In order to appreciate wine, it's essential to
understand the characteristics different grapes offer and how those
characteristics should be
expressed in wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel are all
red grapes, but as wines their personalities are quite different.
Even when grown in different appellations and vinified using
different techniques, a varietal wine always displays certain
qualities, which are inherent in the grape's personality. Muscat
should always be spicy, Sauvignon Blanc a touch herbal. Zinfandel is
zesty, with pepper and wild berry flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon is
marked by plum, currant and black cherry flavors and firm tannins.
Understanding what a grape should be as a wine is fundamental, and
knowing what a grape can achieve at its greatest is the essence of
In Europe, the finest wines are known primarily by
geographic appellation (although this is changing; witness the
occasional French and Italian varietals). Elsewhere, however—as in
America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand—most wines are
labeled by their varietal names; even, sometimes, by grape
combinations (Cabernet-Shiraz, for example). To a large extent, this
is because in the United States, the process of sorting out which
grapes grow best in which appellations is ongoing and Americans were
first introduced to fine wine by varietal name. In Europe, with a
longer history for matching grape types to soil and climate, the
research is more conclusive: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for
instance, are the major grapes of Burgundy. Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot are the red grapes
of Bordeaux. Syrah dominates northern Rhône reds. Barolo and
Barbaresco are both made of Nebbiolo, but the different appellations
produce different styles of wine. In Tuscany, Sangiovese provides
the backbone of Chianti. A different clone of Sangiovese is used for
Brunello di Montalcino.
As a result, Europeans are used to wines with
In time, the New World's appellation system may well
evolve into one more like Europe's. Already California appellations
such as Carneros and Santa Maria Valley are becoming synonymous with
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Oregon's Willamette Valley is known for
Pinot Noir and Australia's Hunter Valley for Shiraz; back in
California, Rutherford, Oakville and the Stags Leap District are all
associated with Cabernet-based red table wines. Wineries with vested
financial interests in these appellations and the marketing clout to
emphasize the distinctive features of the wines grown in these areas
will determine how the appellation system evolves and whether
specific wine styles emerge. The appellations themselves will also
determine which grapes excel and deserve special recognition.
Following are descriptions of the most commonly used
Vitis vinifera grapes. American wine is also made from native
Vitis labrusca, especially the Concord grape.
BARBERA (Red) [bar-BEHR-uh]
Most successful in Italy's Piedmont region, where it
makes such wines as Barbera d'Asti, Barbera di Monferato and Barbera
di Alba. Its wines are characterized by a high level of acidity
(meaning brightness and crispness), deep ruby color and full body,
with low tannin levels; flavors are berrylike. However, plantings
have declined sharply in the United States. A few wineries still
produce it as a varietal wine, but those numbers too are dwindling.
Its main attribute as a blending wine is its ability to maintain a
naturally high acidity even in hot climates. The wine has more
potential than is currently realized and may stage a modest comeback
as Italian-style wines gain popularity.
This strain of Sangiovese is the only grape permitted
for Brunello di Montalcino, the rare, costly Tuscan red that at its
best is loaded with luscious black and red fruits and chewy tannins.
CABERNET FRANC (Red) [cab-er-NAY FRANK]
Increasingly popular as both stand-alone varietal and
blending grape, Cabernet Franc is used primarily for blending in
although it can rise to great heights in quality, as seen in the
grand wine Cheval-Blanc. In France's Loire Valley it's also made
into a lighter wine called Chinon. It is well established in Italy,
particularly the northeast, where it is sometimes called Cabernet
Frank or Bordo. California has grown it for more than 30 years, and
Argentina, Long Island, Washington state and New Zealand are picking
As a varietal wine, it usually benefits from small
amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and can be as intense and
full-bodied as either of those wines. But it often strays away from
currant and berry notes into stalky green flavors that become more
pronounced with age. Given its newness in the United States,
Cabernet Franc may just need time to get more attention and rise in
Much blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, it may be a
Cabernet Sauvignon mutation adapted to cooler, damper conditions.
