Wines is made from varietals (grapes to you) and different wine is made from different varietals, either blended or singly. Wines will taste different depending on the varietal and where it’s grown. The terroir (growing area & environment) makes a big difference even between the same varietals! There are supposedly over 8,000 different types of grape, worldwide, but in reality you only need to know a handful, or so.
Most consumers and certainly a majority of wine drinkers will be able to name name at least one or two grape types or varietals, certainly Chardonnay, the name beloved by footballers for their off-spring, and possibly Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.
Generally speaking varietals are divided between Red (really purplish) and White (really yellowy/greenish) and no Rosé isn’t made from pink grapes. So let’s start with the Classic Varietals;
It is generally accepted that there are 17 Classic grape varieties, 9 red and 8 white that many would claim hold the key to some of the most famous and popular wines in the world! There are also 17 Major grape varieties.
The Classic varietals are considered to be the most important and indeed the two most famous being red Cabernet Sauvignon and white Chardonnay and these are affectionately known as King Cab and Queen Chard due to their influence on many of the most famous Old World wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon can proudly claim to be both consumer and wine-maker friendly; it can grow anywhere red grapes can ripen and has a broadly similar flavour wherever it’s grown. It can also be great or average and can either add delights of flavour or overpower those it’s blended with, yes Cab is the King, the conqueror of everywhere it reaches and with upfront flavours of blackcurrant or black cherry balanced by cedar wood and tobacco notes and a robust tannin structure Cabernet Sauvignon is certainly one of the Classics!
Chile now has the biggest acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by California, Bordeaux, Australia and Languedoc-Roussillon, but you can find King Cab pretty much anywhere. In Bordeaux, Cab is normally blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, which is the classic Bordeaux mix.
Great examples of Cabernet would be Margaux, St.Estèphe, Paulliac and St. Julien from Bordeaux.
A true varietal of two halves, called Syrah in its Rhône homeland and Shiraz in the New World Syrah/Shiraz is a powerful, gutsy and fruit led grape that dwelt in the shadows of Cab, for a long time, until the Aussies began to make big, ‘in your face’ fruitful wines. Now it’s in danger of becoming the world’s favourite red! You can even get a highly drinkable Sparkling Shiraz!
Apart from the Rhône, Syrah is also grown extensively in Languedoc-Roussillon, whilst in its alter-ego as Shiraz and part from Australia; it’s also grown in South Africa, California and increasingly Argentina. New World Shiraz tastes of chocolate, blackcurrant and black cherries, with a slightly earthy, peppery edge, whereas Rhône based Syrah can display notes of exotic flowers, wood smoke and possibly rosemary, as well as the above.
Classic Rhône wines that are Syrah based are Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. The New World weighs in with some great Aussie Shiraz’s’ including McGuigan, as well as the superb Sparkling Shiraz.
Previously and somewhat unfairly known as Bordeaux’s other red grape, soft and mellow Merlot is now France’s number one planted varietal. However Merlot is also booming in Italy, California, Eastern Europe, Chile and Australia.
But what of the taste, well most Merlot is now made to be drunk young and can be made to taste of, well anything you want from light and juicy through silky to fruity oaky. With fruit flavours as varied as strawberry and raspberry, black cherry and blackcurrants and plum and damson with even a touch of figs, prunes and spice thrown in, yes that’s mellow Merlot for you.
Certainly Bordeaux based St-Émillion and Pomerol, but also New World wines such as New Zealand’s Villa Maria and Chili’s Errazuriz.
Grenache Noir, or Garnacha Tinta is a no-nonsense high alcohol varietal, it’s powerful, intoxicating and somewhat surprisingly the world’s most planted red grape. It also has strong flavours of aged strawberries and raspberries, with a slightly roasted nutty edge and even on occasion some honey and spice and generally is best drunk young, as it doesn’t age that well.
You’ll mainly find Grenache in the Languedoc Roussillon and Provence regions of France and widely in Spain, where it’s known as Garnacha Tinto, and sometimes in California and Australia. Grenache is also one of those reds that can be drunk chilled!
A great example of a Grenache blend is the classic Rhône, Châteauneuf-du Pape.
Spanish to its heart Tempranillo is one of those grapes that was overlooked for many years, although of course not in Spain where it has consistently been the star of the majority of that country’s top reds. Although of course Spanish wine until recently had a chequered history in the UK.
