In order to feel comfortable navigating the wine world, the basic information in this post is what one should commit to memory. There is so much more to be said about each of these grapes and regions; if you are interested in learning more about each grape, its origins and its flavor profiles, the “Variety Focus” portion of this website is a wealth of knowledge.
A quick note: although I am not a huge fan of using descriptors, particularly ones that are over-the-top words for something as (I feel) humble as wine, these simple descriptors are here just to help give you a general idea of the taste of the wines made from these varietals.
Major Wine Varietals and Regions
Any wine that contains bubbles of carbon dioxide gas is considered a sparkling wine, but technically, only those wines from France’s Champagne region can be called “champagne.”
How does wine get its bubbles? There are four ways of infusing the wine with gas: methode champenoise, the transfer method, the charmat process, (aka bulk process), and the least popular, carbonation.
Methode champenoise, which is France’s champagne region’s primary method, requires a second fermentation in the bottle, and then the bottles must be turned periodically to ensure proper aging and fermentation. It produces small, refined bubbles, and produces bubbles for much longer than the other methods. Today, the bottles are usually turned mechanically; traditionally, they were turned by hand. It produces small, beautiful bubbles.
In the transfer method, wine is produced similarly to the methode champenoise, but after the bottle fermentation, the wine is placed through a filtration system to remove any sediment.
In the charmat process, pressurized tanks hold in the carbon dioxide that is released during fermentation, so that the gas which normally escapes instead stays inside the wine. This process is cheaper, but once poured, the wine tends to lose its bubbles quicker.
In the least popular method, carbonation, the wine is injected with carbon dioxide. It is the most inexpensive method, and produces larger bubbles that quickly loose their effervescence. I have a funny feeling that it is this process which leads to the “cheap wine = a massive headache” adage.
The majority of sparkling wines, (particularly those from France’s Champagne region), are made from Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir grapes (and sometimes a phenomenal grape called Pinot Menuier); both Pinot Noir and Pinot Menuier are red grapes, and leaving their skins in the tanks will create a light pink to deep red colored blush wine, known as “blanc de noir.” Sparkling wine made from all white grapes is known as “blanc de blanc,” which literally translates as “white wine from white grapes.”
When drinking sparkling wines, look for general flavors like citrus, (or lemon), honey, apple, toast, and yeast.
Sparkling wines will be dry or sweet depending on how much residual sugar they contain. The absolute driest wine is labeled “extra brut.” They are drier than wines labeled “extra dry” or “extra sec” because they contain less residual sugar. Next in line comes “demi-sec” and then “doux.” The last two are considered dessert wines.
Popular White Wines
Also known as “Pinot Gris,” (“gris” is French for gray, you’ll notice that the wine will have a slightly gray tint to it), these wines can vary from the crisp, light, and dry Italian Pinot Gris to the more rich, honey flavored French “Alsatian” style wines (wines made from the Alsace region). U.S. and California Pinot Grigios are rare, and they vary in style from winery to winery. I think that they are perfect for hot summer days.
Riesling is known for its balance of acid and sugar levels, making it sweet, but also a great pairing for many dishes. They generally have a spicy, fruity flavor, (mainly peach and apricot fruits), and possess a floral bouquet on the nose, and then a long finish.
There are many different styles of Rieslings, from dry to very sweet. German style Rieslings tend to be sweeter, which California Rieslings can vary from the more German style to a dry and oaky wine. Generally, Ca produces lighter Rieslings with a medium sweetness. Rieslings also make for a great late harvest dessert wine.
The word “gewurtz” means “spiced” in German, and that’s what you should think of when you think of Gewurztraminer. Although the wine is sweeter, (and people often group them with Rieslings), Gewurztraminer holds its own because it offers a crispness and a spice alongside its floral attributes. Many Gewurztraminers have rose and floral notes, with clove and nutmeg qualities.
Like Riesling, Gewurztraminer wines can vary in levels of sweetness, from dry to medium-sweet to late harvest. It’s best when drunk young.
When you think of the Sauvignon Blanc grape, one thing should always come to mind: acidity. Most Sauvignon Blancs possess this quality, and many also have prominent crispness, and grassy and herbaceous flavors. (Grass may sound like a weird descriptor, but trust me, when a Sauvignon Blanc possess this quality, it is unmistakable. Another weird SB descriptor? CAT PEE. But it is unmistakable when it is present in a glass). Hopefully I haven’t turned you off to this grape by using these odd descriptors!
Sauvignon Blanc is another dominant grape in France. It is the most prominent white grape in France’s Bordeaux region. Often, the French mix it with the Semillon grape—a dry, white grape that is grown in the same region—and age it in oak barrels. Those are the characteristics of a Bordeaux style white wine.
Robert Mondavi began aging his Sauvignon Blancs in oak, which can take away from the crispness. He called this “new” wine Fume Blanc, but it is actually just the Sauvignon Blanc grape that has been fermented in a different style. The alternative is fermenting the wine in steel, which can give the wine that “mineral” quality that steel tanks often lend to a wine. However it is made, whether it’s crisp and acidic or slightly oaked, Sauvignon Blanc is the second best selling grape in California, second only to Chardonnay.
