There are a lot of different grape varieties out there and it can be a headache at the best of times trying to sort through what’s what. I can handle different names for different grapes varieties, but when they start giving different names to the same grapes, I start reaching for the bottle… and not to admire its label.
Fortunately, looking at the average supermarket wine section, we can narrow down a number of major grape varieties to a look at, so hopefully this will give you a good grounding for most wines. For this part I’ve decided to look at the grape varieties that tend to travel most around the world.
Due to the nature of this article, ‘making sense’ guide or not, it’s going to have a lot of information in it. I’ve done my best to distil down as much information as possible from sources like Wikipedia but there still no getting around the textbook nature of some of this… so please feel free to skip to the grapes you’re most interested in and leave the rest… or to ignore this entirely!
Before I get on with the article I need to explain something about the nature of red and white grapes:
It may seem obvious that white wine is made from white grapes and red wine from red ones… at least I certainly thought it was, but this isn’t always the case.
Both red and white grapes produce a white juice… the colour and the larger part of what we associate with red wines, come from the skins and stalks of red grapes and not the juice. When making red wine, the skins are left in contact with the juices for an extended length of time, allowing for tannins and other flavour enhancing compounds to add to the wine.
This means that it’s entirely possible to make a white wine with red grapes; it’s also possible to blend white grapes in when making red wines.
The next time you have a bottle of Champagne look at what grapes have used… Unless it’s ‘Blanc de Blanc’ (100% Chardonnay), the chances are that it has around 40% Pinot Noir in it, and it’s not some white variant of the grape being used either, it’s the regular red variety.
On to the grapes then:
I) Shiraz / Syrah – (SHER-azz / Cer-rah)
I thought I’d start with Shiraz because there are sometimes good reasons why grapes have alternative names, not often, but I think this is one of the exceptions.
Colour of Grape: Black skinned
Grapes Character: Shiraz is a dark skinned grape with a thick skin. It’s this depth of pigment and thickness of skin that leads to the full-bodied nature of Shiraz wines. It’s often used as both a ‘Varietal’ (single grape variety wines) and for blending with other grapes. Shiraz wines are most often described as having aromas and flavours of blackberry, pepper, chocolate and coffee. I often find that with mature cheeses I get all kinds of caramel and vanilla shining though.
Syrah is the name for Shiraz most commonly associated with wines from France. It’s the same grape, but the French style of Syrah, while still full-bodied and powerful, tends to be more elegant and subtle than its new world Shiraz counterparts. Cooler climate Syrah wines tend to allow more room for coffee and pepper to come through along side high levels tannin from those thick skins; while hotter climate Shiraz wines showcase fruit, chocolate, softer tannins and fuller body. On the whole wine makers aiming for the ‘French style’ will label the grape as Syrah and those aiming for the Australian style, Shiraz.
The differences can be so distinct that people who find they’re unable to drink Shiraz wines, due to their heavy heady nature, tend not to have an issue with Syrah’s.
Also Know as: Hermitage; Antourenein Noir; Candive; Entournerein; Hignin Noir and Marsanne Noir.
Common Blends: with Cabernet Sauvignon, with Grenache & Mourvedre (known as GSM in Australia), with Viognier (a white grape!).
Classic Countries & Regions: France (Northern & Southern Rhone & Languedoc-Roussillon); Australia (Barossa/Hunter Valleys & McLaren Vale)
II) Chardonnay – (CHAR-donn-ay)
Chardonnay has been saddled with a bad repetition, one way or another, but regardless of this many of the worlds finest wines are Chardonnays. Champagne is either wholly or largely Chardonnay; White Burgundy and Chablis etc. are Chardonnay… and that’s just some France’s most revered wines. I think its high time we re-establish Chardonnay as one the greatest of the white grape varieties.
Colour of Grape: Green skinned, turns golden closer to harvest.
The Grapes Character: Chardonnay is often described being a very neutral grape and allows for a lot of outside influences to effect it’s characteristics. This may sound bad but in truth allows the grape to be versatile. It allows the wine maker to shape and control the style of wine they’re after more than with other grape varieties. It has a way of reflecting the terrain it’s grown in and responds well to ageing in oak.
For example: in cooler climates, left un-oaked, the grape is able to produce light, crispy high acidity wines that show citrus, apple and mineral characteristics. If oak is used then the richness increases to a full-bodied style and creamy, buttery, caramel and nutty characteristics come out on top in the wine.
In warmer climates: even un-oaked the grapes tend to produce a more full-bodied style, but now we get more peach, pineapple, tropical fruit characteristics. Add the oak ageing to that and we get the creamy, buttery, vanilla characteristics on top.