The majority of Tempranillo is grown in Spain, although Portugal is also important where it’s known as Tinta Roriz, one of the five Port grapes. It’s also grown in Argentina, California and increasingly Australia. The taste well think of a ‘sort-of’ cross between Cab. and Pinot Noir, it’s lush, supple and full of fruit like blackcurrants, black cherries, raspberries, combined with some plum, tobacco, cocoa and a light touch of oak.
Classic Tempranillo is obviously Rioja, but also two of Spain’s other premium reds Ribera del Duero and Toro.
Many claim that Zinfandel is the same as Italy’s Primitivo, which in turn is supposedly related to an obscure and pretty unpronounceable Croatian grape, Crljenak Kastelanski. Whatever the truth, Zin is pretty much now seen as a Californian indigenous varietal, although that wasn’t always the case and indeed 20 years or so ago plonky Zin Rosé, or Blush basically turned the US from a nation of just beer drinkers, into wine drinkers as well!
But Zin has moved on. By nature most Zin winemakers live on the ‘wild-side’ and like to be versatile and innovate, which means that Zin is capable of producing almost any flavour; young Zins with their low tannins can taste of soft raspberry and blackberry, whereas mature Zinfandel and we can be talking 12-15 years offer black pepper, clove, cinnamon and oregano, combined with notes of violets and roses.
Living the West Coast lifestyle, some of the very best Zinfandels come from around Sonoma and Napa and of these the ‘stand-out’ wine is Ridge Lytton Springs. Sure Zin also grows in Italy and a few other parts of the world, but it’s Californian to its core!
Almost exclusively an Italian grape, centred on the Piedmont and Lombardy regions, Nebbiolo can make big and bold wine, or on occasion fruity and fragrant ones, certainly it’s generally considered to be better when aged well.
Nebbiolo has a scent that verges on ‘tar and roses’ it normally has fairly high levels of tannin and acidity and underlying hints cherries and damsons and even old leather, with a touch of herbs and spice for good luck – yes Nebbiolo can be robust and is unique!
As it’s almost exclusively Italian and almost exclusively used as a single varietal, the best Nebbiolo’s are Barolo’s or Barberesco’s.
Mainly planted in Tuscany, Sangiovese is a true Italian, with a literal translation meaning the ‘blood of love’. Three-quarters of the worlds planting of this varietal are in Italy. So far it has not really migrated to the New World, apart from Argentina. Although it also occurs on ‘L’ille de beauté’ Corsica, as well as in Sicily and Romania.
Sangiovese can age well but most of its wines are meant to be drunk young. Typically Sangiovese tastes of bitter cherries, with a high acidity and tannins mellowed by sun-dried tomatoes, violets and herby, tea-like finish. Modern versions will have a vanilla oak edge and taste of black cherry, plums and mulberries.
Chianti is probably the most famous Sangiovese wine, but also Brunello di Montalcino and Montepuliciano.
The World’s most well known white varietal, Chardonnay originated in Burgundy where some of the most famous white wines are produced. But Chardonnay’s real growth comes from the New World where California and Australia have driven fruit-laden wines that have become the varietal’s signature. Chardonnay is also the main grape in Champagne and many New World sparkling copies.
Chardonnay is pretty adaptable and its taste depends on terroir, age and oak. The differences between oaked and un-oaked, young and aged wines are immense. Normally fat and fruitful, younger cooler climate wines taste of green apples, pears and lemons, with touches of biscuits and honey, whilst oaking adds smoky, toasted notes. Warmer climate wines may taste of mango, bananas, cream, pineapple, melons, with a vanilla oak edge.
If ever there was a varietal that helped create a country’s wine industry, then that grape is Sauvignon Blanc and that country is New Zealand. Certainly Sauvignon Blanc has been grown in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley for a couple of hundred years and has produced some excellent wines, but it is in New Zealand and especially around Marlborough Bay where it took on a new lease of life, changing the way that we view white wines in the same way that Australian and Californian Chardonnay did.
Loire based Sauvignon Blancs’ taste of peach, nectarine and melon, with a steely touch of minerality and acidity. New World versions are fresher/sharper, all gooseberries, greengage and green peppers with a touch of kiwi and passion fruit.
Classic Loire Sauvignon Blanc wines are Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, whereas some of the best Sauvignon Blanc’s come from New Zealand, with Villa Maria being on great example.