Chardonnay gained its reputation from the French Burgundy region, but the Burgundy and the stereotypical “California style” Chardonnays are very different. Typically, the grape produces butter, cream, nutty, smoky, vanilla, and oak flavors, which can usually be found alongside apple, lemon/citrus, melon and pineapple fruit flavors. A typical “California style” Chardonnay will have a lot of oak flavor to it, while the Burgundy style Chardonnays will be more crisp, and you will find a lot more of the fruit coming through. This is only a generalization, of course: there are many California wineries producing a Burgundy style Chardonnay.
Chardonnay fermented solely in steel tanks will be very crisp and can sometimes have a mineral/steel flavor to them. If you are not a fan of this traditional, oaky California style, then I suggest searching out a Chardonnay that has been fermented in steel tanks, or perhaps aged in oak only slightly after fermentation.
Just like Chardonnay is associated with the Burgundy region of France, Viognier is also associated with a specific region in France: the Rhone region. The Rhone River itself begins in the Swiss Alps and goes throughout France, and along its river are some great growing regions, including the Rhone region, which obviously gets its name from the river that runs through it. Viogier is the primary white grape for the Rhone region, and it is often the primary grape in Rhone blends. To learn more about Rhone blends, you should look up the other two predominant grapes from the same region: Marsanne and Roussanne.
Viognier is a dry, full bodied white wine, but its flavors differ from that of the Chardonnay grape. Viogniers tend to have more floral notes, with apricot, pear and peach fruits as opposed to the apple/melon flavors of the Chardonnay grape. It’s sometimes blended with Syrah, which is a typical practice in France.
Common Red Wines
Like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir gained its reputation from France’s Burgundy region. The two grapes grow well in very similar climates and soils, and you will often see that a winery which produces Pinot Noir will also produce Chardonnays. Of all the grapes, Pinot Noir seems to be one of the most complex, and for many different reasons, it can vary in flavor from vintage to vintage, as well as from year to year as it ages. It is known as a very difficult grape to grow: it needs a long, cool growing season, which cannot always be promised to growers, even in the Burgundy region. But when the climate is right, Pinots can be worth every penny of their often expensive price tag.
Pinots age quite complexly: when they’re young, they have very simple light fruit characteristics, like strawberry, cherries, plums, and raspberries. As they age, the flavors become much more complex, and you’ll find chocolate, game, figs, prunes, leather, and smoke.
Also like Chardonnay, there is a typical “French” style and then a bolder stereotypical “California” style Pinot Noir. French (or Burgundy) style Pinots are lighter, often have less alcohol, and less fruit. They are milder and pair well with many dishes. California-style Pinots, on the other hand, have bolder fruits and flavors. There are many areas in California which produce great Pinots, some of the more popular are the Carneros and Russian River Valleys, (both in Napa), and some up-and-coming areas are Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. We also have some Oregon and Alexander Valley Pinots on the list: you’ll notice that each of these areas are coastal, which makes sense: the climates of each of these areas are ideal for growing Pinot Noir because the coastal fog gives the area the coolness needed to grow great Pinots.
The Sangiovese grape, according to Italian growing standards, is the dominant grape in all Chianti wines. The Sangiovese grape is the most popularly planted grape in Italy. I like to think of it as the ultimate table wine, because the mildness of the Sangiovese grape makes it a crowd pleaser. Most Sangioveses have medium alcohol levels, medium to high tannins, and high acidity. The acidity makes them pair really well with the acidity of tomato-based dishes. Sangioveses tend to have medium fruit levels as well. Think of them as an overall “medium” wine: if it had a personality, it would be level-headed and easy-going.
Zinfandel is the second most planted grape in California, (outgrown only by Cabernet Sauvignon), but because it is not found in many other places in the world, it is known as a mainly California grape. (In fact, it is the official “rustic” grape of California, but not “the” official grape: Cab producers would not allow Zinfandel to hold this title).
Zinfandel is a fun grape because it can vary so much in flavor and structure. Some Zins are light and fruity; others are very hearty, with big berry flavors and/or pepper, high tannins and alcohol, and a full body that places them in the realm of full-bodied wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Just as California tends to make other wines with very big, bold flavors—like we saw with Chardonnays and Pinots—California Zins can often be very fruity and high in alcohol. On the nose, you can easily detect this alcohol: there is a “heat” in the aroma that is a tell-tale sign of a wine that is high in alcohol. And, (in case anyone cares), a scientist from Davis–in conjunction with two scientists from the University of Zagreb–recently discovered that the Zinfandel grape originated in (of all places!) Croatia. I recently met the Croatian scientists, Ivan Pejic and Edi Maletic, that made this discovery… very cool!
The traditional Syrah gained its reputation in the Rhone region of France (note that this is the same region which the white grape Viognier gained its reputation: think of Syrah as Viognier’s red counterpart; and note that French vintners often add a little Viognier to their Syrahs). The Rhone region also grows a few other grapes, and a combination of some or all of these are known as a Rhone blend.