Typically light- to medium-bodied wine with more immediate fruit
than Cabernet Sauvignon and some of the herbaceous odors evident in
unripe Cabernet Sauvignon.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON (Red) [cab-er-NAY SO-vin-yon]
The undisputed king of red wines, Cabernet is a
remarkably steady and consistent performer throughout much of the
state. While it grows well in many appellations, in specific
appellations it is capable of rendering wines of uncommon depth,
richness, concentration and longevity.
has used the grape since the 18th century, always blending it with
Cabernet Franc, Merlot and sometimes a soupçon of Petite Verdot. The
Bordeaux model is built around not only the desire to craft complex
wines, but also the need to ensure that different grape varieties
ripen at different intervals or to give a wine color, tannin or
Elsewhere in the world—and it is found almost
everywhere in the world—Cabernet Sauvignon is as likely to be
bottled on its own as in a blend. It mixes with Sangiovese in
Tuscany, Syrah in Australia and Provence, and Merlot and Cabernet
Franc in South Africa, but flies solo in some of Italy's
super-Tuscans. In the United States., it's unlikely any region will
surpass Napa Valley's high-quality Cabernets and Cabernet blends.
Through most of the grape's history in California (which dates to
the 1800s), the best Cabernets have been 100 percent Cabernet. Since
the late 1970s, many vintners have turned to the Bordeaux model and
blended smaller portions of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and
Petite Verdot into their Cabernets. The case for blending is still
under review, but clearly there are successes. On the other hand,
many U.S. producers are shifting back to higher percentages of
Cabernet, having found that blending doesn't add complexity and that
Cabernet on its own has a stronger character.
At its best, unblended Cabernet produces wines of
great intensity and depth of flavor. Its classic flavors are
currant, plum, black cherry and spice. It can also be marked by
herb, olive, mint, tobacco, cedar and anise, and ripe, jammy notes.
In warmer areas, it can be supple and elegant; in cooler areas, it
can be marked by pronounced vegetal, bell pepper, oregano and tar
flavors (a late ripener, it can't always be relied on in cool areas,
which is why Germany, for example, has never succumbed to the lure).
It can also be very tannic if that is a feature of the desired
style. The best Cabernets start out dark purple-ruby in color, with
firm acidity, a full body, great intensity, concentrated flavors and
Cabernet has an affinity for oak and usually spends
15 to 30 months in new or used French or American barrels, a process
that, when properly executed imparts a woody, toasty cedar or
vanilla flavor to the wine while slowly oxidizing it and softening
the tannins. Microclimates are a major factor in the weight and
intensity of the Cabernets. Winemakers also influence the style as
they can extract high levels of tannin and heavily oak their wines.
Also known as Carignane (California), Cirnano
(Italy). Once a major blending grape for jug wines, Carignan's
popularity has diminished, and plantings have dropped from 25,111
acres in 1980 to 8,883 in 1994. It still appears in some blends, and
old vineyards are sought after for the intensity of their grapes.
But the likelihood is that other grapes with even more intensity and
flavor will replace it in the future.
CARMENERE (Red) [car-men-YEHR]
Also known as Grande Vidure, this grape was once
widely planted in Bordeaux, but is now associated primarily with
Chile. Carmenere, along with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, was
imported to Chile around 1850. According to Chilean vintners,
Carmenere has been mislabeled for so long that many growers and the
Chilean government now consider it Merlot.
Found mainly in California (and possibly actually
Dolcetto), this grape has dwindled in acreage. Its stature as a wine
was supported mainly by Inglenook-Napa Valley, which bottled a
Charbono on a regular basis. Occasionally it made for interesting
drinking and it aged well. But more often it was lean and tannic, a
better story than bottle of wine. A few wineries still produce it,
but none with any success.