Sémillon originated in Bordeaux and subsequently became one of the most widely planted whites in the World and South African and Chile were awash with the grape, but how that’s changed. It’s still grown in Bordeaux of course where it makes outstanding sweeter and good dry whites, as well as in the Dordogne, but it’s in Australia where the real growth is coming from.
Sémillon’s greatest claim to fame though comes from ‘Noble Rot’ in the Sauternes/Barsac which features flavours of marzipan, honey. Toast, apricots, mango and barley sugar. On the other hand Aussie Semillon is all greengages, apricots, mangoes mixed with vanilla custard, especially so when lightly oaked.
Classic Bordeaux sweet Sémillon’s are Sauterne and Barsac, dry; Graves, plus Bergerac in the South West. New World is pretty much exclusively in Australia’s, the best of which comes from the Hunter Valley, McGuigan being a great example.
The home of Viognier is the Rhône Valley and although the varietal was once one the most fashionable grapes around it quickly declined to the stage around 30 years ago where a tiny Rhône village, Cordrieu was almost the last outpost! However now it’s become fashionable again with increased acreage in Languedoc/Roussillon and a change of style led by Aussie and Californian winemakers where light oaking has added complexity, as has the innovative idea of blending with a red varietal Shiraz, to create an inspiring wine red that can be drunk chilled.
With light acidity and flavours of apricots, peaches and crystallised, balanced with aromas of honeysuckle and jasmine Viognier is a subtle but fruitfully complex varietal that does not generally age well but does benefit from oak which adds vanilla and almost a crème fraîche edge.
Search out classic Rhône Viogniers’, especially from Condrieu, as well as some of the exciting New World wines from Australia and California and yes do try that Viognier/Shiraz blend.
Considered by many wine-experts as the greatest white varietal Riesling, remains a minority taste, mainly grown in Germany, it’s now also becoming popular in the New World; Australia, California, South Africa and New Zealand, where its icy cool perfume and acidity are winning lots of fans. More importantly Riesling is flexible it can flourish in both cool and hot, dry climates and can also be made as a dry or sweet white.
Riesling can taste smoky or minerally, in younger wines it can also exhibit flowery, slightly spicy notes with an underlying steeliness balanced by peaches, green apples, citrus and sometimes quince. In more mature wines flavours of apricot, pineapple, honey and toast, with some marzipan thrown in for good measure.
Some of the best drier Rieslings come from Alsace but the more well known wines are Niersteiner and Liebfraulmich or Mosel Spätlese.
Often referred to as the original wine grape, with a history stretching back to ancient Greece, Muscat is a complex family of varietals ranging from white/yellow to black and which can be dry or sweet, yet it remains currently unfashionable, although Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains enjoys good-standing. The other Muscat’s being Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Ottonel and Muscat of Hamburg, a black varietal, normally eaten rather than made into wine!
Muscat is one of the few varietals that actually tastes of grapes, although its low acidity, especially when young gives rise to a floral, orange zest and elderflower taste; as it ages the ‘sweetness’ comes to the fore, with hints of honey and citrus.
Probably most famous as Muscat Beaumes de Venise, Muscat can also be enjoyed as Liqueur Muscat, as either an apéritif or digestif.
Originating from the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc, received a rough ride outside of France, especially when fat buttery Chards where going from strength to strength and no one wanted bone-dry, minerally styled wines that took years to become great. But then along came South Africa and the varietal is now that country’s most planted grape producing dry, fruity wines. Other countries soon followed including Argentina and California.
However Chenin Blanc is not always dry, in the Loire there’s ‘Noble Rot’, a fungus that attacks grapes significantly increasing residual sugars. Such grapes make great sweet whites that age incredibly well. Young Chenin Blanc is all crisp green apples and greengage, with a chalky, minerallity, whereas more mature wines also feature honey, peach and broche. Those wines made from Noble Rot grapes taste of pineapple, barley-sugar, marzipan, quince and cream. New World versions tend to be tropical in flavour; bananas, guava and pineapple.
Good Loire wines include Touraine and Samur; great Loire’s are sweet and dry Vouvrays’.
Highly perfumed, floral Gewürztraminer is an odd classic white, the grapes are pinkish and can be orange or reddish, but this varietal is unlike any other white. Mainly planted in Alsace although also in Germany and sparsely in the New World, Gewürztraminer is a difficult grape to grow and make; under-ripe can be bad. But for those great Alsace wines it’s all about the taste and the aroma.
