In Part 1 of Understanding Wine: The Noble Grapes, we learned that although there are around 1368 different varieties of grapes that are used to make wine today, only a handful qualify as the Noble Grapes; these being the grapes that are used on a world wide scale to make quality wine. We started by looking at the white varieties, their origins and how they influence the taste and quality of the wine.
In this post we will be looking at the red varieties that make up the Noble Grapes and other varieties that, in recent years, have been biting at the heels of these illustrious few.
Probably the world’s most recognisable grape, Cabernet Sauvignon has conquered the wine world from its origins in Bordeaux in South West France where it is the dominant grape of the Left Bank. Today it is an important variety in wine production for many of the world’s most iconic wine growing regions including southern Australia, California and Chile. It is often blended with other varieties to add complexity and body to the wines, most notably in Bordeaux where it is nearly always blended with Merlot and / or Cabernet Franc. Wherever it is grown Cabernet Sauvignon tends to have many common traits; a deep dark colour, a solid tannin structure, medium acidity, blackcurrant aromas and spice on the palate.
Merlot is the second of the Noble Grapes to hale from Bordeaux, this time it is the dominant grape of the Right Bank. This is another grape that performs well in most wine growing countries yet its popularity seems to go in and out of fashion. Merlot also blends well with other varieties adding softness and elegance to the union. Typically Merlot has flavours of plums, raspberries and black cherry with secondary flavours of cedar, tobacco and clove amongst others. As France’s most planted grape you will find great examples in the warmer parts of the south and southwest. Some great New World Merlots are being produced in parts of the United States, Argentina and Australia.
At home in Burgundy, Pinot Noir is king. Here it makes some of the world’s most breath-taking, elegant but expensive wines. It is known amongst winemakers as the heartbreak grape because of its difficulty to grow, but when done right it produces things of beauty. Pinot Noir is very expressive of where it is made, vineyards a mile apart can give very different wines yet have a common ‘pinot’ taste. Generally it has flavours of strawberry, cherry and violets. In warmer climates these flavours appear weightier, more like strawberry jam than fresh strawberry and stewed cherries. In too warm a climate these ‘jammy’ flavours can become very unpleasant. Pinot Noir is also an important variety used in the production of sparkling white wine, particularly in Champagne where the juice is presses without skin contact so it remains white. Outside of Burgundy some of the best places to find Pinot Noir are Germany (called Spätburgunder), Northern Italy, Oregon, New Zealand and California.
As discussed previously, these six grapes make up the majority of wine produced today, but recent in years many more varieties are making a name for themselves as international players and could be contenders for an extended list of Noble Grapes.
Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris (w)– Although the wines produced are labelled either Grigio or Gris they are both the same grape. Pinot Grigios tend to be light and fresh with flavours of apple and pears. This style is achieved by harvesting the grapes relatively early, in an attempt to retain as much fresh acidity as possible. These mainly come from northern Italy but also USA and Australia. Pinot Gris tend to be weightier in the mouth with richer flavours of stone fruits. These are common in Alsace, New Zealand and Oregon.
Chenin Blanc (w) – Most commonly associated with the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc has become one of South Africa’s signature grapes. With high acidity and flavours of green apples it can make anything from crisp, bone-dry wines to lusciously sweet and everything in-between.
Gewurztraminer (w) – Thought to originate in northern Italy this is a speciality of Alsace. Highly aromatic – lychee, rose petals, Turkish Delight – and spicy on the palate. Some of the best Gewurztraminer is found in New Zealand, Chile, Germany and Northern Italy.
Grenache (r) – One of the most widely planted grapes in the world, Grenache is extensively grown in France and Spain where it can make big, high alcohol wine bursting with red berry fruit flavours. Often used as a blending ingredient, it has enjoyed success in South Australia, California and Italy.
Syrah / Shiraz (r) – Abundant in the Northern Rhone, Syrah has become one of Australia’s most important grapes (where it is known as Shiraz). Producing big, bold and spicy wines Syrah is often blended with other varieties giving flavours of blackberry, blueberry and pepper. Its popularity extends to South Africa, USA and South America.
Malbec (r) – Coming from South West France, although rarely used today, it is one of the few red grapes allowed in Bordeaux and is now synonymous with the wines of Argentina. Deep and dark with flavours of plum, raspberry and sometimes cocoa it is an excellent food wine. Also grown in Australia, and USA.