Most modern wine grapes are varieties of the species vitis vinifera, which is native to the Mediterranean region and central Europe. It is a widely adapted species and is grown on every continent except Antarctica. Most modern grapes based on v. vinifera are actually grafts onto North American rootstock of another species (such as v. labrusca), which was first done in the late 19th century after European vineyards were devastated by phylloxera.
When a single variety constitutes at least 75-85% of a wine (varying by law in country where produced), the result is a varietal wine named after the predominant grape. Many wines from the United States and Australia are produced as varietal wines. Wines with a mixture of grapes are known as blended wines. Blended wines are not inferior to varietal wines; in fact, most well known French wines are blends of different varieties of the same vintage. European wines (French, Italian, German, Spain, etc.) are named for the region rather than the grape varieties used, although only certain varieties may be used by law in certain blended wines.
The concept of terroir is very important in the production of fine wines. It encompasses all environmental factors that produce a certain product, including the types of grapes used, the elevation and shape of the vineyard, the soil conditions and chemistry, climate and seasonal conditions, and local yeast cultures. This is how very unique wines are made from essentially the same ingredients. Mass-produced wines typically favor consistency at a low price, so the terroir is minimized.
The aroma and flavor of specific grape varieties will vary from year to year based on seasonal growing conditions, especially heat and rainfall. A range of descriptors is given for each variety, but don’t expect all the various components to be in every vintage. Various wine resources describe the character of grapes depending on whether they were grown in cool, moderate or hot climates. This is why wine vintages will vary greatly, and some are more prized than others.
Grape varieties are typically grown for either red wine or white wine usages, although some can be used for both applications. Red wine gets its color (and tannin) from contact with red grape skins. Red grapes can make white wine if the skins are separated from the juice at pressing. Wines that are designed to age are often oaked, red wines more frequently than white. When judging pyments, keep in mind the character contributed by the grape juice and separate it from the fermentation, conditioning and age character that can vary. Mead makers will not always treat varietal grapes in the same way vintners will treat them, so stick to the varietal character of the grape more than the total impression of popular wines made from those grapes.
INFORMATION COURTESY BJCP Special Ingredient Descriptions
(from the BJCP Mead Exam Study Guide)
Cabernet Sauvignon is the main grape in France’s Bordeaux wines, where it is often blended with merlot and cabernet franc. Cabernet sauvignon shines in varietal wines from the Napa Valley in California. In both areas, the grape’s bold tannins are often softened by aging in new oak barrels. Cabernet sauvignon wines are full-bodied, with flavors of black currant, mint, and bell pepper, along with cocoa and baking spice from oak aging.
Growing Regions: Bordeaux (France), Napa (US), Australia, Chile.
Product: Red Bordeaux and imitators, varietal US wine.
Color: Red grape. Dark, ruby red to dark purple, almost inky juice.
Aroma: Black currant, dark berries, leather, tobacco, cherry.
Flavor: Full-bodied, dense, dark, tannic. Medium to full bodied. Black currant, cassis, leather, tobacco, cherry. Often takes on additional flavors from oak.
A green-skinned grape variety used in the production of white wine, Chardonnay is an essential component of many sparkling wines worldwide, including Champagne. The grape itself is very neutral, with its flavours influenced by oak and terroir (the landscape and geology in which it is grown). Cool climates produce a medium to light body with green plum, apple, and pear flavours. Warmer places create more citrus, peach, and melon tastes, while warm regions bring out fig and tropical fruit notes.
Growing Regions: Burgundy (France), Champagne (France), California (US), Australia.
Product: White Burgundy, Champagne, varietal US wine.
Color: White grape, pale yellow-green to yellow-gold juice.
Aroma: Apples, pears, tropical and citrus fruit.
Flavor: Medium acidity. Dry to medium-dry. Full bodied. Apples, citrus, peach, melon, tropical fruit. Can take on buttery and creamy flavors from malolactic fermentation. Can take on oaky, toasty, vanilla flavors from oak.
Chenin Blanc is a versatile white-wine grape variety that has been cultivated in France for nearly 1300 years. It is most commonly associated with France’s Loire Valley, and its high acidity levels mean it can be vinified in a number of different styles: as lusciously sweet, botrytis-affected dessert wines, light, honeyed sparkling wines and as full-bodied, still white wines. Chenin Blanc may be crafted to any level of sweetness, ranging from bone-dry, crisp and sparkling, through to sweet dessert wines.
Growing Regions: Loire (France), California (US), South Africa.
Product: Vouvray, white jug white.
