The following is a list of popular varieties and their primary flavor profiles. Check back often, because this list will be updated as other grape varieties are added.
Red Wine Grapes
Barbera is a widely planted grape that is often used as the basis for large amounts of bulk wine. In Italy and in California, Barbera has enjoyed its greatest success. Wines made from Barbera tend to exhibit high acidity, good coloration and moderate tannins. Stylistically, the characteristics present is the wine are directly related to the quality of the winemaking. When given serious attention both in the vineyard and in the winery, Barbera can turn out incredibly perfumed wines with smooth tannins and a long, complex aftertaste. When given less attention, or treated poorly, Barbera becomes more nondescript, highly acidic plonk.
Cabernet Sauvignon is considered by many to be the definitive red grape variety. Like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon is well traveled, excelling in almost every country where it is grown. Cabernet Sauvignon is a powerful grape, capable of producing massive levels of tannin and acidity. The wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon tend to be deeply pigmented and high in phenolics (I think of phenolics as the “things” that make wine “chewy”). Cabernet Sauvignon achieved fame as one of three grapes that go into the making of red Bordeaux wine (the other two being Cabernet Franc and Merlot). In France, the grape tends to exhibit more mineral hints with a tendency towards greater spiciness, including tobacco, cedar and cocoa hints. In California and Australia, the grape tends to exhibit more mint and vanilla hints with a tendency towards greater fruitiness, including cherry, blackberry and blueberry hints. Cabernet Sauvignon shines in warmer climates and exhibits more “green” vegetal flavors when grown in colder climates. Chile is experiencing great success with the grape, as is Italy. South Africa’s most widely planted red grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, but many that I’ve tasted have been more on the “cool climate: side of the taste spectrum
Cabernet Franc is native to Bordeaux, where it is most prevalent in the Right Bank appellations of Pomerol and St. Emilion and goes by the name Bouchet. Cabernet Franc is also an important component to many of the wines made in southwestern France in the appellations of Bergerac and Madiran, where it is known as Bouchy. The grape is also widely planted in the Loire region under the name Bretton. Generally, Cabernet Franc exhibits herbal flavors with earthy, organic hints like mushrooms, moss and tobacco. In Bordeaux and California the grape tends to be used as a blending grape to add structure to wines. It is acknowledged as one of the three primary grapes used to make “classic” Bordeaux-style claret.
When most people think of Merlot, they generally think of a softer, fleshier version of Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps without “six-pack abs.” Oddly enough, while most people inexorably link Cabernet Sauvignon with French Bordeaux, in reality, Merlot is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, responsible for most of the wines made from the Entre-Deux-Mers, Pomerol, and St. Emilion areas. Because Merlot tends to be softer and fleshier than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is often relegated to the role of “blending grape.” In recent years, with a rise in popularity in the US, Merlot has established its own following. Merlot tends to fall into two categories: light-weight, fruity “quaffers,” and dense, full-bodied “long-agers.” In the former case, the wines tend to be easy drinking with light tannins and a soft, supple structure. In the latter case, the wines are big, bold with often-massive tannins and long-evolving complexity. A lot of inexpensive California Merlot falls into the “light-weight” category, with the more expensive bottles inheriting the expected density and complexity of higher-priced wines. In France, most Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superieur (from around Entre-Deux-Mers) at an often very reasonable price-point falls into the light-bodied category. The wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion, many legendary like Chateau Petrus, are massive wines with tremendous aging potential.
Nebbiolo is native to Piedmont in Italy and is known for making massive, powerful wines that are remarkably long-lived, requiring considerable aging to achieve maturity. The wines of Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme are all Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo-based wines. In other regions of Italy, the grape is known as Spanna and Chiavennasca. Generally, Nebbiolo makes wines with high acidity, firm tannins, intense coloring and high alcohol. The nose is frequently subtle and delicate, especially when young. Wines made from Nebbiolo need considerable bottle aging with the reward for such patience being the unlocking of the often-delicate floral scents and the layered complexity of fine Nebbiolo.
