Although there are literally thousands of documented grape varieties, these are the ones that are most important in terms of production, availability, tradition, and general (American) consumption.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the best known black grape variety in the world and, more than any other grape, has vast ranges of quality, structure, and maturity. It produces a full-bodied wine with rich flavors that, if fermented properly and made well, will usually age for several years. The effects of barrel-aging make it mellow, smooth, and rich. Young Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe, powerful, and concentrated, while aged Cabernet takes on a certain elegance and complexity that makes it taste quite extraordinary. Well-made Cabernet may be described as an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Common aromas and flavors include blackberry, black currant, plum, cocoa, cassis, mint, eucalyptus, vanilla, oak, cedar, cigar box, tobacco, spice, and leather. The most important regions for Cabernet Sauvignon production are Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon in France, California and Washington State, Australia, Argentina, Chile, and South Africa.
Chardonnay is the most successful and most widely planted white variety in the world. The regions best known for Chardonnay are Burgundy and Champagne (in France), California and Washington State, Australia, and Argentina. The wine’s relatively high level of alcohol, which can often create a slightly sweet taste, has probably played a part in its popularity, as well as the appeal of the oak so often used during the grapes fermentation (and sometimes aging) process. This is significant because barrel fermentation transforms the wine, helping it take on rich notes, develop a creamier body, lengthen its finish, and possibly give it more complexity. However, if left in contact for too long with the wood, it can taste diffused, flabby and overdone. It is also common for Chardonnay to be fermented and/or aged in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. This technique produces a wine that has crisper flavors and (typically) more acid. Chardonnay is also a crucial ingredient in most of the world’s best sparkling wines, especially in Champagne, France, where the wine would be called blanc de blancs (white from whites) if made from 100% Chardonnay.
Chenin Blanc is used for making everything from sparkling wines to well-balanced dessert wines, this variety is characterized as producing a balanced wine with high acidity and a touch of sweetness. The most famous Chenin Blancs come from France where they are made into fresh, dry wines with tropical fruit flavors or sweet dessert wines that are rich with honey and apricot. From California, these wines are easy to drink with soft flavors of pear, apple and melon.
Merlot produces a medium-bodied wine that is soft, easy drinking, and fruit-forward. This variety is somewhat similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but its grapes ripen earlier and its wines are lighter in body, color, and tannin, and are also commonly fruitier and softer. In Bordeaux, Merlot is the leading grape in terms of production; Chateau Petrus is the most famous (and the most expensive) Merlot in the world. Typical aromas and flavors of Merlot are blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, plum, currant, ripe cherry, chocolate, mocha, tea, cedar, and sometimes leather or tobacco. The most important regions that produce Merlot are Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon in France, California and Washington State, and Chile.
Pinot Gris is most commonly grown in Italy (where it is known as Pinot Grigio), the region of Alsace in France, and in America in California and Oregon. This grape variety produces light and aromatic white wines that are crisp, dry and fresh. Depending on where the grapes are grown the style of the wines may vary from extremely dry and minerally to very rich with floral and tropical fruit nuances; for instance, those from Italy and California are often simple, light, and crisp with more tropical fruit and citrus flavors while the ones from Alsace and Oregon are opulent and rich with flavors of pear and spice.
Pinot Noir is a cool-climate grape that produces some of the finest wines in the world; however it is one of the most temperamental grapes to grow. It is most commonly from the region of Burgundy in France, California and Oregon in America, and can also be found in Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. Pinot Noirs are generally more expensive wines than other red varieties because the vines bud early making it susceptible to spring frost, the vine yields are somewhat low, and the vine is also more prone than most to mildew, rot, and viruses. Pinot Noir produces medium-bodied wines that can be described as sensual, silky, elegant and delicate; they are usually high in acid with flavors of berry fruits such as cherry, raspberry, and blackberry, and earth notes such as dirt, leather, “barnyard,” damp leaves, or mushrooms. Pinot Noir is a major grape grown and used in Champagne (blanc de noirs means white from reds) and in other sparkling wines.
Riesling wines are very aromatic and low in alcohol, yet strongly flavored (extracted) and vary from dry to sweet. A classic German variety, Rieslings typically have flavors of ripe peach, apricot and melon. Depending on where it is grown, the wines may also take on mineral or acidic characteristics. The grapes prefer cool climates such as Germany, the Alsace region of France, upstate New York and Washington State.
Sauvignon Blanc produces a dry, clean and acidic wine that has concentrated aromas and flavors that may be classified as tangy and intense; these may include grapefruit, citrus, grass, herbs, smoke, green tea, stones, gunflint, or even cat pee. Although the traditional fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc takes place in stainless steel tanks, those from California are sometimes barrel fermented to downplay the herbaceousness and create a softer, more approachable style that offers soft fruit flavors of melon and fig. In contrast, those from France or New Zealand celebrate the intensity of the grape’s true character. Sauvignon Blanc is principally grown in California, Chile, France (in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux), New Zealand, and South Africa.
Syrah makes richly flavored medium- to full-bodied wines that are dense, spicy, and peppery. This grape is able to produce serious wines capable of aging for decades. It is called Shiraz in Australia and South Africa; those differ quite a bit in style from the Syrahs of the Rhone Valley in France. Syrah is also grown in America in California and Washington State, and those may also differ in style- from fruity and rich, like those of Australia to spicy and peppery, like those of France. It is quite common for Syrah to be blended with other grapes; usually Grenache and Mourvedre, and also Cabernet and Merlot. Aromas and flavors of Syrah may include black pepper, spice, smoke, smoked meat, savory notes, violets, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, plum, coffee/espresso, chocolate, and oak.
Syrah was transplanted from France to Australia in the mid-1970s and its name changed to Shiraz- it is now the major red grape variety grown there. Generally Shiraz is sweeter, riper, and fruitier than Syrah with flavors of jam, chocolate, and coffee instead of pepper and spice. The Rhone Valley is a region in southern France where the major red grape varieties are Syrah and Grenache. It is divided into two parts, the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone, each producing distinctly different wines. Syrah is the sole red grape of the North (and is sometimes blended with Viognier- a white grape used to add complexity). Southern reds are usually blends of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, as well as several other red grapes.
Viognier is an appealing grape variety due to its exotic, honeysuckle, musky fruit nuances, round body, and most of all, its oily texture. Viognier is one of the finest, but rarest, French white grapes; less than 300 acres are planted in the varietal’s home, the Northern Rhone. There the grape is made into prestigious wines (such as Condrieu and Chateau Grillet) and a small amount is also planted among the Syrah vines of Cote-Rotie (where a small amount is blended into the red wine giving it more exotic aromas and flavors). Viognier became popular in America in the 1990s and it is now a very successful grape in California.
Zinfandel is the only grape variety exclusive to California, it usually makes full-bodied, rich and hearty red wines with flavors of jammy, ripe fruit. The wines are highly concentrated and mouthfilling and are known to stain one’s teeth purple. Due to the varietal’s long history in California, many of the Zinfandel vineyards are the oldest in the state, therefore allowing the wines to be classified as old vines (generally meaning that the vines are older than 40 years).