CHARDONNAY (White) [shar-dun-NAY]
As Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of reds, so is
Chardonnay the king of white wines, for it makes consistently
excellent, rich and complex whites. This is an amazingly versatile
grape that grows well in a variety of locations throughout the
world. In Burgundy, it is used for the exquisite whites, such as
Montrachet, Meursault and Pouilly-Fuissè, and true Chablis; in
Champagne it turns into Blanc de Blancs. Among the many other
countries that have caught Chardonnay fever, Australia is especially
Chardonnay was introduced to California in the 1930s
but didn't become popular until the 1970s. Areas such as Anderson
Valley, Carneros, Monterey, Russian River, Santa Barbara and Santa
Maria Valley, all closer to cooler maritime influences, are now
producing wines far superior to those made a decade ago.
Though there is a Mâconnais village called
Chardonnay, no one agrees on the grape's origin—it may even be
When well made, Chardonnay offers bold, ripe, rich
and intense fruit flavors of apple, fig, melon, pear, peach,
pineapple, lemon and grapefruit, along with spice, honey, butter,
butterscotch and hazelnut flavors. Winemakers build more complexity
into this easy-to-manipulate wine using common vinification
techniques: barrel fermentation, sur lie aging during which the wine
is left on its natural sediment, and malolactic fermentation (a
process which converts tart malic acid to softer lactic acid). No
other white table wine benefits as much from oak aging or barrel
fermentation. Chardonnay grapes have a fairly neutral flavor, and
because they are usually crushed or pressed and not fermented with
their skins the way red wines are, whatever flavors emerge from the
grape are extracted almost instantly after crushing. Red wines that
soak with their skins for days or weeks through fermentation extract
their flavors quite differently.
Because Chardonnay is also a prolific producer that
can easily yield 4 to 5 tons of high-quality grapes per acre, it is
a cash cow for producers in every country where it's grown. Many
American and Australian Chardonnays are very showy, well oaked and
appealing on release, but they lack the richness, depth and
concentration to age and have in fact evolved rather quickly, often
losing their intensity and concentration within a year or two. Many
vintners, having studied and recognized this, are now sharply
reducing crop yields, holding tonnage down to 2 to 3 tons per acre
in the belief that this will lead to greater concentration. The only
downside to this strategy is that lower crop loads lead to
significantly less wine to sell, therefore higher prices as well.
Chardonnay's popularity has also led to a huge market
of ordinary wines, so there's a broad range of quality to choose
from in this varietal. There are a substantial number of domestic
Chardonnays, which can range from simple and off-dry to more complex
and sophisticated. The producer's name on the wine, and often its
price, are indicators of the level of quality.
CHENIN BLANC (White) [SHEN'N BLAHNK]
This native of the Loire valley has two
personalities: at home it's the basis of such famous, long-lived
whites as Vouvray and Anjou, Quarts de Chaume and Saumer, but on
other soils it becomes just a very good blending grape. It is South
Africa's most-planted grape, though there is called Steen,
and both there and in California it is currently used primarily as a
blending grape for generic table wines. Chenin Blanc should perform
better in California, and someday it may. It can yield a pleasant
enough wine, with subtle melon, peach, spice and citrus notes. The
great Loire whites vary from dry and fresh to sweet, depending on
the vintage and the producer. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is even
used for fortified wines and spirits.
DOLCETTO (Red) [dole-CHET-to]
Almost exclusive to northwest Piedmont, this produces
soft, round, fruity wines fragrant with licorice and almonds that
should be drunk within about three years. It's used as a safety net
for producers of Nebbiolo and Barbera wines, which
take much longer to age. There are seven DOCs: Acqui, Alba, Asti,
Dinao d'Alba, Dogliani, Langhe Monregalesi and Ovada.
Beaujolais makes its famous, fruity reds exclusively
from one of the many Gamays available, the Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc.
Low in alcohol and relatively high in acidity, the wines are meant
to be drunk soon after bottling; the ultimate example of this is
Beaujolais Nouveau, whipped onto shelves everywhere almost
overnight. It is also grown in the Loire, but makes no remarkable
wines. The Swiss grow it widely, for blending with Pinot Noir; they
often chaptalize the wines.
