There are thousands of grape varieties, but only a few hundred are used to make wine. Learn about the most prominent ones.By Jérôme Chambon, senior trade advisor for Agribusiness, French Trade Commission
Wine is an endlessly fascinating subject. One of the most important elements of a wine education is knowledge of the main characteristics of grape varieties, as among the thousands varieties in existence, only a few hundred are used to make wines.
Ten of them have established a reputation for making premium quality wines in locations across the world, and they are considered as international grape varieties.
Chardonnay is a very delicate variety which is not aromatic and has the particularity of being able to generate premium wines in very different types of climates. Its flavors can vary from green fruits to tropical fruits depending on the climate. Moreover, the production process has a great influence on the wine flavors, and Chardonnay is often associated with a creamy taste. Burgundy is the classic region of production, but an increasing number of countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa can also produce premium quality wine from Chardonnay.
Chenin Blanc is very acidic and can be vinified in a number of different styles, from dry to sweet and from sparkling to fortified. The classic region of production is the Loire Valley in France, and one other famous country for premium Chenin Blanc is South Africa.
Riesling is a fruity and floral aromatic variety that can develop different kind of flavors depending on the climate of the region in which it is grown. It can be used to produce dry wines as well as sweet wines. Germany and France (Alsace) are the classic regions of production, while Austria, Australia, and New Zealand are the other most famous countries able to produce prime quality Riesling.
Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic variety and produces usually dry wines with high acidity, medium body and display aromas of green fruit and vegetation. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire Valley of France are the two classic regions of production. Nowadays, New Zealand, Australia, and Chile can also produce premium Sauvignon Blanc.
But Sauvignon Blanc can also be used to produce sweet wines. In Sauterne, it is added to Sémillon to provide fruit flavors but also and primarily acidity, which is needed to balance the sweetness of the wine. Nowadays, Chile, France, and Australia are the main countries cultivating Sémillon.
Cabernet Sauvignon has thick skins that generate deeply colored wines with lots of tannin, acidity, and black fruits flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with Merlot, which is the perfect match, providing alcohol and structure, and minimizing the astringent character of Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot can develop flavors of black or red fruits depending on the climate where it is grown. In Bordeaux, the blend of these two grapes is sometimes completed by Cabernet Franc and, sometimes, Petit Verdot.
Pinot Noir has thin skins, is difficult to grow and produces a delicate wine with light color and low to medium levels of tannins. It usually displays flavors of red fruits with sometimes vegetal or animal traces. Burgundy is the classic region of production for Pinot Noir, while Central Otago in New Zealand and Oregon in North America are the other most famous premium regions. Pinot Noir is also one of the three main grape varieties that are used to produce Champagne.
Syrah, called Shiraz in Australia, is made of thick skins like the Cabernet Sauvignon. It produces full-bodied deeply colored wines with medium or high levels of tannins and medium acidity. It displays black fruit and chocolate flavors with hints of spices. Syrah is often blended with Grenache, which is the third most widely planted black grape variety worldwide. It has large berries with thin skins, low acidity and high levels of sugar. It produces light colored but full-bodied wine with red fruit flavors. Grenache is the main grape variety of Southern Rhône, while Syrah is the only black grape variety accepted in Northern Rhône. Apart from France, many other countries now produce wines from these two grapes, the most famous ones being Australia for Shiraz and Spain for Grenache.
Wine education is a combination of reading and tasting. If the theoretical part is important, the opportunity to taste wine is even more essential, and the combination of both will definitely allow you to explore the world of wine with confidence.