The 12 Most Popular Wine Varietals
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 ageing 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, tends 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 ageing potential of any grape - especially the sweet wines.
Also known as…Rhine Riesling (Australia et al), Reno (Italy), Johannisberger (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 ageing 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 et al), 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.
Note: Zinfandel is 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.
Next to Gewurztraminer, an innocent. 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.
Basic Wine Terms
Words to describe what you may see in wine:
The appearance of bubbles in a still wine is usually indicative of the presence of carbon dioxide left over from fermentation, or even intentionally dissolved into white wine to enhance “freshness." It may, however, be an effect of some microbial process occurring in the bottle, and would usually be coupled with other sensory issues. It is never welcomed in red wine.
Wine should be clear, without films, haze, or particulate matter. Some wine that is not highly filtered prior to bottling may have a slight haze or dullness that does not detract from the other qualities of the wine. Red wines that have aged for a period of time may develop a deposit of sediment in the bottle, which is normal, and if not properly decanted, may show up in the glass as haze or particles. Some wines which have been chilled for a long time may develop crystals in the bottle which will either stick to the cork, or drift down the bottom. These Potassium Bitartrate crystals, or Cream of Tarter, are harmless, and do not affect the flavor of the wine.
When young, many red wines have significant proportions of blue coloration, making them appear purple. Some reds are typically lighter in color, and therefore should not be considered lacking; Pinot Noir and Gamay are good examples. However, pale colored Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon is another matter, and your experience will guide you. Older reds begin to take on tawny/orange hues, but these colors should not be expected in young reds. Brown is the end point in ageing; usually the wine is dead by then.
Extremely pale, even colorless wines are often typical of underripe grapes. Greenish hues also may indicate immaturity at harvest. Light straw yellow through medium gold is the usual colors of young whites. Deep gold is found in dessert/late harvest whites, wines that have been matured for a time in oak barrels, and aged whites. Amber/tawny colors occur with further age, but are not to be expected in young wines, with the exception of sherry and other intentionally oxidized styles.
The streams of wine down the inside of a glass after it has been swirled. Not at all a sign of quality, but a general relation to the alcohol content of the wine. The thinner the streams, the higher the alcohol. Basically this isn't anything to talk about in terms of knowledge.
Words to describe what you may smell in wine:
The primary smell of the young wine, including its varietal aroma (the smell that the characteristic grapes bring to the wine) and its fermentation aroma (the smell that the wine making gives to the wine, such as barrel aromas, yeasty aromas, etc).
The complex smell that develops as the various aromas of the young wine mingle and mature in the bottle as it ages. Also known as bottle bouquet.
May include smells that are unpleasant, but usually limited to wine flaws such as the pungency of Sulfur Dioxide (like a burnt match head), Hydrogen Sulfide (rotten eggs), cork taint (like a moldy cellar), vinegar, Ethyl Acetate (nail polish remover), etc.
Words to describe what you may feel or taste in wine:
Strictly used in reference to a specific wine flaw, the presence of vinegar, or acetic acid.
Generally means too much acid.
The degree to which a wine has sourness, or tartness, a taste perceived on the tongue. Derived from natural grape acids, primarily tartaric and malic, but may also include lactic and acetic from microbial action, whether intentional or otherwise.
A young wine that has not yet mellowed as perhaps it should have or a wine can be aggressively acidic, tannic, etc.
Essential component of wine which gives a sense of sweetness, especially in dry wine, and contributes to body and length of finish. Can be noticed as warmth in the back of the throat. Big is a term used often to describe a wine high in alcohol, usually also heavy in body. Too much alcohol in a wine makes it hot.
Plenty of aromas (the opposite of reticent).
A drawing, puckering, tactile sensation caused by grape and oak tannins that are an essential part of wine flavor. Mostly observed in the front of the mouth, on the teeth, gums, lips, etc. Usually more present in red wine than white. Tannic is another term for astringency.