California, meanwhile, grows a variety called
Gamay Beaujolais, a high-yield clone of Pinot Noir that makes
undistinguished wines in most places where it's grown. In the United
States the grape is used primarily for blending, and acreage is
declining, as those serious about Pinot Noir are using superior
clones and planting in cooler areas.
GEWüRZTRAMINER (White) [geh-VERTS-trah-mee-ner]
Gewürztraminer can yield magnificent wines, as is
best demonstrated in Alsace, France, where it is made in to a
variety of styles from dry to off-dry to sweet. The grape needs a
cool climate that allows it to get ripe. It's a temperamental grape
to grow and vinify, as its potent spiciness can be overbearing when
unchecked. At its best, it produces a floral and refreshing wine
with crisp acidity that pairs well with spicy dishes. When left for
late harvest, it's uncommonly rich and complex, a tremendous dessert
It is also popular in eastern Europe, New Zealand and
the Pacific Northwest.
Drought- and heat-resistant, it yields a fruity,
spicy, medium-bodied wine with supple tannins. The second most
widely planted grape in the world, Grenache is widespread in the
southern Rhône. It is blended to produce Châteauneuf-du-Pape
(although there are some pure varietals) and used on its own for the
rosès of Tavel and Lirac; it is also used in France's sweet Banyuls
wine. Important in Spain, where it's known as Garnacha Tinta, it is
especially noteworthy in Rioja and Priorato. Grenache used to be
popular in Australia, but has now been surpassed by Syrah; a few
Barossa Valley producers are making wines similar to
Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In California it's a workhorse blending grape,
though occasionally an old vineyard is found and its grapes made
into a varietal wine, which at its best can be good. It may make a
comeback as enthusiasts of Rhône style seek cooler areas and an
appropriate blending grape.
Also,Grenache Blanc, known in Spain as
Garnacha Blanca, which is bottled in the Southern Rhône. It's used
for blending in France's Rousillon and the Languedoc, and in various
Spanish whites, including Rioja.
GRüNER VELTLINER (White) [GROO-ner
The most widely planted grape in Austria, it can be
found to a lesser extent in some other parts of eastern Europe. It
achieves its qualitative pinnacle in the Wachau, Kremstal and
Kamptal regions along the Danube River west of Vienna. Gruner, as
it's called for short, shows distinct white pepper, tobacco, lentil
and citrus flavors and aromas, along with high acidity, making it an
excellent partner for food. Gruner is singularly unique in its
flavor profile, and though it rarely has the finesse and breeding of
the best Austrian Rieslings (though it can come close when grown on
granite soils), it is similar in body and texture.
Once important in Bordeaux and the Loire in various
blends, this not-very-hardy grape has been steadily replaced by
Merlot and the two Cabernets. However, Argentina is markedly
successful with this varietal. In the United States Malbec is a
blending grape only, and an insignificant one at that, but a few
wineries use it, the most obvious reason being that it's considered
part of the Bordeaux-blend recipe.
Popular in the Rhône (along with Grenache Blanc,
Roussanne and Viognier). Australia, especially in Victoria, has some
of the world's oldest vineyards. At its best, Marsanne can be a
full-bodied, moderately intense wine with spice, pear and citrus
Merlot is the red-wine success of the 1990s: its
popularity has soared along with its acreage, and it seems wine
lovers can't drink enough of it. It dominates
except for the MÉdoc and Graves. Though it is mainly used for the
Bordeaux blend, it can stand alone. In St.-Emilion and Pomerol,
especially, it produces noteworthy wines, culminating in Château
PÉtrus. In Italy it's everywhere, though most of the Merlot is
light, unremarkable stuff. But Ornellaia and Fattoria de Ama are
strong exceptions to that rule. Despite its popularity, its quality
ranges only from good to very good most of the time, though there
are a few stellar producers found around the world.
Several styles have emerged. One is a Cabernet-style
Merlot, which includes a high percentage (up to 25 percent) of
Cabernet, similar currant and cherry flavors and firm tannins. A
second style is less reliant on Cabernet, softer, more supple,
medium-weight, less tannic and features more herb, cherry and
chocolate flavors. A third style is a very light and simple wine;
this type's sales are fueling Merlot's overall growth.
