By The Wine Baron, Publisher of WineAndLeisure.com
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|Definition: Varietal refers to a wine made from a grape variety like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay. Wine is a cultural thing. The interesting rituals involved in choosing a wine, opening the bottle, swirling, tasting and food-pairing.
… but we don’t like to take wine too seriously in a stuffy way – it’s just a lot of fun and the subject gets more interesting every time we dig some more.
If you have a very basic knowledge of wine, this section may be for you.
Theoretically, wine can be made from just about anything that ferments. But let’s begin with the kind made with grapes.
Most grapes used for winemaking are from one of two basic families: Vitis Vinifera, (originally from Europe, know as noble grapes) or Vitis Labrusca, (originating in the new world). The varieties of grapes in these two families are in the thousands.
Here’s a selective list.
Wine Varietals (classic “textbook” tasting characteristics in brackets)
Very widely planted in Italy; more than Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, Barbera is a grape known for its tarry character and low-tannins.
Cabernet Franc (herbal notes / tobacco)
Closely related to the familiar Cabernet Sauvignon, this grape is being used in the states to make some very interesting wines. It is traditionally used in France as a blending partner in wines, particularly to modulate the character of Bordeaux wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon (black currants, cassis, cherry, cedar and spice)
There can be some confusion for a novice. In the US, people refer to a wine as a Cabernet, or a Pinot Noir. This is the varietal. In France, one refers to a nice Bordeaux, meaning a wine which is usually composed mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, but is grown in the region called Bordeaux. Often called the king of wine grapes, this varietal is rich in tannins, and provides the strength and complexity necessary to make a wine that’s good for aging in a cellar.
Chardonnay (wide variations; vanilla, tropical fruit, nuts, subtle apples and butter)
It is the primary white wine of Burgundy. One of the more popular wines in America. This is the grape likely responsible for opening America’s eyes to the possibility of a wine other than “Chablis” or “Burgundy.” Other than its home in Burgundy, the best Chards come from Washington State, Niagara Ontario and the cooler regions of California. You can find it un-oaked, allowing the native characteristics of the grape to shine, or aged in French oak barrels or American oak. French oak imparts a milder flavor than American. Watch for distinct aromas and flavors of butter in most Chardonnays.
A red-wine grape found in small vineyards in California. Could be a clone of the Douce Noir grape found in the Savoie region of France, better known as the Dolcetto grape widely grown in northern Italy.
Chenin Blanc (muted; orange, pine, bread)
With a light fruity character, this is the main component of Vouvray, and is grown in California, South Africa (it’s called Steen there) and the Loire Valley in France. This is one white wine grape that is capable of showing well at an age of more than several years.
A close relative of Pinotage. It does well in Southern France, Lebanon, Australia and South Africa, and is used most commonly for blending with more robust grapes to change the character of the wine.
Gamay (strawberries and raspberries)
The primary grape in red wine from the Beaujolais region of France, it’s more fruity, less tannic, and not as “big” as a grape like Cabernet. Not only a fun new wine, be sure to get to know the older Gamays from Beaujolais. They’re wonderful.
Gewürztraminer (lychees, grapefruit rind)
This grape has made a significant foray into the North American market. It’s considered a “hip” choice. The name means “spice” in German. It can have a peppery, floral, or nutty character. Originating in Germany and Austria, it’s also grown in Italy, California, Niagara Canada and Australia.
Grenache is often used for rosé wine, and is common in France, Spain and California. Light in tannins, it produces a lighter-bodied, fruity wine.
Grüner Veltliner (citrus, grapefruit with floral aroma)
Gruvee!!! A very exciting white-wine grape grown in Austria. This is the “new white” wine you should get to know! These are fresh, fruity, whites. Also known as Veltliner.
Merlot (plums, blueberries and cherries)
Merlot has become hugely popular as a wine of its own, though traditionally, it has been used for blending with other grapes to shape the character of a wine. This is a friendly wine to everyone’s palate, even a newcomer to the wine scene. It can offer up some rich berry, honey, or mint, and is not as tannic as a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Malbec (ripe berries, powerful fruity flavors)
This grape variety has been an important blending partner in Bordeaux along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and others. It has become the most popular red in Argentina, and now Chile is also getting in the act. It’s an amazing red! Deep color, ripe berry aromas and powerful fruity flavors.
Muscadelle (perfume, acacia)
A white grape variety from the Bordeaux region of France. Perfume and acacia aromas and flavors. It is a blending partner with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc in Graves and surrounding appellations, most famously in Sauternes. This grape matures quickly and is quickly affected by noble rot (botrytis). It is not among the Muscat family.
This is a very grapey-tasting grape that doesn’t ripen easily. Muscat is the grape used for Asti Spumanti, the sparkling wine from Italy. Note that Muscat has nothing to do with Muscatel.
Nebbiolo is the predominant grape in the Piedmont area of Italy, where Barolo is made. It’s also grown in Switzerland, California and Australia. Its main characteristics would be that of tannic, prune, and chocolate.
Often confused with /Syrah/Shiraz (more on this in a later piece) the petite syrah typically makes a tannic wine which can be chocolaty and/or smoky, while still possessing some rich fruit.
Predominant in Alsace, Italy, and Austria, this grape suggests some of the character of Chardonnay, and is often used to make sparkling wines. It is related to the Pinot Gris.