Flavor: Very high acidity, often slightly sweet to balance acidity. Crisp, tart, citrus.
The Concord grape is a cultivar derived from the grape species Vitis labrusca (also known as fox grape) that are used as table grapes, wine grapes and juice grapes. They are often used to make grape jelly, grape juice, grape pies, grape-flavored soft drinks, and candy. The grape is sometimes used to make wine, particularly sacramental kosher wine. Traditionally, most commercially produced Concord wines have been finished sweet, but dry versions are possible if adequate fruit ripeness is achieved.
Growing Regions: US.
Product: Grape jelly, grape juice, candy flavors, kosher-style wines like Manischewitz.
Color: Dark-colored purple-red juice, deep blue/purple-skinned grape.
Flavor: “Foxy,” musky, candied-strawberry.
Gewürztraminer is a variety with a pink to red skin colour, which makes it a “white wine grape” as opposed to the blue to black-skinned varieties commonly referred to as “red wine grapes”. The variety has high natural sugar and the wines are white and usually off-dry, with a flamboyant bouquet of lychees. Dry Gewürztraminers may also have aromas of roses, passion fruit and floral notes. It is not uncommon to notice some spritz (fine bubbles on the inside of the glass). It pairs well with cheese and fleshy, fatty wild game.
Growing Regions: Alsace (France), Germany.
Product: Rhine wine, varietal French and US wine.
Color: Dark pink colored grape, producing a straw-yellow to yellow-gold colored juice/wine.
Aroma: Spicy, flowery, exotic fruit, candied apple, lychee, rose, honeysuckle. Ginger, clove, nutmeg, allspice.
Flavor: Light to medium body, low acidity. Flowery, spicy, exotic fruit, lychee, peach, mango, quince, candied ginger, pineapple.
The name Merlot is thought to come from merle, the French name for the blackbird. Made across the globe, there are two main styles of Merlot wine. The late-harvested ‘International style’ produces full-bodied, high-alcohol, inky purple wines with intense plum and blackberry fruit. The traditional ‘Bordeaux style’ of Merlot involves earlier harvesting to maintain acidity and produces more medium-bodied wines with moderate alcohol levels, red fruit flavours and a vegetal note.
Growing Regions: Bordeaux (France), Napa, Washington, Long Island (US).
Product: Red Bordeaux, varietal US reds.
Color: Black skin, dark ruby red to deep purple-red juice.
Aroma: Plum, dark berry, jammy, currant, tobacco, chocolate, cedar, blackberry, black cherry, fruitcake.
Flavor: Plum, berry, currant, chocolate. Medium to full body, fruity, medium tannins, soft, fleshy, more sugar but less tannin and malic acid than cabernet sauvignon. Can be oaky.
The Muscat family of grapes includes over 200 grape varieties belonging to the Vitis vinifera species that have been used in wine production and as raisin and table grapes around the globe for many centuries. Their colors range from white (such as Muscat Ottonel), to yellow (Moscato Giallo), to pink (Moscato rosa del Trentino) to near black (Muscat Hamburg). Muscat grapes and wines almost always have a pronounced sweet floral aroma.
Growing Regions: Asti (Italy), California (US), Alsace (France).
Product: Asti, Dessert wines.
Color: White to nearly black grapes; white is most commonly used in wine and mead. Straw-yellow to deep gold juice/wine.
Aroma: Floral, orange blossom, honeysuckle, topical flowers, lily, hyacinth, Muscat grape, peach, mandarin orange, apricot, tangerine.
Flavor: Very floral and fruity, orange, apricot, marmalade and Muscat grape.
Pinot Noir grapes are grown worldwide in cooler climates, particularly in the Burgundy region of France. Pinot Noir is also used to make the Italian wine Franciacorta, despite being challenging to cultivate and transform into wine. When young, wines made from pinot noir tend to have red fruit aromas of cherries, raspberries and strawberries. As the wine ages, pinot can develop more vegetal and ‘barnyard’ aromas that can contribute to its complexity.
Growing Regions: Burgundy, Champagne (France), Oregon, Central Coast of California (US).
Product: Red Burgundy, varietal US wine.
Color: Red. Dark pink to ruby red to violet juice/wine.
Aroma: Cherries, strawberry, raspberry, cranberry, spice, earthy, woody.
Flavor: Light to medium body, low tannins, medium-high acidity, silky. Strawberry, raspberry, cherry, red currants, spice, earthy, woody.
