Red grapes explained – white below. Click on lists to shortcut to desired variety:
Red Grape Varieties:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
- Shiraz / Syrah
Cabernet Sauvignon is arguably the most noble of all black grape varieties and the most widely cultivated. It first established its reputation in the Médoc where for well over a century and a half it has been the major contributor to such great first growth clarets as Château Latour, Château Margaux, Châteaux Mouton and Lafite Rothschild.
Small and tough-skinned, Cabernet grapes produce deeply-coloured wine, rich in blackcurrant, mint and occasionally green bell pepper flavours along with firm tannins that enable the best wines to age for decades.
Cabernet Sauvignon now has been transported to almost every wine-growing region in the world. It is sometimes bottled ‘solo’, but more often it partners Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot or, in Australia particularly, Shiraz.
Grenache is probably the most widely planted variety of red wine grape in the world. It ripens late, so needs hot, dry conditions such as those found in Spain and in the south of France. It is generally spicy, berry-flavoured and soft on the palate with relatively high alcohol content, but it needs careful control of yields for best results. It tends to lack acid, tannin and colour, and is usually blended with other varieties such as Syrah, Carignan and Cinsaut.
Grenache is the dominant variety in most Southern Rhône wines, especially in Châteauneuf-du-Pape where it is typically over 80% of the blend. In Australia it is typically blended in “GSM” blends with Syrah and Mourvèdre.
Grenache is also used to make rosé wines in France and Spain, notably those of the Tavel district in the Côtes du Rhône. And the high sugar levels of Grenache have led to extensive use in fortified wines, including the red vins doux naturels of Roussillon such as Banyuls, and as the basis of most Australian ‘port’.
Gamay is a purple-coloured grape variety used to make red wines, most notably grown in Beaujolais and in the Loire Valley around Tours. Its full name is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, and it probably originated as a mutation of Pinot Noir. It is a very old cultivar, being mentioned already in the 1400s. It has been often cultivated because it makes for abundant production rather than due to the quality of the wine made from it, but makes wines of distinction when planted on acidic soils which help to soften the grape’s naturally high acidity.
Gamay-based wines are typically light bodied and fruity. Wines meant for immediate consumption are typically made using carbonic maceration which ties the wines tropical flavours and aromas – reminiscent of bananas. Wines meant to be drunk after some modest aging tend to have more body and are produced by whole-berry maceration. The latter are produced mostly in the designated Crus areas of northern Beaujolais where the wines typically have the flavour of sour cherries, black pepper, dried berry and raisined blackcurrant.
Merlot is a red wine grape that is used as both a blending grape and for varietal wines. Merlot-based wines usually have medium body with hints of berry, plum, and currant. Its softness and “fleshiness”, combined with its earlier ripening, makes Merlot an ideal grape to blend with the sterner, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. This flexibility has helped to make it one of the most popular red wine varietals in the United States and Chile.
The Nebbiolo (Italian), or Nebieul (Piedmontese) is one of the most important wine grape varieties of Italy’s Piedmont region.
The grape is used to make wines such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme. These lightly coloured red wines can be massively tannic in youth with intriguing scents of tar and roses. As they age, the wines take on a characteristic brick-orange hue at the rim of the glass and mature to reveal complex aromas and flavours (fruits, flowers and a bit of spices) quite unique and thrilling. These wines often take years to become approachable as they require ageing to tame the tannins from the grapes. As part of a global trend begun in the 1990s, younger producers have sought to make their wines more approachable in their youth.
With limited production, the wines of Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme can often fetch large sums of money. Barolo is the most important and appreciated of Piedmont red wines.
Pinot Noir can make some of the world’s greatest wines. It is the principal black grape of Burgundy and Champagne yet it comes way down the list of the most widely planted international varieties. Why? Due to its capricious nature… This fussy grape only shows the full extent of its amazingly fragrant, breathtaking complexity under idyllic conditions – such as you find in Burgundy in outstanding vintages. Producers all over the world have tried to emulate such wines for decades, but few succeed. Some of the more successful attempts come from New Zealand, Oregan, California and Tasmania.
Pinot Noir is the palest of serious reds. Yet what it lacks in colour, it makes up for in other ways. In youth, it reminds the drinker of fresh, ripe strawberries or raspberries … as it matures, of violets, truffles and game.
Pinotage is a red wine grape that is South Africa’s signature variety. It was bred there in 1925, and typically produces deep red varietal wines with smoky, bramble and earthy flavours, sometimes with notes of bananas and tropical fruit, but has been criticised for sometimes smelling of acetone. Pinotage is often blended, and also made into fortified wine and even red sparkling wine.
Created in the 1920’s, this South African grape variety is a cross between Cinsault and Pinot Noir. Initially slow to gain popularity, it is now the country’s second most widely planted red variety with an incredible worldwide following. In much the same way that Zinfandel is unique to California, South Africa can offer the world its own grape in Pinotage. Varying from rich, full-bodied reds to light, juicy examples this variety is renowned for producing delicious ripe wines. The rich, heavy examples can age for years whilst the lighter wines provide some great summer drinking.