Pinot Noir is an often-misunderstood grape, primarily because it has really only achieved true greatness in France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions. Outside of France it has had moderate success in Oregon and some of the cooler areas of California, such as Los Carneros and Santa Barbara. At its best, Pinot Noir is aromatic and complex with a smooth texture and long aftertaste. The wines are moderately tannic at best, with moderate acidity making for less aging potential than the massively structured Cabernet Sauvignon. Given that Pinot Noir is a somewhat fickle grape means that there is a high degree of variability between producers and vintages. When picked unripe or grown in climates too warm for the grape, Pinot Noir tastes cooked, madierized, almost like rotting vegetables. Generally, though, Pinot Noir tends to fall into two categories: Fruity and Organic. In the former case, the wines are more fruit driven with hints of raspberries, cherries and strawberries. These wines are more delicate and simpler with subtle tannins. In the latter case, the wines are more organic in nature with hints of mushrooms, earth, and smoke. The wines are full-bodied, denser with more exotic spice traces and firmer tannins. Under the right conditions, Pinot Noir can make some of the most beautiful wine, being one of the few red wines that goes well with fish (Salmon is a particularly good match).
Syrah, or Shiraz as the grape is known “down under” in Australia, is known to make “deeply exotic” and intensely spicy wines that are generally full-bodied and long aging. The grape was thought to be from the town of Shiraz in Ancient Persia, but genetic science has proven that the grape is actually native to France, a cross between to indigenous French grapes: Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. The grape enjoys its greatest success in the Rhone Valley of France, as well as in Australia, where James Busby first brought clippings in 1832. A growing amount of Syrah is cropping-up in California, where it is especially successful in the Central Coast AVA. Stylistically Syrah falls into two categories: Fruit driven (typically “New World”) and Spice driven (typically “Old World”). New World or Fruit driven Syrah can be like blackberry jam, intensely fruity with great density and aromas of vanilla bean. Old World or Spice driven Syrah is like fresh milled black pepper, lively with aromas of rosemary, anise and lavender and full of musky, gamy qualities. Generally, in both cases Syrah makes wines that are heavily pigmented, highly tannic and high in alcohol (almost always at 14% by volume). In the Northern Rhone regions of Hermitage and Cote Rotie where the red wines are made with 100% Syrah grapes, it is said that the longevity of those wines (20+ years in a notable vintages) is due in part to the suffering that the vines endure, planted on steeply sloped vineyards still harvested by hand.
Sangiovese is the most widely planted grape variety in Italy, having particular success in the Chianti district of Tuscany. The grape derives its name from the Latin sanguis jovis, meaning, “blood of Jupiter,” the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Zeus. Like the prodigious Zeus, Sangiovese has many clones: Brunello, Prugnolo, and Morellino are among the better known clones. Stylistically wines made from Sangiovese are evolving. In the past, Sangiovese was prone to making wines that were lean and acidic, with a pronounced rustic feel. Today, Sangiovese wines are becoming fuller, softer, more fragrant and especially more fruit driven. The evolution is due in part to a modernization of age-old winemaking techniques, as well as better viticultural practices in the vineyard. Despite this evolution, the character of Sangiovese is relatively unchanged, with the grape still exhibiting a rustic and savory appeal with pronounced acidity and moderate tannins.
In years past Zinfandel was often considered the workhorse of California, producing a wide range of wine from rosþ jug wines to dense fortified “Port-like” wines. Interestingly, while Zinfandel is distinctly Californian, never having traveled outside the state in great quantity, it is not native to the US. Genetically the grape has been shown to be identical to the Italian Primativo grape from Apulia, although Primativo is not native to Italy either. Stylistically Zinfandel is all over the map. However, when vinified as a still red wine, Zinfandel can make intense, full-bodied wines with flavors of ripe raspberries showing hints of black pepper and candied fruit. Often Zinfandel makes wines that are densely pigmented, almost black, which are highly tannic and very high in alcohol (often well over 14% by volume). Not for the faint of heart, Zinfandel is known as dusky, brooding, briary, brambly, brawny, aggressive and opulent.
White Wine Grapes
Muscat is one of, if not the oldest grape varieties on Earth. Muscat is believed to be the ancestor from which all other grapes descended, also making it a prodigious world traveler. Muscat favors warm climates and does best when yields are kept low. Stylistically Muscat wines usually fall into one of two categories: highly perfumed, high acid and bone-dry, or full-bodied, unctuous and honey-like. In either case, the grape tends towards the essence of fresh grapes with hints of apricots, mangos, honeysuckle and citrus fruit. On some Muscat wines the hint of orange blossom and rosewater are present, intensifying the floral qualities of the grape. When vinified sur lies in the region of Sevre et Maine in the Loire, the wines pick-up pronounced vanilla and caramel hints. When vinified dry the wines are light, crisp and refreshing.
