The world of wine is a tricky place for lovers of the fermented juice of the noble vine. There is such a wide range to choose from, and so many varying styles. Chardonnay, for example, can be anything from a luscious, vanilla laden giant to a searingly acidic, dry wine more akin to Sauvignon Blanc; my personal white food wine.
It helps to know what grapes a wine is made from, which is no easy task when even the most famous of grape varieties travel incognito, with labels representing a host of regional and local synonyms in the name of authenticity.
To help you pick your way through the wine maze we have put together a crib sheet, which should help you spot the Cabernet Sauvignon in your Petit-Bouchet and the Gamay Blanc in your Chardonnay.
Cabernet Sauvignon (Red)
The lifeblood of Bordeaux and perhaps the noblest of all red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is happy to display its multi-faceted charms all over the world, creating fine wines from Australia to California. Generally giving cassis and green pepper-tinted wines that are full-bodied, often tannic and unyielding in youth, though capable of the most wonderfully characterful and elegant wines with age. Often blended with Merlot to give fine wines in the Bordeaux model.
Also known as…Petit Cabernet (Graves), Petit Bouchet (St Emilion), Sauvignon Rouge (Central France).
Chardonnay - (White)
Queen of white grape varieties and a firm favorite with wine drinkers all over the world, Chardonnay comes in a seemingly infinite range of guises, from crisp, light-bodied quaffing wine, to serious, age worthy wine of unrivalled depth and weight, to luscious, viscous sweet wines. A real globetrotter, this vine gives different wines depending on its location, but generally has medium body, apple and apricot fruit flavors. There is also often vanilla - though in many cases this comes from the oak aging that Chardonnay loves so well.
Also known as…Pinot Chardonnay (France), Weissburgunder (Germany), Gamay Blanc (Jura).
Chenin Blanc - (White)
This fascinating grape has become the source of many inexpensive and highly drinkable white wines from the New World. Yet its spiritual home is in France's Loire Valley, where it is responsible for a range of famous wines such as Saumur and Vouvray, the latter coming in everything from steely, crisp wines to ponderous and massive sweet wines that can rank alongside the finest in the world. The Old World styles tend to be rich and mouth filling, with a creamy feel, decent weight and ageing capacity, and contain flavors of pear and apricot. New World styles, on the other hand, tend to be crisper and have fresh acidity.
Also known as…Steen (South Africa), Blanc de Anjou (France), Pineau de Loire (Loire).
Putting the 'oomph' into wines like Chateauneuf du Papes and Rioja, Grenache is a major provider of weight and natural alcohol for wines. Planted all over the southern regions of France, into Spain and also the New World, it is happy anywhere that is hot and dry. Wine makers love it, as it gives good yields with fine color and plenty of power and can be a good wine to blend with. The trick with Grenache is to keep yields low to produce wonderfully full-bodied wines with 'hot' red and black fruit flavors and low acidity. Most Grenache is best drunk young, as it lacks the tannins to age. Having said this, the best examples of Grenache from France or Australia confound this rule.
Also known as…Garnacha (Spain), Grenache Noir (France), Rousillion Tinto (Spain).
From the cool of Bordeaux to the warmth of California and the wet of New Zealand, Merlot can create sumptuous wines of world-beating finesse and class. It is popular with wine lovers as it is approachable and delicious whilst still young. It gives generous amounts of leafy black currant fruits with sweet cherry and chocolate flavors without the tannins of the Cabernet Sauvignon. That said, top examples from California and Bordeaux are able to age magnificently for decades. Merlot is traditionally blended with other noble varieties but recent years have seen it come of age as a variety on its own.
Also known as…Semillon Rouge (France), Medoc Noir (Hungary), Merlau (France).
If ever there was a grape that could be said to be isolated to one place then this is it. Nebbiolo is the twisted genius of a vine behind two of Italy's finest wines - Barolo and Barbaresco. Apart from some tiny presence in California, Australia and for some extraordinary reason, Mexico, it has not been planted anywhere else. Why? Well, this tricky variety requires incredibly deft handling to create the masterpieces for which it is renowned. It gives wines of huge tannin, acid, color and a bittersweet fruitiness that are difficult to get to know, but very much worth the effort.
Also known as…Spanna (Italy), Chiavennasca (Italy).
Pinot Noir (Red)
This is the grape that has caused more gray hairs and sleepless nights for winemakers, and cries of delight and despair in equal measure from wine drinkers than any other. Pinot Noir is capable of unbelievable brilliance and beauty, yet rarely shows its full charms, even in the finest of wines. Pinot Noir is characterized by fine raspberry and cherry flavored wine with crisp acidity when it hails from the hallowed vineyards of Burgundy. In California and the New World it gives full bodied, jammy, strawberry flavors as well as giving the essential backbone and weight to Champagne. Whatever the guise, Pinot Noir is a fascinating, if often infuriating, glass full.
Also known as…Pinot Nero (Italy), Spatburgunder (Germany), Savagnin Noir (France).
Misunderstood, neglected and looked down upon, Riesling is probably the finest white grape variety on the face of the planet. Undoubtedly the best value grape variety in the world and arguably the most versatile, it is capable of wines that are dry, and in some cases frighteningly austere, as well as the most deliciously liquorous dessert wines. Riesling is reasonably fussy about where it is planted, preferring warm and well-drained sites that allow for its charms to show through. Despite its dazzling quality it is shunned, largely due to the myth that all Rieslings are sweet, and it has only been winemaker recognition of its brilliance that has kept plantings up. The shape of the wine will be largely governed by the site and situation, but it usually has fine apple notes, hints of minerals and fresh acidity. The amount of heat will govern the weight of the wine and the finest should be medium but with incredible persistence of flavor. It also has some of the best aging potential of any grape - especially the sweet wines.