Firstly the famous perfumed aroma, that’s all roses, lilac, orange blossom and honeysuckle, then there’s the taste, lychees and tropical fruit with hints of Earl Grey tea and freshly ground black pepper, yes Gewürztraminer is different. lychees, combined with cinnamon, lilac and orange blossom, plus black tea, bergamot and honeysuckle.
The best Gewürztraminer mainly only comes from Alsace.
No less important, although possibly slightly less classic are the major grape varieties, again there are 17, nine red and eight white and although some may not be as well known as the Classics, some such as Pinot Grigio, have a star status in their own right, without yet quite reaching the Classic level. The same could be said for Cabernet Franc, which although not that well known is still verging on a Classic. Other well know major varietals are Beaujolais’s Gamay and Malbec and Carmenère, which have respectively helped shape the Argentinean and Chilean wine portfolio.
Most famous as the Beaujolais grape and similar to Pinot Noir, Gamay ‘s heartland is Southern Burgundy and the Loire around Tours Gamay is also grown in other cool-climate regions such as New Zealand, Switzerland, Oregon and Canada.
Once more well known for Beaujolais Nouveau, which is now starting to return to favour after 10 or so unfashionable years or, Gamay can be drunk young and chilled or ages pretty well.
Fruity with good acidity and low tannins young Gamay tastes of pear-drops, bananas and raspberries, but becomes more complex with hints of black cherries and pepper
Obviously Beaujolais (and Nouveau) but also Beaujolais Villages, Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas and Morgon.
Another Bordeaux varietal that lost favour, apart from in Cahors and then was reinvigorated in the New World; Argentina, Malbec, has become ‘the’ Argentinean’ grape where it has moved from being a base blend to a ‘wine-star’
With rich fruit flavour and high tannins and medium acidity, Malbec is full bodied tasting of plum, damson and tobacco and part from as a single varietal is also blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Of course, classic Cahors probably represents the best French example of Malbec and many Mendoza made Argentinean Malbecs’.
Effectively the original Cabernet from which Cabernet Sauvignon was cloned, Cabernet Franc originated in Bordeaux, although is also grown in the Loire, Italy, California and Australia.
Softer than its Sauvignon sibling, it has lower tannins and a more berry taste; raspberries, blueberries and sometimes plum and is widely blended with other varietals, although it can also be a single varietal wine.
Perhaps the best example of Cabernet Franc comes not from Bordeaux but Chinon in the Loire.
Barbera is an adaptable Italian grape that grows pretty much all over the country, although being seen as second best to Nebbiolo in its Piedmont home.
Tasting of red cherries younger Barbera has a high acidity and low tannins which in more mature wines help give a flavour of plum and black cherry, especially when barrel aged.
Barbera d’ Alba is probably the best and most well known example.
Originating in Bordeaux, Carmenère is supposedly an off-shoot of Merlot and has found great success in Chile where it is seen as the quintessential Chilean varietal. Made as a single varietal wine it is also blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Best enjoyed young and with low acidity Carmenère tastes of blackberry, cherries, plum, with an underlying green bell pepper and black peppercorn edge.
The best examples of Carmenère come from Chile’s Aconcagua or Casablanca Valleys.
Originally a Spanish grape called Mataró, Mourvèdre first found favour in the Southern Rhone and Languedoc/Roussillon and then as Mataro in Australia and California. The varietal is often blended with Grenache and Syrah to give a full bodied red.
High in alcohol and tannins Mourvèdre tastes of blackberries and bilberries with an earthy, herby edge and with a bit of age hints of leather, game and gingerbread start to appear.
Châteauneuf-du Pape and Bandol wines in the South West of France and Australian Mataro are well worth a try.
Uniquely South African and the country’s signature grape, Pinotage, was created by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. Reasonably high in tannins and alcohol Pinotage benefits from oak and can be drunk young and with some age.
Also unique in its taste, Pinotage exhibits mulberry, blackberry and damson flavours, with a slightly smoky edge and hints of toasted marshmallow.
Better examples of Pinotage come from the Stellenbosch region.
Another Piedmont varietal, Dolcetto means ‘little sweet one’ in Italian, but is anything but that, being normally dry in style. Really only grown in Italy and increasingly in Australia Dolcetto is best drunk young and can be blended with Syrah or Merlot.
