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The Most Important Wine Varietals

In this instalment of Wine Around the World we look at the many varietals of wine. There are over 10,00 wine varietals planted across the globe, so we’ve focused on some of the most important and popular ones.

Wine varietals are named from the grape that they are made. In many old world wine producing areas, the grape varietal is not deemed as important as the region from which they were grown. Since they regard terroir as being of primary importance, they are appellation wines, and named for the wine region rather then the grape.

Here are some of the most common wine varietals along with their important characteristics

Cabernet Franc (Red)
Cabernet Franc is primarily grown for blending Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon and Boardeux, but is also a popular stand-alone varietal. As compared to a Cabernet Sauvignon, it may be both fruitier, and lighter in color and tannins. The primarily berry and currant notes become more herbal and vegetative with maturations.

Cabernet Sauvignon (Red)
These grapes are characteristically small and spherical with black thick skin. Known as the king of red wines, it is capable of creating wines with depth, richness, concentration, and longevity. Its classic flavors include currant, black cherry, plum and spice, and quite often have markings of herb, mint, and olive. As it ages, its bouquet has notes of cedar, leather, and cigars and its tannic edge softens and smoothes out.

While commonly used for blending, American producers have started to shift back to using higher percentages of Cabernet as they have found it to have a stronger, more complex character by itself. Cabernet Sauvignon is the hybrid offspring of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.

Usually aged in American or French oak barrels for around 15-30 months. This process imparts a toasty cedar, woody, vanilla flavor to the wine. Slowly oxidizing the wine, this softens the tannins.

Chardonnay (White)
Unlike red wines whose flavor develops after weeks through fermenting in their skins, Chardonnay grapes are crushed or pressed and then fermented without their skins, and so, the flavors emerge from the grape immediately after extracting their juices. It often smells like apples, lemons, peaches or tropical fruits. If aged in new barrels, or for a long time in older barrels, oak flavors often take over, leading the wine to have a rich intense flavor of spice, honey, butter, vanilla, and hazelnut.

Chardonnay is used in many varietal blends, though they are often overpowered when mixed. In many quality sparkling wines and in Champagne, it is the main varietal used. Unmistakable, it is full-bodied, smooth, and has an impressive balance of sugar and acid. Unlike the durable Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Chardonnay grapes are small, have thin skin, and oxidize quite easily. These fragile berries are also quite susceptible to a number of maladies.

Chenin Blanc (White)
Though South Africas most planted grape, Chenin Blanc seems to be a varietal that is on the decline. With an early budding and late ripening, this varietal is suited for a warm and long season. The vines tend to produce large quantities of thin, dilute wine. Highly subject to oxidation, there is a “hands off” policy in the production of this wine, much like other aromatic whites. Typically, Chenin Blanc is fermented in non oak vesesls at cool temperatures and bottled early. With a naturally high acidity, this varietal can be capable of maturing for over a decade in its bottle. Aromas of apples, straw, hay, and wet wooly socks are characteristic of low to medium styles, while sweeter styles are more commonly identifiable by aromas of apricots, honey, and with maturity, nuts. Floral, honeyard notes, with zesty acidity are characteristically the trademark of a well made Chenin Blanc.

Gewurztraminer (White)
One of the most easily recognizable wines varietals, Gewurztraminer has a very potent aromatic scent. It produces a floral wine with a crisp acidity that pairs well with spicy foods and cheeses. The wine can be colored from light to dark golden yellow. Its full bodied nature tends to have a strong, heady, and perfumey scent. Its heavy- oily texture may be quite tiring to some palates, and may be more of an acquired taste.

The Gewurztraminer grape is grown in a cool climate, as it is a quite temperamental grape, as if left unchecked, its potent nature can be exacerbated. Early harvesting retains the grapes acids, but not letting it ripen enough may prevent it from developing its distinctive varietal character.

Malbec (Red)
A traditional Bordeaux varietal, Malbec holds characteristics similar to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This grape is not very durable, but deep in color, high in tannin, and has a plum like flavor. Malbec is a quite popular varietal, and where French Malbecs are considered short lived, Argentine ones age fairly well. In the United States, Malbec is primarily used as a blending grape.

Merlot (Red)
Mainly used as a Bordeaux blend, Merlot can stand alone as well. Seen as an easy to drink red wine, Merlot had a wine consumer boom in the 1990s. Merlot varietals and blends usually have a medium body with notes of berry, currant and plum. It’s describe to be soft and fleshy. While it has similar flavors to Cabernet Sauvignon, it tends to be less distinctive and slightly more herbaceous, and a naturally lower level of acidity and astringency, giving it a more lush feel in the mouth.

There are three main styles of Merlot that have emerged, the first being a Cabernet-style Merlot with up to 25% Cabernet. This blend has currant and cherry flavors, along with strong tannins. The next style uses less Cabernet, and so is more supple, medium weight, carries less tannins, and has notes of more herb, cherry, and chocolate. A third style is a very light and simple, a style, which is what has fuelled this exponential growth in Merlot popularity.

Muscat (White)
Known as Muscat Blanc or Muscat Cannelli, this varietal can be used as a table grape as well as wine-making grape. In the vineyard, these grapes thrive best in Mediterranean climates with a long warm growing season. It is marked by potent spice and floral notes. It can be used to blend in table, sparkling, dessert, and fortified wines. In fact, Muscat is one of the only wines whose flavor’s can actually be described as grapey.