Also Know as: Auxois, Auxois blanc, Beaunois, Blanc de Champagne, Blanc de Cremant, Chablis, Feinburgunder, Gamay blanc…
Many of it’s alternative names have gone out of usage, as the name of Chardonnay has become a household name around the world over the years, but I’ve listed some of the more common alternatives above.
Common Blends: It blends with most other white varieties but commonly with Viognier; Chenin Blanc; Colombard and Sémillon. For Champagne it’s blended with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (Both Red Grapes!).
Classic Countries & Regions: France (Burgundy, Champagne & Chablis); USA (Carneros, Sonoma, Washington state); Australia (Hunter Valley & Adelaide Hills); New Zealand (Hawke’s Bay & Wairarapa); Argentina (Uco Valley); Chile (Casablanca, Lamari)
III) Pinot Noir – (PEE-no NWAR)
Pinot Noir has received lots of love over the last decade, as customers have discovered the intense fruit driven interpretations of it from the new world and from New Zealand in particular. It’s one of those grape varieties that really showcase the variety available between the old and new world styles.
Colour of Grape: Black skinned
The Grapes Character: Pinot Noir, like Chardonnay, is a grape that’s very expressive and allows both the terrain and the wine maker a significant influence over the finished wine. Unlike Chardonnay, However, Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to grow and cultivate. The vines are more susceptible to disease than other varieties and the grapes themselves have very thin skins and grow in tight bunches leading to more spoilage on the vine. So finding Pinot Noir, outside of its heartland in France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions, used to be rare. But since it was discovered how well the grape would grow in New Zealand, and the resulting surge in interest in their wines, production has picked up around the world.
Thanks largely to the thinness of its skin; the grape produces light to medium-light bodied red wines, but with a great variety of aroma and flavour characteristics. Old world styles like French Burgundies show a lighter more elegant style with a savoury/gamey character; whereas the New world styles like New Zealand tend to be more powerfully fruity. Both Old and New World styles can vary from those higher in acidity and sharpness to those finely balanced. So it can be hard to pine down the unique characteristics of Pinot Noir, but in general it can be said to produce wines that show strawberry, red cherry, rose and raspberry characteristics.
Also Know as: Spätburgunder (Germany), Blauburgunder (Austria) & Pinot Nero (Italy).
Other grapes with ‘Pinot’ in the title, like Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris, are varieties in themselves. They do trace their origins back to Pinot Noir though, more on that under the Pinot Grigio entry.
Common Blends: often blended with the following grapes for making sparkling wines, Chardonnay (white); Pinot Meunier (red); Chenin Blanc (white); Cabernet Franc (red).
Classic Countries & Regions: France (Burgundy, Champagne & Sancerre); New Zealand (Central Otago, Canterbury, Marlborough, Martinborough); Australia (Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills); USA (California, Oregon)
IV) Sauvignon Blanc – (soh-vihn-YOHN BLAHNK)
Sauvignon Blanc is the grape that brought New Zealand wines to the world’s attention over last decade or so, those from the Marlborough region in particular. So in a way we can thank Sauvignon Blanc for the resurgence of Pinot Noir mentioned above.
Colour of Grape: Green skinned.
The Grapes Character: Sauvignon Blanc grapes produce crisp fresh wines that are much higher in acidity than those made with Chardonnay. The characteristics brought out in the grapes depend again largely on the climate and terrain involved, but they are more likely to retain these characteristics throughout the wine making process than Chardonnay is.
The French terrain and climate produces Sauvignon Blanc’s that tend to be light and more elegant than their new world counterparts and as such are much more reflective of their terrain. The New Zealand new world styles of Sauvignon Blanc have a far more powerful fruit and herb character to them.
The French style leans more towards gooseberry, citrus, melon & grass (with a gunflint minerality coming our in the finer wines from the Loire). The New Zealand style leans more towards asparagus, tropical fruit, passion fruit and hedge!
Also Know as: Fumé Blanc (USA), Muskat-Silvaner (Germany & Austria), Blanc Fume (France), and Bordeaux Bianco…
As with Chardonnay there’s a huge list of alternate names for Sauvignon Blanc, so I’ve listed the more common.
Common Blends: White Bordeaux (with Sémillon); Sauternes (with Sémillon & Muscadelle)
Classic Countries & Regions: France (Loire Valley – Pouilly Fumé & Sancerre, Bordeaux – Graves, Sauternes); New Zealand (Marlborough, Waipara & Hawke’s Bay); Australia (Margaret River, Adelaide Hills); Chile (Casablanca, San Antonio); South Africa (Constantia, Coastal Region, Elgin, Elim, Durbanville); USA (Coastal, Napa Valley)
That’s it for Part 1 of this article; In part 2 I’ll be looking at the following grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; Grenache; Pinot Grigio, Tempranillo & Sangiovese.