Like Cabernet, Merlot can benefit from some blending,
as Cabernet can give it backbone, color and tannic strength. It also
marries well with oak. Merlot is relatively new in California,
dating to the early 1970s, and is a difficult grape to grow, as it
sets and ripens unevenly. Many critics believe Washington State has
a slight quality edge with this wine. By the year 2000, vintners
should have a better idea of which areas are best suited to this
grape variety. As a wine, Merlot's aging potential is fair to good.
It may be softer with age, but often the fruit flavors fade and the
herbal flavors dominate.
There is also an unrelated Merlot Blanc.
MOURVEDRE (Red) [more-VAY-druh]
As long as the weather is warm, Mourvèdre likes a
wide variety of soils. It's popular across the south of France,
especially in Provence and the Côtes-du-Rhône, and is often
used in Châteauneuf-du-Pape; Languedoc makes it as a varietal. Spain
uses it in many areas, including Valencia. In the United States it's
a minor factor now, pursued by a few wineries that specialize in
Rhône-style wines. The wine can be pleasing, with medium-weight,
spicy cherry and berry flavors and moderate tannins.
Known as Muscat, Muscat Blanc and Muscat Canelli, it
is marked by strong spice and floral notes and can be used in
blending, its primary function in California. Moscato in Italy,
Moscatel in Iberia: This grape can turn into anything from the
low-alcohol, sweet and frothy Asti Spumante and Muscat de Canelli to
bone-dry wines like Muscat d'Alsace. It also produces fortified wine
such as Beaumes de Venise.
NEBBIOLO (Red) [NEH-bee-oh-low]
The great grape of Northern Italy, which excels there
in Barolo and Barbaresco, strong, ageable wines. Mainly unsuccessful
elsewhere, Nebbiolo also now has a small foothold in California. So
far the wines are light and uncomplicated, bearing no resemblance to
the Italian types.
PETITE SIRAH (Red) [peh-TEET sih-RAH]
Known for its dark hue and firm tannins, Petite Sirah
has often been used as a blending wine to provide color and
structure, particularly to Zinfandel. On its own, Petite Sirah can
also make intense, peppery, ageworthy wines, but few experts
consider it as complex as Syrah itself.
There has been much confusion over the years about
Petite Sirah's origins. For a long time, the grape was thought to be
completely unrelated to Syrah, despite its name. Petite Sirah was
believed to actually be Durif, a minor red grape variety first grown
in southern France in the late 1800s. However, recent DNA research
shows Petite Sirah and Syrah are related after all. A study done at
the University of California at Davis determined not only that 90
percent of the Petite Sirah found in California is indeed Durif, but
also that Durif is a cross between Peloursin and Syrah.
Just to make things more confusing, in France,
growers refer to different variants of Syrah as Petite and Grosse,
which has to do with the yield of the vines.
PINOT BLANC (White) [PEE-no BLAHNK]
Often referred to as a poor man's Chardonnay because
of its similar flavor and texture profile, Pinot Blanc is used in
Champagne, Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, Italy and California and can
make a terrific wine. When well made, it is intense, concentrated
and complex, with ripe pear, spice, citrus and honey notes. Can age,
but is best early on while its fruit shines through.
PINOT GRIS or PINOT GRIGIO (White) [PEE-no
GREE or GREE-zho]
Known as Pinot Grigio in Italy, where it is
mainly found in the northeast, producing quite a lot of
undistinguished dry white wine and Collio's excellent whites. As
Pinot Gris, it used to be grown in Burgundy and the Loire, though it
has been supplanted, but it comes into its own in Alsace—where it's
known as Tokay. Southern Germany plants it as Ruländer. When good,
this varietal is soft, gently perfumed and has more color than most
(Red) [PEE-no NWA]
Pinot Noir, the great grape of Burgundy, is a touchy
variety. The best examples offer the classic black cherry, spice,
raspberry and currant flavors, and an aroma that can resemble wilted
roses, along with earth, tar, herb and cola notes. It can also be
rather ordinary, light, simple, herbal, vegetal and occasionally
weedy. It can even be downright funky, with pungent barnyard aromas.