Also known as…Rhine Riesling (Australia), Reno (Italy), Johannesburg (Germany).
Sauvignon Blanc (White)
This ludicrously fashionable variety has only been the flavor of the month since the good winemakers of New Zealand 're-invented' it. Wines such as Cloudy Bay gave birth to a whole new breed of wines that were gooseberry and nettle-scented, and packed with power and mouth-watering fruit that were a world away from the traditional Sauvignons of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. As well as dry wines, Sauvignon can be pressed into the service of sweet wines - it plays a major supporting role in the wines of Sauternes. It is not easy to have a catch-all description for Sauvignon Blanc - the new world wines tend towards upfront fruit with zesty 'gooseberry' and 'green peppers' and plenty of fresh acidity.
Old world ones typified by the great wines of the Loire - Sancerre and Pouilly Fume tend to be more reserved and have grassy notes with greater, yet subtler characters. The big question is can Sauvignon age? On its own, it seems to fade (those who clamber to say that Cloudy Bay ages well overlook the fact that it contains Semillon) though when blended with Semillon it can age wonderfully.
Also known as…Blanc Fume (France), Fume Blanc (USA - usually and oaked version), Muskat-Silvaner (Germany).
This is often blended in Australia with Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. In both Australia and Bordeaux, this incredibly versatile vine suffers from lack of exposure in its true form. Rather the bridesmaid and never the bride, it usually ends up blended with more famous varieties, to which it adds weight and aging potential. This is a real shame as it is a grape of character and style, with rich flavors and a creamy texture with lovely apricot, peach and dried white- fruit flavors, rather like a richer version of Chardonnay. Its lower acidity and thin skin make it perfect for the production of sweet wines, both late harvest and botrytis, indeed it is the major ingredient in the great sweet wines of Bordeaux. Some extremely fine, dry, whites are also available from Australia's Hunter Valley and Bordeaux's Graves region, which can age over many years.
Also known as…Semillon Muscat (France), Hunter Valley Riesling (Australia), Wyndruif (South Africa).
Interestingly this vine is better known for its New World incarnation than for its old world name. Shiraz has become a firm favorite of wine drinkers at all levels for its fine, spicy black fruit flavors and yet the same grape Syrah remains somewhat overlooked. Syrah and Shiraz do create very different wines. Syrah produces dark, smoldering wines that in great vineyards, such as its 'home' in the Rhone Valley, often need time to show their peppery, gamy, rather subdued natures. Shiraz on the other hand usually deigns to please from the off - giving up wonderful hot fruits and a delectable spicy character.
The two grapes do share common facets: they both love the heat, both give wines of wonderful extract and color and the finest examples of each can be extremely long lived. It would seem logical that after such a long parting Shiraz should be classed as a variety in its own right and not be constantly tagged as Shiraz (Syrah). Whilst both are undoubtedly of the same stock, in reality they share few similarities these days.
Also known as…Petite Syrah (France), Shiraz (Australia), Balsamina (Argentina).
Zinfandel (Red and White)
California's very own grape comes in an 'any color you like' form, and can be made into anything from sickly sweet rose, to hulking great reds of power and considerable charm, and even 'Port' style wine. Although associated with California, its origins are thought to be either Persian or Southern Italian (it is claimed to have close origins with the Primitivo grape of that region). Whatever the truth, Zinfandel has some of the highest sugar levels of any variety and can therefore create wines of massive proportions with the extract of fruit and color to match. The best wines tend to be enormous (often topping 15% alcohol) with fine blackberry and cherry notes and a wisp of fresh acidity that gives the wine a much-needed lift. Zinfandels can be magnificent drinking experiences, especially when approached young with suitably robust foods.
Also known as…Primitivo…allegedly thought to have originated in Italy; it actually was originated in Croatia.
Les Vins d'Alsace
Although their pairing is almost oxymoronic, the words "power" and "finesse" seem to follow each other whenever anyone discusses Alsatian wines. But I can think of no other two that characterize these luscious, quaffable wines as accurately. "Power" is often used to differentiate them from German wines to which they are frequently and perhaps unfortunately, compared. They are definitely fuller bodied and dryer, making them perfect accompaniments to fish and white meats. "Finesse" suggests the aromatic charm of their floral and fruity bouquets.
Alsatian wines are labeled after the grapes from which they are made. The major white grape varieties are:
The wines from this grape are crisp, dry, and elegant; some of the best can have the subtle bouquets and complexity of a great white Burgundy. Much drier than German Rieslings, these are ideal food wines.
Typically well-balanced, these wines offer tantalizing fruit, ranging from apples to citrus, with austere mineral undertones. Perfect with fish and chicken.
Full bodied and full flavored, these wines are spicy and perfumed. To say the least, seductive. They are best served with richer dishes such as foie gras or with spicier fare like Indian or Oriental.
Sylvaner Next to Gewurztraminer
These are light wines that are crisp and clean on the palate. An ideal wine for summer quaffing and a perfect match for oysters.
Tokay d'Alsace or Pinot Gris
Aromatic and rich. The wines can have an almost smoky bouquet, and on the palate display an opulent creamy texture. They are ideal for richer dishes made with cream sauces and are great with shellfish.
Deliciously aromatic yet dry, this wine is perfect with Indian and Oriental dishes.
Two additional terms are used to classify Alsatian wines:
Literally, "late harvest." These wines are made from grapes picked after the regular harvest and perfectly ripened. They are full bodied wines with exquisite concentration and flavor. For the most part, these are dry wines, although some will have a small amount of residual sugar.
Selection de Grains Nobles
Pure nectar without a trace of new oak. Only produced in exceptional years, these wines are truly mellifluous and exhibit sumptuous concentration and great length. They can be enjoyed upon release but will age elegantly for years.