Nebbiolo (Red)
Standing alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is part of the trinity of the worlds finest black grapes. There are two approaches to the harvesting and production of Nebbiolio. The traditionalist places an emphasis on tannin and acid. For them, the harvest is earlier, and the wines are matured in large barrels to preserve the low pigment color. The modernist producers of Nebbiolo have designed techniques to make wines that are much more accessible in youth while preserving their ability to age for a decade or more in cellaring. They emphasize a later harvesting causing the tannins and pigments to be riper, softening Nebbiolo’s preservative structure. Many consumers find Nebbiolo wines a challenge to drink due to their high amounts of tannin and acidity (something that the modernist producers have tried to negate). These wines are full bodied and have high levels of alcohol.

Pinot Grigio (White)
Also know as Pinot Gris, this varietal has its ancestry set in Burgundy, France. As a mutation of Pinot Noir, this varietal excels in a temperate climate. If exposed to a warmer climate, the wine will have a lower acidity and high alcohol, leaving an oily texture in the mouth. A very versatile wine, this varietal is capable of making wines of varying sweetness levels, and can improve under the influence of barrel and maturation time. Depending upon ripeness at harvest, and techniques used in the winery, this varietal can be tangy and light, displaying subtle apple or pear aromas, or can be darker rich, round and full bodied whose complex set of aromas can include apricot, peach, musk, honeysuckle, and canned mushrooms.

Pinot Noir (Red)
Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to grow as it reacts strongly to environmental fluctuations. With thin, easily bruised skins, these berries are quite fickle once picked. Rushed towards maturity in warmer climates, this varietal has much more success in cool climates, which capitalizes the alcohol content of the varietal. Traditionally, seasoned barrels were used for maturation, but there has been a more recent movement toward new oak barrels. Pinot Noir is know best to be a single variety wine, though there are some wines, certain champagnes for example that use it in their blend. Aromas can include strawberry, raspberry and cherry, and in warmer climates these aromas tend to take on a more confected quality such as strawberry jam.

Pinot Noir can offer notes of black cherry, spice, raspberry, currants, wilted roses, earth, tar, herb, and cola. At other times, it can be much more ordinary with simple herbal and vegetal notes. Barnyard aromas, or as the French describe it ‘merde de lapin’ or ‘rabitt poop’ can noticed at times as well.

Once on the palate, Pinot Noir tends to be quite modest. With moderate intensity, light on tannins, medium bodied, and medium to light in acidity, Pinot Noir is one of the most versatile wines with an expansive list of food pairing possibilities.

Riesling (White)
Native to Germany, Riesling is offered in many diverse styles. Excelling in cooler climates and being extremely resistant to frost, Riesling has a tendency to ripen slowly, being attack by the rot Botrytis cinerea, withering the grapes skin and concentrating its natural sugar levels.

Like other aromatic whites, in the winery Riesling is produced in ways to maintain its pure unaltered juice. Today, most winemakers opt to use stainless steel fermentation at cool temperatures with early bottling. Young Rieslings are quite pale in color, but with age it develops into a more golden hue, and then and amber color. Just as the color changes with maturity, so do the aromas. Youthful Rieslings have lemon, lime, peach, mineral, beeswax, and flower aromas. As the wine matures, it can develop a kerosene quality, also known as petrol.

Sangiovese (Red)
Best known for providing the backbone for many Italian reds, Sangiovese is distinct for its supple texture, medium to full bodied spice, cherry, and anise flavors, which are supported by vegetal aromas like dried leaves, tea tobacco and straw. With maturity, the fruit aromas can turn into tobacco ones with notes of saddle, leather and mushrooms. Typically a pale ruby or garnet color, Sangiovese is typically well structured with medium to high levels of tannin. More modern styles typically have quite high alcohol levels with up to 14%, but accompanied by lower tannins and less acidity.

Sauvignon Blanc (White)
Sauvignon Blanc is most notable for its pungent, grassy, vegetable and herbaceous flavors. Cheaper to produce then a Chardonnay, it is popular for its refreshing and crisp flavors, and it matches well with foods. Ideally grown in cool climates, the long leaves of the wines can shade the berries from the sun, which is essential for flavor development and sufficient sweetness.

Naturally, Sauvignon Blanc tends to be a pale yellow with greenish hues, though with wood maturation and or a warmer climate, the color will deepen considerably. Typically, it has a light to medium body.

Syrah/ Shiraz (Red)
This dark and thick skinned berry requires heat to get fully ripe, yet can easily become overripe rendering in a loss of varietal character. Syrah varietals or blends are full bodied and quite powerfully flavored. Aromas can range from berries, chocolate, espresso and black pepper. As maturation occurs, the notes become primary earthy ones with leather and truffle.

Tempranillo (Red)
Tempranillo is both indigenous to Spain, and the countries major contribution to red wine. Rioja Tempranillo wines tend to be medium bodied with modest tannins and higher acidity. Made in a traditional fashion, flavors of tea, brown sugar and vanilla are present alongside a garnet hue. Made in a more modern style, this varietal can possess notes of plums, tobacco and cassis. With early ripening, it has a quite short growing season, which is where this grape varietal gets its name, tempranillo, meaning “little early one.” Most often this grape is used in a blend, rather then a stand alone varietal.

Zinfandel (Red)
Zinfandel, also known as Primitivo, has its origins in Greece and Albania. Now indigenous to California, it saw a boom in the mid 1850s. As a red wine, it can be made light and fruity, complex and age worthy. Its taste depends of the ripeness of the grapes. When harvested in cooler areas, red-berry fruit notes predominate. In warmer areas, notes of blackberry, anise and pepper are more common. Know for their uneven pattern of ripening, they ripen early and produce juice with high sugar levels. This high sugar content means that the juice can be fermented into levels of alcohol concentration over 15%. This varietal may used to create dessert wine, if the proper conditions permit, and they are late harvested. Zinfandel is known for its ability to represent terroir.

These are just a few of the most important wine varietals, but if you master these, you’re well on your way to decoding the world of wine.

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