In fact, Pinot Noir is the most fickle of all grapes to grow: It
reacts strongly to environmental changes such as heat and cold
spells, and is notoriously fussy to work with once picked, since its
thin skins are easily bruised and broken, setting the juice free.
Even after fermentation, Pinot Noir can hide its weaknesses and
strengths, making it a most difficult wine to evaluate out of
barrel. In the bottle, too, it is often a chameleon, showing poorly
one day, brilliantly the next.
The emphasis on cooler climates coincides with more
rigorous clonal selection, eliminating those clones suited for
sparkling wine, which have even thinner skins. These days there is
also a greater understanding of and appreciation for different
styles of Pinot Noir wine, even if there is less agreement about
those styles—should it be rich, concentrated and loaded with flavor,
or a wine of elegance, finesse and delicacy? Or can it, in classic
Pinot Noir sense, be both? Even varietal character remains subject
to debate. Pinot Noir can certainly be tannic, especially when it is
fermented with some of its stems, a practice that many vintners
around the world believe contributes to the wine's backbone and
longevity. Pinot Noir can also be long-lived, but predicting with
any precision which wines or vintages will age is often the ultimate
challenge in forecasting.
Pinot Noir is the classic grape of Burgundy and also
of Champagne, where it is pressed immediately after picking in order
to yield white juice. It is just about the only red grown in Alsace.
In California, it excelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and
seems poised for further progress. Once producers stopped vinifying
it as if it were Cabernet, planted vineyards in cooler climates and
paid closer attention to tonnage, quality increased substantially.
It's fair to say that California and Oregon have a legitimate claim
to producing world-class Pinot Noir.
One of the world's greatest white wine grapes, the
Riesling vine's hardy wood makes it extremely resistant to frost.
The variety excels in cooler climates, where its tendency to ripen
slowly makes it an excellent source for sweet wines made from grapes
attacked by the noble rot Botrytis cinerea, which withers the
grapes' skin and concentrates their natural sugar levels.
Riesling is best known for producing the wines of
Germany's Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Pfalz, Rheinhessen and Rheingau wines,
but it also achieves brilliance in Alsace and Austria. While the
sweet German Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines, along
with Alsace's famed Selection de Grains Nobles, are often celebrated
for their high sugar levels and ability to age almost endlessly,
they are rare and expensive.
More commonly, Riesling produces dry or just off-dry
versions. Its high acidity and distinctive floral, citrus, peach and
mineral accents have won dry Riesling many fans. The variety pairs
well with food and has an uncanny knack for transmitting the
elements of its vineyard source (what the French call terroir).
The wines from Germany's Mosel region are perhaps the
purest expression of the grape, offering lime, pie crust, apple,
slate and honeysuckle characteristics on a light-bodied and racy
frame. Germany's Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Pfalz regions produces
wines of similar characteristics, but with increasing body and
In Alsace, Riesling is most often made in a dry
style, full-bodied, with a distinct petrol aroma. In Austria,
Riesling plays second fiddle to Gruner Veltliner in terms of
quantity, but when grown on favored sites it offers wines with great
focus and clarity allied to the grape's typically racy frame.
In other regions, Riesling struggles to maintain its
share of vineyard plantings, but it can be found (often under
synonyms such as White Riesling, Rhine Riesling or Johannisberg
Riesling) in California, Oregon, Washington, New York's Finger Lakes
region, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and
Sangiovese is best known for providing the backbone
for many superb Italian red wines from Chianti and Brunello di
Montalcino, as well as the so-called super-Tuscan blends. Sangiovese
is distinctive for its supple texture and medium-to full-bodied
spice, raspberry, cherry and anise flavors. When blended with a
grape such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese gives the resulting
wine a smoother texture and lightens up the tannins.
