Chapter 2

Wine Grape Varieties

European Varieties

Most (but by no means all) vine varieties for winemaking belong to the species Vitis vinifera known as the European varieties. These are the varieties originally native to the Middle East, which have over several thousand years been grown and developed into the varieties that we know today. The European varieties are the most widely grown grapes in the world. They have tight clusters, berries with thin skins that do not “slip,” and a more subtle aroma and flavor. Their high sugar content at maturity is the major factor in the selection of these varieties for use in much of the world’s wine production. The moderate acidity of ripe grapes is also favorable to wine making and a pH of 3.1 to 3.7 (mildly acid). A third factor attracting wine makers to this grape is its tremendous range in composition. The pigment pattern of the skin varies from light greenish yellow to a russet. The juice generally is colorless, although some varieties have a pink to red color, and the flavor varies from quite neutral to strongly aromatic (Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel). Some varieties, such as Pinot Noir, having rather neutral flavored juice, develop a characteristic flavor when fermented on the skins and aged. There are two key limitations to the successful culture of these varieties: susceptibility to winter cold temperatures and subsequent crown gall infection, and susceptibility to insects and diseases compared to native, American and French-American varieties. Their susceptibility to phylloxera requires that all V. vinifera varieties be grafted to a resistant rootstock (See Chapter 3, Wine Grape Rootstocks).

Red Wine Varieties

Barbera

Barbera is characterized by a high level of acidity (meaning brightness and crispness), deep ruby color and full body, with low tannin levels; flavors are berrylike. Its main attribute as a blending wine is its ability to maintain a naturally high acidity even in warmer climates without producing overblown, flat wines.

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon yet softer and more subtle and retains the distinctive Cabernet aroma. Depending on vineyard practices, the flavor profile of Cabernet Franc may be both fruitier and sometimes more herbal or vegetative than Cabernet Sauvignon, although lighter in both color and tannins.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most widely grown wine grapes in the world and is one of the main varietals, along with Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. It is frequently used in Bordeaux-style blends, producing a high-quality wine. Cabernet Sauvignon makes the most dependable candidate for aging, more often improving into a truly great wine than any other single varietal.

Malbec

Malbec wine is one of the traditional Bordeaux varieties, and it has a distinctive taste that is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Malbec is one of the principal grape varieties used for claret wine production blending with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

Merlot

Merlot is another of the important vinifera red wine variety used in the production of claret. It is used to improve color, flavor, and texture and balance in the wine, and gives considerable depth and softness to all Cabernet based wines. The red wine itself bears a resemblance to Cabernet Sauvignon wine, with which it is sometimes blended, but is usually not so intense, with softer tannins. Some of the fruit notes commonly associated with Merlot include cassis, black and red cherries, blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, mulberry, and plum.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is the famous red grape of Burgandy. Pinot Noir’s aroma is often one of the most complex of all varietals and can be intense with a ripe-grape or black cherry aroma, frequently accented by a pronounced spiciness that suggests cinnamon, sassafras, or mint. Ripe tomato, mushroom, and barnyard are also common descriptors for identifying Pinot Noir. It is full-bodied and rich but not heavy, high in alcohol, yet neither acidic nor tannic, with substantial flavor despite its delicacy.

Sangiovese

Sangiovese is best known for providing the backbone for many superb Italian red wines from Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, as well as the so-called super-Tuscan blends. The flavor profile of Sangiovese is fruity, with moderate to high natural acidity and generally a medium-body ranging from the firm and elegant to assertive and robust with a finish that leans towards bitterness.

Syrah

Syrah is the most renowned French variety from the Rhône Valley producing a deep red, tannic wine with long aging potential. The grape seems to grow well in a number of areas and is capable of rendering rich, complex and distinctive wines, with pronounced pepper, spice, black cherry, tar, leather and roasted nut flavors.

Zinfandel

Zinfandel is the most widely planted red grape in California. It has been used for blending with other grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. It has been made in a claret style, with berry and cherry flavors, mild tannins and oak shadings. It has been made into a full-bodied, ultra ripe, intensely flavored and firmly tannic wine designed to age and has been made into late-harvest and Port-style wines. It has also used to make white Zinfandel, a blush-colored, slightly sweet wine.

White Wine Varieties

Chardonnay

As Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of reds, so is Chardonnay the king of white wines, for it makes consistently excellent, rich and complex whites. This grape makes the renowned white Burgandy wines of France. In Burgundy, it is used for the exquisite whites, such as Montrachet, Meursault and Pouilly-Fuissè, and true Chablis. It is widely planted in North America—California, Oregon, and Washington—as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin blanc is a white wine grape variety from the Loire Valley of France and arguably the most versatile of all wine grape varieties. Chenin blanc is used to produce crisp, dry table wines, light, sparkling wines, dessert wines, and even brandy. Although some of these wines are occasionally aged in oak, the taste of wood is always restrained, leaving the character of the grape intact. This fruitiness, paired with the natural acidity of Chenin blanc make these superb table wines.

Gewürztraminer

Gewürztraminer is a full-bodied wine, more so than most any other white wine type. Its wines have a pronounced, spicy, aromatic flavor. It is often regarded as somewhat similar in style to the Johannisberg Riesling. Gewürztraminer can be made in many styles and for many purposes. It can range from dry, to sweet, to fortified, to sparkling wines. It can also be used for blending. Occasionally it is made into a “botrytized” late harvest dessert style wine.

Pinot Blanc

Pinot blanc, a white-fruited form of Pinot Noir, is an important white wine variety in Germany, Alsace, and the Loire Valley of France. Pinot blanc offer fruity aromas, often of apple, citrus fruit, and floral characteristics. It has very desirable sugar:acid balance with potential as a varietal or blended wine. Because of its low-medium vigor this variety is well-suited for higher density plantings.

Pinot Gris

Depending upon ripeness at harvest and vinification technique, Pinot gris can be tangy and light, or quite rich, round and full bodied. Made in an appropriate style, it is one dry white wine that may even age well.

Riesling (White Riesling, Johannisberg Riesling)

Sometimes referred to as White Riesling or Johannisberg Reisling, it is a white-wine variety widely grown along the Rhine and Moselle valleys in Germany and also in other temperate regions of Europe, North America, and Australia. Riesling has a powerful and distinctive floral and apple-like aroma that frequently mixes in mineral elements from its vineyard source and is often described as “racy.”

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon blanc is one of the primary white varieties in Bordeaux, and the main white variety in the upper Loire Valley. New Zealand has had striking success with Sauvignon Blanc, producing its own perfumed, fruity style. Depending on the climate, the flavor can range from aggressively grassy to sweetly tropical. It marries well with oak and Sémillon, and many vintners are adding a touch of Chardonnay for extra body.

Sémillon

Sémillon is widely grown in the Graves and Sauternes regions of Bordeaux and is most well known for producing both fine and dry or late-harvest sweet wines. In Bordeaux, it is often blended with Sauvignon blanc. Wines dominated by Sémillon may lack much youthful aroma, but have full body and tend to be low in acidity, even “fat” at times. Sémillon has a distinct fig-like character that develops primary on aging.

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