Tough and unforgiving, perhaps too young, too dry, or too tannic.
Flavors of cooked fruit, a lack of freshness, with a characteristic caramel/prune/raisin odor.
Refers to all of a wine's components of acidity, alcohol, sweetness, astringency, and flavor (odors perceived in the mouth along with taste) are harmonious; no single component is obtrusive.
The degree to which a wine tastes bitter, noticed at the back of the tongue. Not necessarily a positive quality, but typically present in some young red wines, and certain white varietals.
Refers to the viscosity of a wine. Some things that may affect body include alcohol content, oak ageing, and residual sugar.
Used to describe wines that are much too sweet.
A descriptor used for an unbalanced wine with too much alcohol, tannin, etc.
A sense of both the richness and oiliness of cream; strictly textural.
A term generally used to describe a wine with pleasant or adequate acidity.
Generally a reference to color depth, but sometimes of depth of flavor.
Said of the fruit qualities of a wine too old and lacking.
Describes wines that have no sweetness. Dry is the opposite of sweet. Not to be confused with the drying effect of astringency.
A wine that seems to increase in flavor in your mouth, especially about mid-way through.
The final taste of a wine, after spitting or swallowing. A wine that is long has a finish that is prolonged, while a wine that is short fades quickly.
Flat or Flabby
Terms used to describe a wine that does not have enough acidity.
Odors perceived in the mouth coupled with taste.
A wine that seems giving and relatively mature at a young age for its type.
Self descriptive, but don't confuse with sweetness.
Used to describe an overly acidic wine, especially reminding one of the tastes of unripe fruit.
Flavors and especially aromas pleasant and reminiscent of herbs (sage, thyme, etc.).
Lacking breadth of flavors.
Means a richness and concentration of flavors that seem to fill the whole mouth.
Sturdy, full bodied wine, especially red.
A smooth, soft edged wine, more ready to drink.
All wines contain a certain amount of acids in the form of salts, which contribute in a small way to the taste of wine. High pH wines sometimes seem “salty,” but it is a rare tasting note.
A subjective descriptor of texture.
One dimensional flavor, no complexity, a quaffer.
Refers to dissolved CO2. Pubescence of intensely matted, woolly hairs covering a leaf surface
Related to balance; all of the in mouth basic impressions of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, along with alcohol, body, etc., but in absence of the more complex, organoleptic impressions detectable by the olfactory bulb. In other words, everything but the aroma.
This can mean a wine a bit too sweet, or just a wine that seems a bit sweet, but may not be.
The degree to which a wine tastes sweet. Sweetness is tasted on the tongue. Residual sugar also can change the viscosity of a wine, making it richer. The impression of sweetness comes from either sugars, or alcohol, or both, and can be altered in relationship to the presence of acidity.
Typically used to describe a wine that is perhaps a bit too acidic.
One's sense of taste is limited to those sensations that the taste buds can perceive; sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoryness. There are also tactile sensations in the mouth, such as temperature, viscosity, etc. Flavor is really a combination of taste and aroma as perceived in the mouth.
A pronounced quality of strong herbaceousness in generally unpleasant proportions. Flavors and aromas of wilting or half-cooked green bell peppers, asparagus, green beans, etc.
Much like silky, perhaps richer.
Varietal designations are the names of the dominant grapes used in the bottle of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, Seyval, Riesling, Cayuga White, Pinot Noir, Baco Noir, Chancellor and Chenin Blanc are examples of grape varieties. A varietal designation on the label requires an appellation of origin and means that at least 75% of that grape variety is used in the wine.
Wine made from “Vitis labrusca” grapes – such as Concord – is an exception because of the grape’s intense flavor. These wines must contain a minimum of 51% of the grape variety, and it will be so stated on the label. If the label carries no varietal percentage statement, the wine must contain at least 75% of the “labrusca variety." Wine labels are not required to bear a varietal designation.