot often produces juicy reds with black currant pastille flavors.
Black fruits and blackberry-like; animal, funky and meaty mourvedre is a darker, thicker-skinned variety than its Mediterranean counterpart, grenache, producing a firm-structured, often tannic, brambly, blackberryish red with notable funky, meaty and animallike characters. It’s often blended with other southern French varieties. It can be spicy and as it ages, develop the aged meat character of game or even wet fur.
Tar and roses; truffle and liquorice spiciness. Northern Italy’s thick-skinned nebbiolo grape of Barolo and Barbaresco fame is one of the most delightfully aromatic of red grape varieties and for that reason sometimes compared to pinot noir, but the aromas and flavors are very different. Structured by high acidity and tannin, nebbiolo’s bouquet encompasses violet, smoke and roselike
Varieties Used in White Wine Production
Citrusy and crisp; fragrant and spritz-fresh. Albarino, arguably Spain’s best white grape variety, is sometimes referred to as Spain’s riesling, as much because it resembles the citrusy side of riesling in character as because its fragrant, spritz-fresh style makes it the perfect seafood white. It has plenty of body and fresh acidity with grapefruity, citrus-perfumed flavors.
Melon, grapefruit and pineapple; buttery and nutty In Burgundy, chardonnay ranges in quality from bland to intense and in style from oaked to unoaked and from the minerally, unoaked, lean, bone dry chablis style to the richer, classically hazelnutty intense dry whites of the Côte de Beaune. In the New World, chardonnay varies from the melon, apple and grapefruit cool climate styles to more tropical fruit styles with flavors of peach, mango, lime and pineapple. As a non-aromatic variety, its affinity with oak brings both a textured, buttery roundness as well as smoky, toasty, clove and cinnamon-spice and nutty features.
CHENIN BLANC [Shay-naN BlaN]
Quince and apple; sweet barley sugar and honey characters chenin blanc in its most classic form in the Loire Valley is full of floral and honeyed aromas and quince and apple-like flavors with good zippy acidity. When coolfermented as in so many instances in South Africa, it can be quite peardroppy, becoming more peachy in fuller dry whites. With botrytis, it becomes rich in barley sugar and honeyed characters, particularly in the sweet wines of the Loire.
Fragrant rose petal and lychee; dusting of Turkish Delight. Like walking into the perfume section of a department store, gewurztraminer is the grape variety with the most overt and recognizable range of aromas in the world. It smells of ginger and cinnamon, fragrant rose petals and pot pourri with a dusting of Turkish Delight and tastes of deliciously exotic lychees and mango. It is so spicy as to be instantly appealing, but its fragrance can rapidly pall.
GRUNER VELTLINER [GREW-ner Felt-LEE-ner]
White pepper and celery; an alluring herbiness. Austria’s widely planted grape variety produce an assertive, steely, rich dry white with a unique aroma and flavor. For some it hints at white pepper and celery, while others prefer the descriptors of gherkins and dill. Either way, there’s often an unusual, alluring herbiness in what, at its best, can be an excellent, steely dry white.
Marzipan-like and nutty; opulently rich, honeysuckle aromas. Marsanne is the blending partner of the higher quality rousanne and has a faintly peachy, nutty, blanched almondy character which can veer towards the flavor of marzipan. It is full-bodied, fat and becomes opulently rich with honeysuckle aromas and a mango-like tropical fruitiness in parts of Australia and California.
MULLER-THURGAU [MEW-lehr Toor-gow]
Floral sweet pea; faintly spicy. This early-ripening German grape produces floral, sweet-pea like and faintly spicy aromas. It is hard to think of complex examples but at low yields in Italy’s Alto-Adige and in Württemburg in Germany, it is capable of rising above the bogstandard to develop minerally, more complex characters.
Grapes and raisins; exotically fragrant. Muscat is best-known for its fragrantly perfumed, grapey quality, whether as a dry white or one of the sweet, fortified muscats grown around the Mediterranean. In its sweet, fortified incarnation, it takes on the aromas and flavors of candied fruits, which can be a little coarse, but, in a good quality muscat, exotically spicy, with suggestions of roses, raisins, crystallized oranges and pineapples.
PINOT GRIGIO / PINOT GRIS [Pee-noe Gree-joe / Pee-noe Gree]
Smoky and spicy; occasionally oily. Pinot gris / Pinot grigio, often lightly copper-colored, can be a sort of halfway house between the more neutral-flavored pinot blanc and the overtly spicy and fragrant gewurztraminer with a smokiness, delicate spice and an occasionally oily character.
Apples and lime; honey and petrol characters. In its heartland of the Mosel and Rheingau Valleys, riesling produces elegant wines with crisp, lime, lemon, apple and peach flavors and honeyed richness. In the Mosel it is said to become slatey (easier to describe as mineral) developing honey, petrol and kerosene-like flavors. In Alsace it can be more floral and perfumed, while Australian riesling, particularly from the Eden and Clare Valleys, starts out lime and lemon-like and develops mineral, kerosene character with age.
White flowers, hawthorn; almond and greengage. The elegant dry white grape of the northern Rhône, which reaches its apogee when blended with marsanne in fine white Hermitage, has plenty of herby aromatic power with a white flower, hawthorn and lime-blossom character, incisive acidity and a flavor sometimes reminiscent of almond and greengages.
SAUVIGNON BLANC [So-veen-yawn BlahN]
From gooseberry to tropical passion fruit; aromas of elderflower and black currant leaf. sauvignon blanc is at its most fragrant and fresh in the cooler climate of the Loire Valley where cut-grass, nettles, elderflower, black currant leaf and gooseberries are the key flavors with minerally, zesty, flinty undertones. It is at its most assertive in the pungently catty, elderfloral style of Marlborough in New Zealand, where, depending on ripeness levels it ranges from green bean, tinned pea and asparagus flavors and the riper, more tropical characters of grapefruit, guava, passion fruit and mango.
Lime citrus and honey; lusciously sweet and marmaladey. Semillon varies in character considerably according to its region of origin. In Bordeaux blends with Sauvignon, it can be citrusy with a lanoline-textured, waxy, honeyed richness, while Hunter Valley semillon famously develops lime and buttered toast flavors with age, in contrast to the more pungently grass and asparagus-like characteristics associated with cooler climates. Made as a sweet wine, it makes some of the world’s most lusciously sweet, exotically marmaladey whites.
Peaches and apricots; heady scents of spring blossom and jasmine and the rich flavors of apricot and peach. Ripening in warm sunshine, it can become quite heady and exotic with spicy undertones and plenty of body. Because of its spiciness sand body, it can be confused in blind tastings with Alsace pinot gris.
More Wine 101 facts and information on nearly every grape variety from Aghiorghitiko to Zinfandel can be found here: