Is it Useful to Know about Grape Varieties? Absolutely.

handful of grape varieties

Yes, I did answer my own question about the usefulness of grape varieties in the heading but I would like to explain my answer to you in a little more detail. I intend to do so in the rest of this post but if you’re only going to read these first 2 paragraphs, here’s the main rationale behind my answer-

A person will find it really helps with wine choice when the grape varieties are known. Why? Because these provide a major clue as to the flavours and character of the wine they can expect to drink.

It is certainly daunting when faced with multiple choices of wine be it in a shop or a restaurant but if you finish this post I hope that I will have helped you towards a better wine experience, in general.

Towards doing so, I will outline flavour and style profiles, together with a brief description of 8 of the most popular grape varieties. Before I do, perhaps at this stage, I should mention that I will be talking about grapes used for winemaking only, not standard table grapes or dried grapes (raisins, currents, sultanas).

wine choice at green acres

Knowing a little about grape varieties definitely helps with wine choice.

Often, when I think about the differences between grape varieties, I imagine them to have their own personalities. For instance, if you consider that Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel all make red wines but the results are quite different. That is because grapes always display specific qualities such as flavours e.g. cabernet sauvignon grape = plum and blackberry flavours and zinfandel grape = wild berry and pepper flavours.

So, if you know a little about those qualities, you will have a better idea of what a specific wine should taste like. Admittedly, grape variety is only one ingredient of the finished product.  Wine can also be influenced by its winemaking style, its terroir (location, climate, and soil) and its ageing, but a little understanding of the variety will most certainly be a useful tool in wine choice.

Knowing a little about Grape Varieties with help with Wine Choice. Click To Tweet

I have two more items that will help you with wine choice:

 1) Old World (e.g. Europe) wines are labelled by region whereas New World (e.g. USA, Australia, South Africa, South America and New Zealand), wines are labelled by varietal. This tradition seems to be changing slowly and many winemakers are choosing to name the varietal on the back or front label, even in Europe.

 2) A wine made with one type of grape is a single variety wine or, varietal wine. A wine made with several different grapes is a blend.

The real challenge that non-wine professionals have is that with more than 10,000 different grape varieties in the world, there is no chance of remembering what they all should taste like.

My recommendation is to discover a particular varietal or blend that you like and try to ascertain why you like it. Even better, have a chat with a wine expert and find out the wine’s aromas, tastes, and close alternatives. As you get more comfortable with the varieties, it will narrow down that tsunami of choice that faces you in most wine retailers.

terroir and vinyard

A simple explanation of grape varieties and their ‘terroir’.

There is no reason why the casual wine drinker should concern themselves with the concept of terroir but I’ve alluded to it a few times above so perhaps I should explain what I mean by it. The concept of terroir covers all natural and climatic elements linked to a vineyard area. So, not only does it include the soil, it also refers to other local factors such as slopes, altitude, exposure, environment (e.g. near water) and of course the climate.

The best ‘terroirs’ are those of poor soil (gravelly, sandy or stony), on well-drained hill-sides with good exposure to sunlight – Donal.

growing grapes on vine

The best ‘terroirs’ are those of poor soil (gravelly, sandy or stony), on well-drained hill-sides with good exposure to sunlight Click To Tweet

Flavour and style profiles for 8 popular grape varieties.

You’ll be glad to note that I do not intend listing all 10,000 grape varieties here but if you are interested in reading a little more about the history of grape varieties, there is some good information on the Torres website here – history of grape varieties.

Here is my list describing four red and four white grape varieties that I believe, most people will have encountered.

bunch of red wine grapes

Red Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon (“cab-er-nay saw-vin-yawn”)

Flavour:  its classic flavours are currant, plum, black cherry, and spice. It can also be marked by herb, olive, mint, tobacco, cedar and anise, and ripe, jammy notes.
Style: Full-bodied Red Wine
Description: The best Cabernets start out dark purple-ruby in colour, with firm acidity, a full body, great intensity, concentrated flavours and firm tannins. Today, it’s the most popular wine variety in the world. They have a long persistent finish driven mostly by the higher levels of alcohol and tannin that often accompany these wines.

Syrah or Shiraz (“Sear-ah” or or “shih-rahz”)

Flavour: pronounced pepper, spice, black cherry, tar, leather and roasted nut flavours. It has a smooth, supple texture aided by its smooth tannins.
Style: Full-bodied Red Wine
Description: Syrah is heavily planted in the Rhône Valley in France and as Shiraz in Australia. The wines have intense fruit flavours and middleweight tannins. In the Rhone area, Syrah is commonly blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre (GMS) to create a distinct blend, but still with that spicy influence from the Syrah.

Zinfandel (“Zin-fan-dell”)

Flavour: made in a Bordeaux style with flavours ranging from stone fruits to all the soft black fruits with mild tannins. It has been known to have aromas of Asian 5 spice powder and sweet tobacco.
Style: Medium-bodied to full-bodied Red Wine
Description: Wines are fruit-forward, rich in sugar and are spicy with a medium length finish. It is a multipurpose grape, producing white wines (from black grapes), rose wines (‘blush’) as well as wines for ageing.