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio (minerals, orange rind, pine)
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are actually the same white grape. Two different names. In Italy and California it’s known as Grigio, and in Oregon and France it’s known as Gris. Other regions use the terms interchangeably. This is a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape, which is red. Pinot Blanc is not the same as Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio – it is a further mutation of this varietal. The Italian version is typically dry and light, with a mineral taste to it. California’s output can be richer in flavor, but still have the mineral taste. Often, they finish with a lemony or citrus flavor. French Pinot Gris wines usually come from the Alsace region. These are more fruity and flowery, though they still have that mineral aroma. Flavors can range from peach to grapefruit to melon. It’s also known as Rulander or Grauer Burgunder. It can be used to create both fine whites and rosés.
Pinot Noir (cherries, raspberries and smoke)
The premier red-wine grape of the Burgundy region of France. It produces a red wine that is light in color compared to other reds. Also grown in cooler regions of North America. Excellent Pinot Noir is coming out of Oregon and Ontario Canada. Characteristics: cherry, mint and berries, such as raspberry or strawberry.
Developed in the early twentieth century and used primarily in South African wines, Pinotage is a mix between pinot noir and Cinsault. The grape makes a wine that is hearty, with a fruity and spice taste.
Riesling (citrus, apricots, peaches and floral)
Riesling deserves another try. Gone are the days when they were all quite sweet and one-dimensional. Look for the rebirth of this fine varietal, especially out of Canada! The Riesling grape is believed to be indigenous to Austria and Germany, and has been planted there for almost 1,000 years. Riesling does very well in central Europe, Canada and in California, and is also grown in Australia and New Zealand. Riesling is affected by where it is grown – New World Rieslings (California and Canada) are dry and have the taste of melons, while German Rieslings are more tart like Grapefruit. Riesling goes very well with oriental dishes. It also goes well with seafood of all types, and is one of the few wines that goes well with chocolate. It is also great on its own, as a dessert wine. In Niagara Ontario, Riesling is used in the creation of Ice Wines, as are Vidal grapes.
Sangiovese (cherries, raisins, earth and violets)
A red-wine grape grown in the Tuscany region of Italy. Used to make Chianti and other Tuscan reds. Some versions (clones) include Sangiovese Grosso, and Sangiovese Piccolo. Also grown in California where it is used to produce up-and-coming medium-bodied reds with rich cherry or plum-like tones.
See Sangiovese. Also known as the Prugnolo Gentile grape. Blended with Canaiolo Nero to create Chianti. The Brunello variety is used for the dark red, slow-maturing Brunello di Montalcino.
Sauvignon Blanc (cut grass, lemon and herbs)
A popular alternative to Chardonnay. It makes a crisp, light wine. Sauvignon Blanc has been produced for many years in France, and came to California in the late 1800’s. Sauvignon Blanc has herbal flavors, olive and a soft, smoky flavor. They can range from sweet to dry, but are typically quite light. American Sauvignon Blanc is often quite prominently “grassy” whereas the Canadian and New Zealand versions are often more balanced and pleasant. This is also a principle variety in Sauternes, the elegant dessert wine from the area of the same name in Bordeaux. The other blending partners are Semillon (see below) and a bit of Muscadelle. The finest of all are from South Styria (Süd Steiermark), Austria.
Semillon (figs, lemon and honey)
This is an early-ripening grape which is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. It is the primary grape in White Bordeaux wines, notably also in Sauternes. It also has a grassy character. As table wines, some interesting versions have been coming out Australia and New Zealand these days.
Seyval is an “East Coast US and Canada” wine, and is one of the most widely planted grapes east of the Rocky Mountains in the US. Wines from this grape can have melon-like flavors, as well as grassy/hay overtones.
Syrah / Shiraz (prunes, spices and berries)
It is known in France and California as Syrah, and in Australia as Shiraz. The Rhône region of France has grown it for centuries. You can get some very nice Rhône wines that are 100% Syrah. Syrah can possess a mineral, blueberry, or sometimes spicy/peppery flavor. Some remarkable wines are being produced in Australia, Ontario and South Africa with this grape.
Tempranillo (virtually no fruit, leather, spice, raisins)
Most commonly from the Rioja region of Spain. We simply love this varietal. It is a pleasant sipping wine and is very nice with roasted meats.
Viognier (apricots, peaches and wood)
This rare varietal originated in Condrieu, on the northern Rhône. It is predominantly found in the Rhône valley and California. In addition to the textbook flavors noted above, you may also detect aromas or flavors of spice, floral, citrus and apple. It typically produces medium bodied wines with relatively high acids and fruit. Viognier can produce fairly complex wines.
Zinfandel (blackberry jam and black pepper)
An important red-wine grape grown mostly in California. This variety produces robust reds and is also made into the popular blush wines (white zinfandel). It may have been developed from an earlier varietal from southern Italy. We heartily recommend red Zin as a great alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon because you can get good value for the money. It’s spicy, peppery qualities and dark color make it a pleaser.
Or “Blauer Zweigelt” is a red varietal that originally comes from Austria. A full bodied wine with light spice, firm tannins and light acidity. This hybrid is a 20th century cross of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. Zweigelt, like Zinfandel, is a grape of real potential. Both are cultivated primarily in one part of the world but could do as well elsewhere. Niagara Canada is starting to produce Zweigelt wines and should do well, given that their climate is similar to Austria’s.
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