It is somewhat surprising that Sangiovese wasn't more
popular in California given the strong role Italian immigrants have
played in the state's winemaking heritage, but now the grape appears
to have a bright future in the state, both as a stand-alone varietal
wine and for use in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and maybe
even Zinfandel. Expect sweeping stylistic changes as winemakers
learn more about how the grape performs in different locales as well
as how it marries with different grapes.
SAUVIGNON BLANC (White) [SO-vin-yon BLAHNK]
Another white with a notable aroma, this one "grassy"
or "musky." The pure varietal is found mainly in the Loire, at
Sancerre and Pouilly-FumÉ, As part of a blend, the grape is all over
Bordeaux, in Pessac-LÉognan, Graves and the MÉdoc whites; it also
shows up in Sauternes. New Zealand has had striking success with
Sauvignon Blanc, producing its own perfumed, fruity style that
spread across North America and then back to France.
In the United States, Robert Mondavi rescued the
varietal in the 1970s by labeling it FumÉ Blanc, and he and
others have enjoyed success with it. The key to success seems to be
in taming its overt varietal intensity, which at its extreme leads
to pungent grassy, vegetal and herbaceous flavors. Many winemakers
treat it like in a sort of poor man's Chardonnay, employing barrel
fermentation, sur lie aging and malolactic fermentation. But its
popularity comes as well from the fact that it is a prodigious
producer and a highly profitable wine to make. It can be crisp and
refreshing, matches well with foods, costs less to produce and grow
than Chardonnay and sells for less. It also gets less respect from
vintners than perhaps it should. Its popularity ebbs and flows, at
times appearing to challenge Chardonnay and at other times appearing
to be a cash-flow afterthought. But even at its best, it does not
achieve the kind of richness, depth or complexity Chardonnay does
and in the end that alone may be the defining difference.
Sauvignon Blanc grows well in a variety of
appellations. It marries well with oak and Sèmillon, and many
vintners are adding a touch of Chardonnay for extra body. The wine
drinks best in its youth, but sometimes will benefit from short-term
cellaring. As a late-harvest wine, it's often fantastic, capable of
yielding amazingly complex and richly flavored wines.
SÉMILLON (White) [SEM-ih-yon]
On its own or in a blend, this white can age. With
Sauvignon Blanc, its traditional partner, this is the foundation of
Sauternes and most of the great dry whites found in Graves and
Pessac-LÉognan; these are rich, honeyed wines,. SÉmillon is one of
the grapes susceptible to Botrytis cinerea. Australia's
Hunter Valley uses it solo to make a full-bodied white that used to
be known as Hunger Riesling, Chablis or White Burgundy. In South
Africa it used to be so prevalent that it was just called "wine
grape," but it has declined drastically in importance there.
In the United States, SÉmillon enjoys modest success
as a varietal wine in California and Washington, but it continues to
lose ground in acreage in California. It can make a wonderful
late-harvest wine, and those wineries that focus on it can make well
balanced wines with complex fig, pear, tobacco and honey notes. When
blended into Sauvignon Blanc, it adds body, flavor and texture. When
Sauvignon Blanc is added to SÉmillon, the latter gains grassy herbal
It can also be found blended with Chardonnay, more to
fill out the volume of wine than to add anything to the package.
SYRAH or SHIRAZ (Red) [sih-RAH or
Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie in France, Penfolds Grange
in Australia—the epitome of Syrah is a majestic red that can age for
half a century. The grape seems to grow well in a number of areas
and is capable of rendering rich, complex and distinctive wines,
with pronounced pepper, spice, black cherry, tar, leather and
roasted nut flavors, a smooth, supple texture and smooth tannins. In
southern France it finds its way into various blends, as in
Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Languedoc-Roussillon. Known as Shiraz
in Australia, it was long used for bread-and-butter blends, but an
increasing number of high-quality bottlings are being made,
especially from old vines in the Barossa Valley.
In the United States., Syrah's rise in quality is
most impressive. It appears to have the early-drinking appeal of
Pinot Noir and Zinfandel and few of the eccentricities of Merlot,
and may well prove far easier to grow and vinify than any other red
wines aside from Cabernet.
