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the wine novice's guide - getting to know the grapes (part 1)

January 07, 2019

the wine novice's guide - getting to know the grapes (part 1)

The classic white grapes

1. Chardonnay
The appealing flavours of wines made from this grape - vanilla, butter, butterscotch, pineapple, green apple, tropical fruit etc, are matched by the creamy, full bodied texture that these wines almost always possess.
In many parts of the world, but especially in the USA, Australia and in Burgundy, chardonnay is fermented and aged in oak  barrels. This process transforms chardonnay wines, developing a creamier body, a longer finish and even sometimes, greater complexity.
Chardonnay grapes are grown all over the world. The most important countries and regions producing chardonnay wines are Burgundy and the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France, Tuscany and the Tre Venezie region in Italy, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, California, Oregon and Washington State in the USA. 

2. Chenin Blanc
The most famous Chenin Blanc wines come from the Loire Valley in France, particularly Vouvray and Savennières. 
In the Loire, chenin blanc wines are created in a variety of degrees of sweetness, from very dry to very sweet. The very sweet Loire Valley chenin blancs can be extraordinary. The most famous of all is Quarts de Chaume.
chenin blanc is also a major white wine grape in California and South Africa. The Californian chenin blancs are often gorgeous, with wonderful flavours reminiscent of apricots, pears and peaches, but the South African wines made from this grape are not a match for the glorious Loire wines, being on the whole, rather simple every day quaffing wines.

3. Riesling
Riesling is said to be the finest and most unique white grape variety in the world by many wine experts. 
Fine rieslings have souring acidity, and are low in alcohol and therefore light in body. This grape can have an alcohol level as low as 8%. In comparison, wines made from Chardonnay grapes average 13% alcohol. The finest rieslings are notable for their intense but delicate flavours of peaches, melons and apricots, complemented with a refreshing mineral quality that is reminiscent of a fresh water mountain stream.
The most elegant rieslings come from Germany, the Alsace region of France and northern Austria. Rieslings can be dry or have various levels of sweetness. At its sweetest, this grape is ravishingly honeyed. Some German Rieslings can have as much as 30% residual sugar. 

4. Sauvignon Blanc
Wines made from sauvignon blanc are the complete opposite of wines made from Chardonnay. Where Chardonnays are all buttery creaminess, sauvignon blancs are acidic and herbal.
The notable flavour of wines made from this grape are straw, hay, grass, green tea and herbs. 
The very greatest grapes come from the Loire Valley in France, particularly from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Wonderful wines are also made from this grape in Austria, New Zealand and South Africa.
In Bordeaux, virtually all white wines are made from a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. This blending causes the tart, herbal flavours of sauvignon blanc to be mellowed by the honeyed character of semillon.

5. Semillon
The dry white wines of the Graves region of Bordeaux, and also the legendary sweet wines from the Santerre and Barsac region of Bordeaux are made principally from semillon, with a small amount of sauvignon blanc.
Outside of Bordeaux, Australia is the most famous producer of wines made from this grape. Many of these are straight semillon, but some are blends of semillon and Chardonnay, or semillon and sauvignon blanc.
 

The Classic Red Grapes

1. Cabernet Sauvignon
This is the most famous red grape. At their best, wines made from cabernet sauvignon. At their best, wines made from this grape are a delicious combination of blackberry, blackcurrant, plum, eucalyptus, mint, leather and cedarwood.
Historically, the world's greatest cabernet sauvignon came from the Bordeaux communes of Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe, where the wines are ranked in quality from first growth (the best) down to fifth growth. First growth wines such as Chateau Margaux and Chateau Lafite are stratospherically expensive, and are beyond reach of the average wine lover. However, many second and third growth wines are being made in California, Australia, Argentina, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand.   

2. Merlot
Merlot grape is very similar to cabernet sauvignon - its flavours include blackberry, plums, chocolate, mocha and sometimes leather.
The most historically famous region for merlot has been Bordeaux in France. It is the leading grape in the wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion in Bordeaux. 
This grape is mostly blended with cabernet sauvignon, or other grapes such as cabernet franc or malbec. There is one legendary exception - Chateau Petrus, one of the greatest and most expensive wines in the world, is 99% merlot.
Outside of Bordeaux, merlot is grown and made mainly in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France and in California and Washington State in the USA.
A large number of Chilean wines labelled as merlot, are in fact merlot interplanted with a grape called Carménère, a variety once common in Bordeaux, but now almost extinct there.   

3. Pinot Noir
More than any other wines, those made from pinot noir tend to be described in sensual terms. This association with sensuality derives from the supple, silky textures of these wines, and the early aroma the great pinot noir grapes possess. The flavours most associated with this grape are warm baked cherries, plums, chocolate, cedarwood, leather, damp earth and sweat!
This grape is lighter in colour than cabernet sauvignon, and this lightness in colour and also texture, leads many novice wine drinkers to imagine that its flavours will be less intense. For the greatest pinot noirs, the reverse is true.
The most famous region for this grape is Burgundy where all the red wines, except Beaujolais, are made from pinot noir.
In the new world, very fine pinot noirs are produced in Oregon and New Zealand.    

4. Syrah 
Syrah's extraordinary and powerful aromas and flavours include blackberries, smoke, damp earth, leather and especially pepper and spice.
The greatest syrahs come from the northern Rhone Valley in France. There, in exclusive, small wine districts, the only red grape allowed is syrah.
In the southern Rhone Valley, syrah is usually blended with other grapes to make Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas wines.
Outside of France, syrah is mainly grown and produced in South Africa and Australia, where it is known as shiraz.