Pinot Blanc (or Pinot Bianco as it is called in Italy) is a white grape of little distinction that is growing in popularity throughout the old and new worlds. Pinot Blanc is believed to be a mutation of Pinot Gris, and is often compared to Chardonnay, primarily because of its neutral aromas and flavors and its relatively full body. While Pinot Blanc got its start in France’s Burgundy region a few hundred years ago, the grape has all-but disappeared in that region, instead moving north into Alsace. In its native France (and also in Italy), Pinot Blanc emphasizes acidity, citrus tartness and clean, crisp refreshing fruit flavors. Often times a perceived hint of residual sugar will provide a natural foil to the gripping acidity. In the new world, Pinot Blanc tends to be a confused lot, often suffering from over manipulation by the same techniques applied to many new world Chardonnays. Unfortunately, Pinot Blanc does not respond well to over-manipulation, leaving most domestic Pinot Blanc in the highly undistinguished category.
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris as it is commonly known in France and the US) is known to make refreshing thirst-quenching wines of no great distinction. Pinot Grigio is also interesting for its seemingly dual personality. Stylistically as Pinot Grigio, the grape tends to make light, crisp high acid wines that are generally bone-dry with a lot of lemony/citrus tartness. As Pinot Gris, the grape tends to make more rounded, supple low acid wines that hint at buttery/nutty flavors with lots of extract. As Pinot Grigio the grape is probably best known in the Northeast portion of Italy in Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. As Pinot Gris the grape shines in France’s Alsace region. In the US, Oregon holds the distinction of being the most planted region in the US for Pinot Gris with a decent track record for quality interpretations.
Riesling is indigenous to Germany and seems to thrive in the harshness of the German climate. The grape tends not to perform well in warmer climates. Riesling can be made in many styles even within its native Germany. In all cases, Riesling retains a high degree of acidity, which is often kept in check by the presence of sweetness. Like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling is a reflection of the soil and climate where it is made. The flavors found in Riesling can range from flinty and lemony to wet stone and peach to minerals and fennel. The wines can also range from completely dry to unctuously sweet. In the Alsace region of France, the only region is France where it is legal to grow Riesling, the wines tend towards more full-bodied, dry incarnations, emphasizing the apple, peach and honeysuckle qualities. In the US and Australia, the wines tend to be lightly sweet, emphasizing more tropical qualities like passion fruit, orange blossom and kiwi. Johannisberg Riesling is a synonym for Riesling.
Sauvignon Blanc is a grape that is almost as well traveled as Chardonnay with a wide variety of flavor characteristics that are solely dependent on the soil and climate where it is grown. In the more chalky soils of the Loire, the grape exhibits a more flinty, grassy persona, while in the gravelly soils of Entre-Deux-Mers (Bordeaux), the grape is more herbaceous and vegetal. In California the grape shows greater richness with tendencies towards honey and pear flavors. In New Zealand, the grape shows more tropical and citrus notes. The use of oak can also have a big impact on Sauvignon Blanc. In areas that historically don’t employ oak aging (the Loire), the wines are clean, crisp and refreshing. In areas where oak aging is prevalent (California), the wines take on a richer, nuttier quality. The name Fume Blanc is synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc tends to be high in acid with a lively, aromatic nose.
Because Viognier is known as a “shy and unreliable” producer, not much is planted outside of its native region of France’s Rhone Valley, specifically the appellations of Condrieu, Chateau Grillet and Cote Rotie. The grape’s scarcity is beginning to change, as more and more wine makers are finding success with the grape in California. Viognier is well known for its nose and the often-heady aromas present. However, stylistically the grape can be severely effected by winemaking techniques that hide or mask the grape’s natural beauty. This is true for winemaking styles on both continents. When not heavily influenced by oak, the grape yields a wine with intense fruit aromas and sinful fruit flavors ranging from peach and apricot to passion fruit and mango. Typically this style also doesn’t favor malolactic fermentation so there is generally no lactic qualities. When made with a heavy oak influence the lush fruit is typically masked by wood and vanilla notes and the wine takes on the characteristics of a heavy, woody Chardonnay.