We have been growing grape vines for thousands of years to make wine, there are more than 10,000 wine grape varieties now worldwide although less than 50 are widely used and popular. Looking at the most popular different types of wine grapes we will explore where they are widely grown as well as some differences the grapes undergo in relation to names as they are used around the world.
The different red wine grapes
Pinot Noir: likely to be the best known red wine grape and so popular that the only red wine grape that can be used in wines made in Burgundy but also widely used around the world in western Germany, northern Italy, Chile, South Africa, USA, Australia and New Zealand. It is notoriously difficult to grow however takes on characteristics of the local climate where it is grown.
The essence of the wine is of the aroma or cherry and red berries but also has an essence of the forest floor. Pinot Noir wines are notoriously difficult to create a consistent quality wine and the results can vary from a watery wine all the way to an intensity of aroma.
Pinot Noir wines are extremely varied to the degree that a few miles between two vineyards can deliver differences and as to retain as much pinot character as possible producers have focused on organic farming so as not to effect the grape’s sensitive chemical balance.
Everyone knows Pinot Noir wines as still red varietal wines, but the variety is also widely used in the production of many sparkling white wines as well as champagnes predominantly known as blanc de noirs.
Cabernet Sauvignon: is probably the most famous red wine grape there is and is certainly the main grape within the Bordeaux region of France and is often blended with another grapes not just merlot and cabernet franc but also blended with carmenere, shiraz, malbec and tempranillo.
The grape is widely used even in the new world wine regions around the globe with the versatility to many soil types and climates has helped drive this popularity, the only grape more widely used is Merlot also from Bordeaux.
Common character of the grape from the different wine growing regions include a deep color, moderate acidity, good tannin structure and the aromas of blackcurrant, dark spices tomato leaf and cedar wood.
Cabernet Franc: is a French red wine grape variety known as the third grape of Bordeaux due to it being widely used in many Bordeaux reds but mainly blended red, the grape has a black skin.
Its varietal wines are light to medium bodied and have characteristics such as green bell peppers which may get the grape confused with cabernet sauvignon or carmenère.
The grape’s origin or home is accepted as Bordeaux and in the villages of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion where some of the most highly regarded Cabernet Franc wines originate.
The grape is also grown in Italy, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas including Canada and on a small scale in Argentina & Chile.
Carménère: also belongs in the cabernet family and although started life in the region of Bordeaux is commonly used in Chile maybe because of the amount of sun that the grape needs and hence more popular in the wines that are being produced in the Country. It is interesting to note that Chile originally took cuttings in France of what they thought at the time to be Merlot turned out to be carménère, in discovering this other Countries carried out tests only to discover they had mixed the two grapes up, such Countries were New Zealand and Northern Italy.
The grape is herbal and spicy and has a green pepper aroma with ripe red fruit and mocha tones when it is aged in oak.
Merlot: Known as the key grape in Bordeaux wines and is commonly blended with cabernet franc. It is now widely used throughout the world in both new world as well as old world wine regions.
The flavors of the grape are not easily identifiable as being black cherry and plum but the grape is more commonly known for producing wine of a particular texture which is velvety rather than taste. It is smooth and well rounded and very easy drinking.
Grenache: is best known as the main grape of the southern Rhône region of France and is often blended with syrah or mourvèdre. Grenache is also grown in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, northern Spain, South Australia, and in California’s central valley.
Grenache ripens easily, making high alcohol, violet-scented wines full of candied red fruit flavors.
Malbec: originated from southern France however now commonly used in the Mendoza region within Argentina as the leading Country that grows more of this grape and any other combined worldwide. It is a grape used mainly for a varietal and is a deep purple color and is packed full of dark fruit flavors such as blueberry, black cherry & prune and has an overtone of coffee and chocolate.
It is a smooth and easily drinkable due to its natural acidity and moderate tannins.
Syrah / Shiraz: The grape with two names, known as syrah in France and mostly shiraz in Australia.
Generally, has a flavour profile of dark fruit even though the styles vary around the world. The varietal syrah can be quite floral and have black pepper and herbaceous aromas. It can also have smoky scents and tanned leather and tastes of blackcurrant and licorice. It is often blended with other grapes such as grenache and mourvédre to name a couple.
Tempranillo:is commonly used in some fine wines from Spain and Portugal, with most of the wines coming out of Rioja and Ribera del Duero has tempranillo as the base. In Portugal, the variety is commonly used in the douro valley. The vines are commonly used also in new world regions such as California Australia and Argentina.
Tempranillo produces medium bodied wines with moderate tannins and lower acidity. Spanish tempranillo has notes of red plum, tobacco leaf, cherry, and earth.
Often aged in American oak barrels, which contribute towards coconut and herbal aromas.
Zinfandel: is hugely popular in California and has grown to be the second most planted grape there.
Some believe the grape is identical to Italy’s primativo grape although there is debate around this which, due to the awareness has driven popularity of the grape(s).
The grape produces aromatic, robust and juicy wines and tend to have a higher alcohol content.
The different white wine grapes
Chardonnay: this hugely popular and widely available vine has a following worldwide even to the degree that some people have been given the name by their parents!
Many of the wines have high aromatic complexity but this is probably based on how it’s made specifically using oak rather than the grape itself. Chardonnay ranges from acidity and steely to buttery and spicy depending on the climate where it is grown.
Chardonnay is also used in sparkling wines and champagnes and usually paired with pinot noir and in fact is the second most popular grape used in the making of champagne. Canada also uses the grape in their ice wines.
The vine is popular with wine makers due to the higher yields as well as easier to make a good wine out of a poorer quality crop as the flavor can be adapted by the wine making process.
Pinot Grigio: the pinkish grape is grown in the Veneto region of northern Italy where it is made into crisp, dry citrusy wines that are exceptionally easy on the pocket. In France, its known as pinot gris and is part of the pinot family. The wines have high acidity and have the characteristics of aromas of lemon, green apple, lime, and blossoms.
The grape is harvested earlier than most to maintain the high acidity it is known for and the variety is used to make frizzante (semi sparkling) and spumante (sparkling) wines.
Sauvignon Blanc: the grape originated from western France and has become vastly popular worldwide especially in Marlborough New Zealand now known as one of the great sauvignon blanc areas of the world. The wine from this region has become immensely popular especially with in the UK, USA, Canada, northern Europe, Australia, and Japan.
The grape produces a powerful aromatic and crisp acidity with aromas of grapefruit, gooseberry and grass which are generally aged in stainless steel as this retains freshness however in California they age in oak.
Riesling: the grape that originated from Germany and in general is not as popular as many of the grapes we have discussed in this article. That said the grape has formed a niche in some of the new world wine countries such as Australia, New Zealand South Africa. In Canada where they produce ice wine which mainly contain riesling.
It has a very high acidity and is versatile where it can be used such as sparkling wines and range from sweet to dry. The grape has notes of honey suckle, lime and slate and can sometimes include lime.
The above grapes are just the tip of the iceberg however they cover the majority of the better known varieties and go a long way into producing some of the fantastic wines that we all love and savour.