According to esteemed wine writer Jancis Robinson and her book ‘Wine Grapes’ there are 1368 varieties currently being commercially used to make wine. With so many grape varieties, all adding their unique qualities to the wine they make, where do you start to learn about wine? Luckily for us, six varieties known as The Noble Grapes, have come to dominate the world’s production of quality wine.
Of these six grapes, three white and three red, all but one can claim France as their spiritual home. Why have these grapes come to dominate the world of wine?
The first reason is that when European countries were expanding their global empires the French, as well as being master wine producers, were experts at promoting their greatest commodity: luxury. In time the world fell in love with these wines and started wanting to make them themselves and the French winemakers were happy to help, as long as they used their vine cuttings.
The second reason is that these varieties can grow well and produce great wine in almost all of the worlds wine-growing countries. Compare these grapes to say Tempranillo, the grape of Spain. It is grown pretty much all over the country but very rarely produces anything of quality in foreign lands.
In recent years the world has become more interested in wine production so the list of varieties making a name for themselves is growing all the time. Some people have even suggested that the list of Noble Grapes should be extended to twenty varieties, but learning about the original six Noble Grapes will give you a good base to continue on your enjoyable journey through wine.
Chardonnay is by far the most famous and one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world today. Although its spiritual home is in Burgundy, this is a well travelled grape that can create top quality wines almost anywhere grapes can grow. Outside of France some of the best examples come from California, Australia and South America. It is a variety that can express itself in many ways. Chardonnays from cooler climates such as Chablis in France are lean and crisp with medium to high acidity with flavours of apples, pears, lemon and honey. In warmer climates such as California or South Australia the wines are fuller and richer with riper fruit flavours like melon, banana and pineapple. Chardonnay loves oak and when used it adds flavours of vanilla, smoke and sweet Christmas spice.
Believed to have originated in Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc’s real spiritual home is in the Loire Valley where it makes the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. In recent years though, the world has fallen in love with the intense and expressive Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand’s Marlborough region. Some seriously good examples can also be found in Chile, South Africa and Australia. The flavours of Sauvignon Blanc are mixture of crisp refreshing fruit like grapefruit, gooseberry and green apple and more savoury, vegetal flavours like asparagus, bell pepper and freshly cut grass. Due to its expressive nature and high acidity it is rarely oaked, but oaking adds texture and sometimes a smoky nature.
Riesling is the only Noble Grape that does not call France home. It originated in Germany where it still makes some of the greatest white wines in the world. This misunderstood grape has had the reputation of producing low quality, sweet wines that were all the rage in the 70s and 80s. Today, the vast majority of Rieslings made are either dry or off-dry. Unlike most of the other Noble Grapes that finds success in most conditions, Riesling only thrives in cooler climates where it can enjoy a long growing season to develop its unique flavours and trademark acidity. Apart from Germany, great European Rieslings comes from Austria, Alsace and the mountainous Northern Italy. In the New World you can find lovely Rieslings from South Australia, New Zealand and Chile. All Rieslings have crisp, piercing acidity along with citrus flavours of lemon and lime, green apple and passion fruit. Unusually there can also be desirable characteristics of petroleum and beeswax.
Have fun exploring wines made from these white grapes in their many different styles. Next week, in Part 2, we will continue looking at the six Noble Grapes, the reds, as well as talking about some of the varieties that, in modern times, may be contenders to join this elite list.