TEMPRANILLO (Red) [temp-rah-NEE-yo]
Spain's major contribution to red wine, Tempranillo
is indigenous to the country and is rarely grown elsewhere. It is
the dominant grape in the red wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero,
two of Spain's most important wine regions.
In Rioja, Tempranillo is often blended with Garnacha,
Mazuelo and a few other minor grapes. When made in a traditional
style, Tempranillo can be garnet-hued, with flavors of tea, brown
sugar and vanilla. When made in a more modern style, it can display
aromas and flavors redolent of plums, tobacco and cassis, along with
very dark color and substantial tannins. Whatever the style, Riojas
tend to be medium-bodied wines, offering more acidity than tannin.
In Ribera del Duero, wines are also divided along
traditional and modern styles, and show similarities to Rioja. The
more modern styled Riberas, however, can be quite powerful, offering
a density and tannic structure similar to that of Cabernet
Tempranillo is known variously throughout Spain as
Cencibel, Tinto del Pais, Tinto Fino, Ull de Llebre and Ojo. It's
also grown along the Douro River in Portugal under the monikers
Tinta Roriz (used in the making of Port) and Tinta Aragonez.
TREBBIANO or UGNI BLANC (White) [treh-bee-AH-no
or OO-nee BLAHNK]
This is Trebbiano in Italy andUgni Blancin France. It
is tremendously prolific; low in alcohol but high in acidity, it is
found in almost any basic white Italian wine. It is so ingrained in
Italian winemaking that it is actually a sanctioned ingredient of
the blend used for (red) Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Most current Tuscan producers do not add it to their wines, however.
The French, who also often call this grape St.-Émilion,
used it for Cognac and Armagnac brandy; Ugni Blanc grapevines
outnumbered Chardonnay by five to one in France during the '80s.
VIOGNIER (White) [vee-oh-NYAY]
Viognier, the rare white grape of France's Rhône
Valley, is one of the most difficult grapes to grow, But fans of the
floral, spicy white wine are thrilled by its prospects in the south
of France and the new world. So far most of the Viogners produced in
the United States are rather one-dimensional, with an abundance of
spiciness but less complexity than they should have. Still, there
are a few bright spots.
It is used in Condrieu's rare whites and sometimes
blended with reds in the Northern Rhône. There are also a variety of
bottlings available from southern France, most of them somewhat
The origins of this tremendously versatile and
popular grape are not known for certain, although it is thought to
have come from Southern Italy as a cousin of Primitivo. It is the
most widely planted red grape in California (though Australia has
also played around with the grape). Much of it is vinified into
white Zinfandel, a blush-colored, slightly sweet wine. Real
Zinfandel, the red wine, is the quintessential California wine. It
has been used for blending with other grapes, including Cabernet
Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. It has been made in a claret style, with
berry and cherry flavors, mild tannins and pretty oak shadings. It
has been made into a full-bodied, ultraripe, intensely flavored and
firmly tannic wine designed to age. And it has been made into
late-harvest and Port-style wines that feature very ripe, raisiny
flavors, alcohol above 15 percent and chewy tannins.
Zinfandel's popularity among consumers fluctuates. In
the 1990s Zinfandel is enjoying another groundswell of popularity,
as winemakers took renewed interest, focusing on higher-quality
vineyards in areas well suited to Zinfandel. Styles aimed more for
the mainstream and less for extremes, emphasizing the grape's zesty,
spicy pepper, raspberry, cherry, wild berry and plum flavors, and
its complex range of tar, earth and leather notes. Zinfandel lends
itself to blending.
Zinfandel is a challenging grape to grow: its berry
size varies significantly within a bunch, which leads to uneven
ripening. Because of that, Zinfandel often needs to hang on the vine
longer to ripen as many berries as possible. Closer attention to
viticulture and an appreciation for older vines, which tend to
produce smaller crops of uniformly higher quality, account for
better balanced wines.
—Excerpted from James Laube's book "California Wine,"
with some additions by James Molesworth