When young, Syrahs are tannic, very peppery, and can have tar and spice qualities. When they age, they mature into a wine with dark fruits like blackberries, plums and cherries, and tar flavors are replaced with subtle smokiness.
Syrah is the most widely planted grape in Australia, where they often label it “Shiraz.” It is technically the same grape, but be cautious: the grape is often vinified (another word for grown/produced) into a very different tasting wine. Australian wines are typically very fruity, (they have gained the nickname ”fruit bombs”).
There are actually both red and white Grenache grapes. The red Grenache’s formal name is “Grenache Noir,” but it is usually referred to as simply “Grenache,” while the white grape is distinguished by the title “Grenache Blanc.” We are focusing only on the characteristics of the red wine, or Grenache Noir.
Grenache grows well in hot climates. Hot climates usually mean wines with higher alcohol content. As the sun ripens the grapes, it converts the sugars, and in fermentation, the sugars are converted to alcohol. Therefore, higher sugar equals more alcohol, and Grenache grapes + hot climate = high alcohol wines.
By itself, Grenache is usually a lighter bodied wine. But, like every other wine, there are always exceptions to the rules. There are some heavier, more full-bodied Grenaches currently in production. Usually, they are sweet, fruity, and have minimal tannins.
Like Syrahs, Mourvedres produce spicy, peppery wines. They can be a bit tannic themselves, which is why they are often blended with other wines. They add body and a little bite to Rhone blends.
Poor Petite Syrah. For the longest time, no one knew of its origins. In fact, it has been confused with many other grapes. And because of the name, people have often grouped it with Syrah and assumed that Petite Syrah was simply a lighter version of its full bodied, peppery counterpart. These days, we know better. Through DNA testing, we now know that Petite Syrah is actually the offspring of Syrah: the Syrah grape was once crossed with another grape, called Peloursin, to create the grape that we know as Petite Syrah.
Its origins (and its name) should not fool you: just because the grape is called “petite” doesn’t mean that its flavor is small. In fact, Petite Syrah has the potential to be one of the most full bodied grapes. It’s dark color, (sometimes compared to ink), and its dark fruit, plus its bold tannins and pepper flavor, (which it probably gets from its Syrah father), gives the wine a unique and distinguished flavor.
QUICK NOTE: Rhone Reds
You may remember the Rhone region from the description of the white wine, Viognier. The Rhone is also known for its red wines, and the mixture of the wines grown in the Rhone region is known as a “Rhone blend.” The following wines: Grenache, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Terret Noir are all components of some Rhone blends.
The French use it as a blending grape, but Americans love it by itself. Merlot gained a bad reputation after the movie Sideways, but there are some producers that have mastered Merlot production, and produce high-quality Merlot wines. Of course, with wine, it’s all subjective.
Although it is one of the fuller-bodied wines, Merlot has lower tannins and higher sugar levels than its blending counterpart, Cabernet Sauvignon. They are rounder wines and much fruiter, with dark fruits like blackcurrant. While Cabernets age well, Merlots can be drank much younger.
Although its name is “petite,” this wine has very bold qualities: full-bodied, peppery, and spicy, with high alcohol and tannins, it adds flavor and a beautiful dark color to Bordeaux blends.
Dark, full-flavored and tannic, Malbec adds structure and body to Bordeaux wines. However, it is also grown by itself. Some California producers have begun producing 100% Malbecs. They are a fun alternative to other full bodied wines. Argentina has put itself on the map with these wines, which seem to thrive in the dry climate at the foot of the Andes mountain range.
Cabernet France possesses many of the same qualities as the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, but on a milder level. It is a little less full-bodied, has lower tannins and acids, but it also has a stronger aroma and more herbaceous qualities. It is rarely grown by itself but some producers do bottle predominantly Cabernet Franc wines. Generally, its blended with other Bordeaux grapes.
Here is a tidbit of information for you: here at UCDavis, the Viticulture and Enology department concluded, (through DNA analysis), that Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. They think that this crossing occurred naturally. So now you know. J
Cabernet is one of the most popular grapes in the world. And it has most certainly put the Napa Valley on the map for wine growing. In fact, it is the most widely planted grape in California. It thrives in hot temperatures, which makes it a successful planting in many parts of the world, including Australia and Chile.
QUICK NOTE: Bordeaux Blends
There is one more important region/blend for you to learn about: the Bordeaux region, and its famous blends. Some of the most famous grapes come from this region: you will probably find many of the names very familiar.
Another reason that Cabernet Sauvignon is so successful is because it ages so well. Their high acidity and tannins help the aging process. Cabs really do get better with time, and after aging, can exhibit cherry, black cherry, currant, and raspberry fruits, with other interesting flavors like tobacco, mint, cedar, chocolate, and even bell pepper.
So there you have it! A little bit about some of the most commonly planted varietals in the world. It is a lot of information to take in, especially for beginners, so I suggest that you take it one varietal at a time: learn what I have posted here, and then go out and buy a bottle that is 100% of that varietal. See what you think! Wine homework isn’t that bad…