Understanding the different grape varieties is a great way to begin comprehending and appreciating the nuances of wine. By approaching wine with knowledge of the varietal, one is better equipped to make decisions based on personal preference and determine wine likes and dislikes. Below, we present a handful of the most popular wine grape varietals in the world.
Chardonnay comes in varied expressions, ranging from lush, oaky styles to very linear, crisp, mineral-driven versions. Many recognize chardonnay as the main white grape of Burgundy in France. Global plantings of chardonnay have reached an estimated 520,000 acres today. Chardonnay achieves relatively high yields in a wide range of climates, contributing to its popularity among vine growers. In addition to its diversity in the vineyard, chardonnay is also versatile within the winemaking process. It can be enjoyed through early bottling, undergo extended barrel fermentation and/or barrel maturation to add notes of vanilla, or experience malolactic fermentation for its signature buttery flavors. Moreover, chardonnay is utilized in the production of sparkling and dessert wines. Flavor-wise, cooler climate interpretations are usually crisp and mineral-driven, with hints of green apple and lemon peel. In contrast, warmer regions can yield more tropical fruit flavors and riper citrus expressions, such as Meyer lemon tart or key lime pie.
Originating in Germany, Riesling stands as the polar opposite of the high-alcohol, oak-heavy wines prevalent today. This wine possesses relatively lower alcohol content compared to other counterparts and isn't compatible with barriques, which explains why it isn't nearly as mass-produced as chardonnay. Riesling is also strongly associated with sweetness, although it can be made at all levels of sweetness. Given its higher acidity, riesling wines have impressive longevity and can age for decades in the bottle. Riesling is renowned for its powerful aromatics, often described as flowery, steely, and/or honeyed. While most popular in Germany and Alsace (France), excellent examples can also be found in Clare Valley (Australia), Washington State, and South America.
Sauvignon Blanc is a refreshing white grape variety known for its vibrant acidity and distinctive herbal and citrus flavors. It is widely grown in regions such as France's Loire Valley, New Zealand, California, and Chile. Sauvignon Blanc can express a wide range of aromas, from notes of green tea and lime, to smoke and gunflint. The one consistency is its clean, vibrant acidity. Typically the zesty styles with notes of lemongrass will come from the Loire Valley, while the tropical iterations with notes of passion fruit and guava can be found in California. Without a doubt, sauvignon blanc is a versatile and popular choice among white wine lovers.
The Primadonna of the wine world, Pinot Noir has been utilized for nearly two thousand years. It is a versatile wine in the glass but very challenging to grow on the vine, typically thriving in cooler climates. Pinot Noir is known for its ability to embody characteristics from the region in which it's grown, prominently showcased in the terroir-driven regions of Burgundy and Champagne in France. It is grown worldwide, resulting in immense variation in expression. Germany, North America, South Africa, and New Zealand, to name a few. Pinot Noir can exhibit earthy qualities, with aromas of mushroom and leather, or intense fruitiness, with notes of cranberry, pomegranate, and strawberry jam. Due to its long history, Pinot Noir has served as the parent (or grandparent, in Syrah's case) grape of many well-known wine grapes today. Furthermore, Pinot Noir has numerous clones, including the color mutations Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (also referred to as Pinot Grigio).
Syrah, renowned for its wines in the northern Rhone Valley of France, features aromas of leather, smoke, roasted meats, game, coffee, spices, black olive, and white and black pepper. In California and Australia (known there as Shiraz), the wines take on a more fruity, less gamey expression, though black pepper remains consistent across the board. Syrah came to Australia in the 1800s, where it became known as Shiraz. Syrah is also popular in Washington State, producing wines with their own unique character.
This grape's aromas are very well-known and easily identifiable. Blackberry, black currant, cassis, mint, cedar, graphite, leather, green tobacco, black plum, dark chocolate, sandalwood, etc. The use of new oak can also impart flavors of vanilla, coconut, cinnamon, clove, and dill. This wine is popular worldwide, though primarily in Bordeaux (France), Italy, Australia, and the US. The ageability of a wine can be attributed to several factors, mainly acidity, tannins, or sugar content. For Cabernet Sauvignon, the key preservative is its high tannins. Many plants, including grapes, use tannins for protection. Imagine a house made out of wood. Over time, due to wind and weather, the house will become worn down, but only after decades of being a great shelter. The same holds true for Cabernet Sauvignon. Tannins will gradually mellow over time, leaving behind a smooth, complex red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or Bordeaux are always top choices for bottle aging.
Merlot is a widely planted red grape variety known for producing smooth, approachable wines with flavors of baked cherry, plum, mocha, and chocolate though there are many high quality examples that could be confused with cabernet sauvignon in a blind tasting (tasting hint: on its own, it usually lacks the touch of green tobacco or dried mint that cabernet possesses). It is used both as a blending grape or as a solo star and is a key component in Bordeaux blends, especially on the Right Bank. Merlot also thrives in regions like California, Italy, and Chile, where it can showcase its full-bodied and fruit-forward characteristics.
Cabernet Franc is a red grape variety often used in blends, particularly in Bordeaux. It exhibits floral aromas like violets and irises, as well as dark chocolate, and sometimes a hint of tobacco. Cabernet Franc can also be found as a standalone varietal, particularly in regions like the Loire Valley (France) and New York's Finger Lakes. It is valued for its elegance, finesse, and ability to age gracefully.
Grenache, known as Garnacha in Spain, is a versatile red grape variety that produces wines with soft tannins and flavors of cherry preserves, spice, and sometimes a touch of earthiness. It is a key component in the famous wines of the Southern Rhône Valley in France, as well as in Spanish wines from regions like Priorat and Campo de Borja. Grenache is also widely planted in the US and Australia, where it is often blended with Shiraz.
There are over 10,000 different grape varieties in use today, and it would be impossible to cover them all in a blog post. However, we hope that by highlighting five of the most popular varietals, one can develop a deeper understanding of what to expect the next time it's time to order a bottle.
The Oxford Companion to Wine (4th Edition)
The Wine Bible (2nd Edition)