Pinot Noir (“Pee-no-nwar”)

Flavour: the classic Pinot experience is of black cherry, spice, raspberry and currant flavours. Its aromas can have vegetal notes of beet, rhubarb, or mushroom along with earth, tar and herb notes. It can also be rather ordinary, light, simple and occasionally weedy. It can even be ill-scented with strong barnyard aromas.
Style: Lighter-bodied Red Wine with higher acid and soft tannin
Description: Pinot Noir is a dry light-bodied grape first planted in Burgundy, France. Being fairly delicate among all the grape varieties it is regarded as being the most sensitive to terroir. That is why the flavour description above is so varied. Furthermore, it is often blended with Pinot Meunier and/or Chardonnay in Champagne.

bunch of white wine grapes

White Wines

Chardonnay (“Shar-dun-nay”)

Flavour: offers bold, ripe, rich and intense yellow citrus fruit flavours of apple, fig, melon, pear, peach, pineapple, lemon, and grapefruit. It can also offer cinnamon, honey, butter, butterscotch and toasted caramel (from oak) flavours. 
Style: Medium to full-bodied white wine
Description:  This is an amazingly versatile grape that grows well in a variety of locations throughout the world, although, it remains the famous white grape of Burgundy.  The king of whites, it makes consistently excellent, rich and complex wines. When oak-aged, Chardonnay might have spicy notes. Unoaked wines are lighter and zesty with apple and citrus flavours. The greatest white Burgundies age well, others, especially unoaked, are intended for early consumption.

Sauvignon Blanc (“Saw-vin-yawn blonk”)

Flavour:  at its extreme, its flavours leads to being pungent, grassy, and vegetal. It may have some exotic fruits (honeydew melon, kiwi) but always an herbaceous quality (grass, green pepper)
Style: Light-bodied to medium-bodied white wine
Description: Sauvignon Blanc is a dry white grape first widely planted in France. It prefers a cool climate and is produced for early drinking. Wines are tart, typically gooseberry, box hedge and with even ‘cats pee’ aromas. Sauvignon Blanc is a parent grape of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pinot Grigio (“Pee-no gree zho”)

Flavour: Delicate citrus (lime water, orange zest) and stone fruits (apple skin, pear sauce), white floral notes, and cheese rind (from lees usage)
Style: Light-bodied White Wine
Description: planted heavily in northeast Italy, but also in France (Alsace) as Pinot Gris. Wines are light to middle-weight for easy drinking, often with some bitter flavour on the palate.

Riesling (“Reese-ling”)

Flavour: The more common version of Riesling produces dry or just off-dry versions. It has high acidity with distinctive floral, citrus (kefir lime, lemon juice), peach and mineral accents.
Style: Floral and fruit-driven aromatic white that comes in variable sweetness. Some producers choose not to ferment all the grape sugar and therefore make the wine in an “off-dry” style.
Description: Always very high in acid and when made as a table wine, Rieslings can be harmoniously sweet (sweet and sour) or dry (very acidic). In fact, sometimes this wine is demonised as the dry styles are described as too acidic and the sweet styles too cloying. In Alsace, Riesling is mostly made in a dry style, full-bodied, with a distinct petrol aroma.

hand full of grape varieties

Other popular grape varieties.

White

Albarino, Aligote, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat(s), Semillon, Verdejo, and Viognier.

Reds

Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Montepulciano, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo and Sangiovese.

If you’re a wine nerd – The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) recently published a study that provides an overview of the distribution of the world’s grapevine varieties and examines current trends.

Furthermore, a recent Forbes article highlighted that the “total acreage of the world vineyards destined for wine production is roughly 16 million acres (6.5 million hectares).” And they list the top ten grape varieties in the world in the same piece – see it here.

Conclusion.

As I said earlier, there are so many grape varieties and styles that I reckon it would be impossible to master a knowledge of them – in a lifetime. However, when it comes to a choice you really can’t go wrong because it’s all down to personal taste.

Knowing a little about grape varietals will enable you to determine what it is you don’t like about a particular wine. Therefore, each bottle you try will get you closer to what you really do like.

So, I hope this post has raised your curiosity somewhat and you won’t just stick to grape varieties that you know well. If you do experiment, try to determine the grape flavours (and style) that spring to mind, initially. If you can’t figure it out (and it will take time) maybe when choosing a bottle, have a chat with your friendly, local wine retailer – like myself or James in Green Acres (shocking plug – I know) who will tell you what to expect.

At the end of the day, your focus should be on enjoying your wine and if I can help – great.

If you do know a lot about grape varieties and need help planning your wine cellar feel free to contact me or drop-in to us here in Green Acres and we can discuss any aspect of your wine preferences and any special wines you would like to discover. Also, if you’d like to receive future blog posts from us, directly to your email, just ‘click’ here.

We look forward to engaging with you again soon – Cheers, Donal

wine bottle and glass silhouette