A white grape variety originating from the Rhine region of Germany, Riesling is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery aromas and high acidity. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling white wines that are usually varietally pure and seldom oaked. Riesling is a variety that is highly “terroir-expressive”, meaning that the character of Riesling wines is greatly influenced by the wine’s place of origin.
Growing Regions: Germany (sweeter wines), Alsace (France, drier wine), New York (US), Washington (US).
Product: Rhine wine, varietal US wine.
Color: White grape. Juice is a pale yellow-green.
Aroma: Fruity, green apple, floral, honeysuckle, rose, violet, minerals.
Flavor: Light and refreshing. Fruity (apple, lemon, peach, apricot, pear, melon), floral (rose, violet), minerals. Light bodied.
Sangiovese is a red Italian wine grape variety that derives its name from the Latin sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jupiter”. Young Sangiovese has fresh fruity flavours of strawberry and a little spiciness, but it readily takes on oaky, even tarry, flavours when aged in barrels. While not as aromatic as other red wine varieties such as Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, Sangiovese often has a flavour profile of sour red cherries with earthy aromas and tea leaf notes.
Growing Regions: Chianti, Tuscany (Italy), California (US).
Color: Purple-red grape. Deep purple-red juice/wine.
Aroma: Cherry, strawberry, violets, nutty, black pepper, spicy, plum.
Flavor: Tart cherry, berries, spice, violets, nutty, black pepper, tobacco. Medium-high acidity. Firm tannin. Light to full body.
Syrah, also known as Shiraz, is a dark-skinned grape variety grown throughout the world, primarily to produce red wine. Moderate climates (such as the northern Rhone Valley and parts of Washington State) tend to make medium to full-bodied wines with medium-plus to high levels of tannins and notes of blackberry, mint and black pepper. Syrah from hot climates such as Crete and the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale regions of Australia are more consistently full-bodied with softer tannin, jammier fruit and spice notes of liquorice, anise and earthy leather.
Growing Regions: Rhone (France), Australia, California (US).
Product: Rhone reds, Shiraz.
Color: Deep purple-black grapes. Deeply colored juice, from dark ruby red to inky purple.
Aroma: Blackberry, black currant, berries, black pepper, clove, anise, cedar, incense, tar, smoked meat.
Flavor: Black currant, blackberries, berries, black pepper, cedar. Full body, firm tannin. Smoked meat, tar.
Tempranillo is an early ripening black grape variety that thrives in chalky vineyard soils such as those of the Ribera del Duero region of Spain. Its relatively neutral profile sees it often blended with other varieties such as Grenache and Carignan (known in Rioja as Mazuelo) or aged for extended periods in oak where the wine quickly takes on the flavour of the barrel. In Portugal, where the grape is known as Tinto Roriz and Aragonez, it is blended with others to produce Port wine.
Growing Regions: Spain.
Color: Red, deep color.
Aroma: Cherry, berry, cedar, spice.
Flavor: Full-bodied. Low acidity. Cherry, berry, cedar, spice.
Vidal blanc (or simply Vidal) is a white hybrid grape variety produced from the Vitis vinifera variety Ugni blanc (also known as Trebbiano Toscano) and another hybrid variety, Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986). It is a very winter-hardy variety that manages to produce high sugar levels in cold climates with moderate to high acidity. The grape was developed in the 1930s by French wine grape breeder Jean Louis Vidal; his primary goal in developing the variety was for the production of Cognac in the Charente-Maritime region of western France.
Growing Regions: Niagara (Canada), New York (US).
Product: Canadian Icewine.
Aroma: Fruity, grapefruit, pineapple, lychee. Floral, apricots, crème caramel.
Flavor: High acidity and fruitiness. Floral, resinous, pineapple, grapefruit, melon, hazelnuts, pears, orange blossoms. Flinty, minerally, viscous.
Zinfandel (also known as Primitivo) is a variety of black-skinned wine grape grown in over 10 percent of California vineyards. The grapes typically produce a robust red wine, and in the United States, a semi-sweet rosé wine called White Zinfandel has six times as many sales as the red wine. The taste of the red wine depends on the ripeness of the grapes: red berry fruit flavours predominate in wines from cooler areas, whereas blackberry, anise and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas and wines made from the earlier-ripening Primitivo clone.
Growing Regions: California (US).
Product: Varietal US wine.
Color: Deep red color.
Aroma: Raspberry, blackberry, jammy, spicy.
Flavor: Robust. Blackberry, raspberry, spicy, jammy, fig, blueberry, sometimes chocolate. Broad range from light and fruity to big and rich. Medium to full body