Low acidity and tannins give Dolcetto fruity flavours of black cherries, plums, blackberries and almond, with possibly a touch of liquorice.
Again the best examples come from Dolcetto home region in Piedmont, so look for Docetto d’ Albi or d’Acqui.
Pretty exclusively a Portuguese varietal and one of the five key Port grapes, Touriga Nacional is at the heart of the countries wine making and has high tannins and alcohol and is the main varietal in Douro and Dão wines and benefits from blending.
Touriga Nacional tastes of blackberries, blueberries, plum and mulberry with hints of violets and black pepper/spice and gets sweeter and richer with age.
Try any of the better Duoro or Dão wines, or of course a good Port.
Mainly a northern Rhône varietal, most Marsanne is made to be drunk young with a low acidity it is one of the eight white grapes allowed in Côtes de Rhône wines. Marsanne is often blended with Viognier and is supplanting another Rhône varietal Roussane.
With flavours of citrus, peach and melon when young, with age Marsanne also exhibits honey, jasmine apricot and quince.
Marsanne’s best examples are in the white Hermitage wines of the northern Rhône and also in white Côtes de Rhône and Vin de Pays D’Oc.
Pinot Blanc is thought to originally come from Burgundy, although its main French routes are in Alsace, it also does well in Italy. Mainly used as a blend Pinot Blanc produces fresh dry whites with a crisp acidity and benefits from oaking.
Another varietal that verges towards neutrality Pinot Blanc exhibits flavours of pear, with a slight hint of almonds and some vanilla when oaked.
Apart from Alsace Pinot Blanc, Italian Veneto and Alto-Adige wines
Mainly centred on the Northern Rhone and Tuscany, Roussanne has been upstaged by Marsanne, despite the fact that it offers more subtlety and flavour, but it’s a difficult varietal to grow and can be high in alcohol, it also likes a little oaking, but is rarely a single varietal wine and is mainly blended.
With flavours of pears and herbal tea with a touch of melon, it is quite acidic and does not age well.
Best examples of Roussane include Crozes-Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc.
Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris to give its Alsace name had supplanted Chardonnay as the wine-bar favourite but has now slipped in appeal. Pinot Gris is normally richer than Pinot Grigio which is made to be young and light. The New World has also caught onto the fashion and Pinot Grigio is now made in Australia, New Zealand and California.
Verging from dry to sweeter and rarely blended Pinot Grigio is full of pear and melon, whilst Alsatian Pinot Gris exhibits more honey and Brazil nuts.
Italian, wine-bar Pinot Grigio is probably most well known, but try some of the Alsace Pinot Gris.
Originating from northern Bordeaux, Colombard is also grown in California and South Africa. Generally favoured as a blending grape with Chardonnay it adds high alcohol and low acidity. Colombard is also used as the base varietal in many Cognac and Armagnac.
Colombard has a fairly neutral taste verging towards a citrusy lemon supported by peach and nectarine.
Apart from its brandy usage, Colombard is probably best known as a ‘vin de pays’ in Côtes des Gascoigne or as a support in South African Chardonnay blends.
Another pretty exclusively Portuguese varietal, although Albarino also grows in Northern Spain. Light and zesty Albariño is normally high fruiting but low in alcohol and is generally made to be drunk young and chilled.
Albariño mainly tastes of apricot and white peach, with some grapefruit and a slight minerality
Probably most famous in Vino Verde Albariño is also key in Spanish Rias Baixas wines.
A family of grapes, rather than a single varietal Malvasia can be sweet or dry and even occasionally red. Found throughout Italy, in Northern Spain, Portugal and increasing California. Dry Malvasia should be drunk young and fresh.
When young Malvasia tastes of peaches and apricots, whilst sweeter versions can be rich with hints of honey, allspice and a touch of nuttiness.
Frascati is the most well known lighter Malvasia wine, of the sweeter varieties Madeira’s Malmsey and Scilly’s Passito are probably the most famous.
Primarily found in the Alsace and Germany, Sylvaner is seen as a good blending wine that produces lots of fruit and which is reasonably neutral in taste, although can be more so effected by terroir than many other whites.
Dry and reasonably acidic Sylvaner has flavours of citrus and pear and sometimes cut-grass with a white floral and honey edge.
Alsace Sylvaner or German Trocken wines are good choices.