Sangiovese is a red wine grape variety originating in Italy whose name derives from sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jove”. It is most famous as the main component of the Chianti blend in Tuscany, but winemakers outside Italy are starting to experiment with it. Young sangiovese has fresh fruity flavours of strawberry and a little spiciness, but it readily takes on oaky, even tarry, flavours when aged in barrels.
Syrah is the ‘old world’ name for Shiraz – a noble variety producing dark, complex, long-lived wines with powerful, rich berry fruit. Until the 1970s, it was little known in Europe outside the northern Rhône, home to very fine Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie wines.
More recently, thanks to a surge in popularity, it has been planted throughout the southern Rhône and southern France and is viewed as an ‘improver’ among the oceans of lesser-thought-of varieties such as Cinsault and Carignan. Shiraz has been Australia’s most widely planted red variety for 150 years and alongside good value everyday wines, produces some of the country’s most expensive reds including Penfold’s Grange.
Meaning ‘early ripener’, Tempranillo is a master of disguises at home in Spain – known as Tempranillo in Rioja, Navarra and Aragón, Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Cencibel in the centre and Ull de Llebre throughout Catalonia. It is Spain’s most noble variety, making stylish wines with strawberry and sour cherry flavours that combine perfectly with the flavours of oak in the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. A small amount is also grown in Portugal and Argentina.
California’s very own grape variety, although it seems to be the same as southern Italy’s Primitivo grape. It produces wines that range in style from pink, sweet and frothy (confusingly called ‘white’ Zinfandel) to serious, full-bodied, weighty reds stuffed with blackcurrant fruit. A little is also made into a fortified version.
White Grape Varieties
- Chenin Blanc
- Pinot Grigio
- Sauvignon Blanc
Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape variety, used to make white wine. It probably originated in the Burgundy wine region of eastern France but is now found anywhere that grapevines can be grown, from England to New Zealand. It is vinified in many different styles, from the elegant, “flinty” wines of Chablis (wine) to rich, buttery Meursaults and New World wines bursting with tropical fruit flavours. It is an important component of many sparkling wines around the world, including Champagne.
Chardonnay can be crisp and light or rich, tropical and weighty. It has a great affinity with oak so is often fermented and/or aged in barrel, adding toasty vanilla complexity to its ripe, peachy fruit. Fashions change however and these days there is a definite move towards more elegant and subtle styles.
Something of a chameleon of a grape, producing some of France’s leanest most acidic whites (the Loire’s Savennieres) and some of its sweetest. It has remarkable levels of acidity that enable its best wines to age for many years, but more normally produces light, crisp, lemony whites. Vouvray, Saumur and Savennieres are all names to watch out for from the Loire; New World examples, where Chenin tends towards more tropical flavours, come from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Originally a grape from France’s Cognac region of Charente, where it was considered inferior to others because of its higher alcohol and lower acidity. As its popularity waned, its banner was lifted in California, before it returned to France’s Gascony where it is an important constituent of the fresh, lively Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. Not serious or age worthy, it still makes delightful crisp, dry whites with leafy, spring blossom fragrance and fresh green apple flavours.
The most easily recognisable grape of them all, with its heady, almost overwhelming bouquet of lychees, spice and rose petals. It performs best in cooler climates, so it can retain the little acidity that it does have. Alsace probably produces its finest examples, although it is also grown in Germany, northern Italy, Eastern Europe and, in small amounts, in the New World. Dry wines are the norm, but many are so rich as to give the impression of sweetness.
Muscat also produces easily spotted, pungently aromatic wine, this time smelling floral and of grapes (surprisingly enough the only variety to do so). There are many varieties within the Muscat family, producing white, yellow, pink, red, brown and even black grapes. In southern France and Australia particularly, its grapes are often made into sweet, sometimes fortified, wines. Fresh, dry examples are also made in Alsace (the finest again), northern Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe and parts of the New World.
Though widely grown, its spiritual home is northern Italy – especially the vineyards of Friuli-Venezia and the Alto Adige where its produces a light to medium bodied wine with subtle white fruit and spice characters. In Alsace, where it known as Tokay Pinot Gris (or Tokay d’Alsace), it has evolved into a more expressive, fuller-bodied wine to suit the rich foods of the region.
Riesling is considered the finest grape of them all, producing wines of varying sweetness with grape, apple and mineral flavours, yet it lacks the popularity of Chardonnay. At its best, it makes long-lived, elegant, racy wines that take on superb complexity with age (developing notes of honey and diesel!). True Riesling originated in Germany where, along with Alsace, some of its greatest wines are still made. It is also very much ‘á la mode’ in the New World. It’s not the sticky, sugary stuff that gave German wine a bad name. Made in varying sweetnesses (dry through to very sweet), its high acidity levels keep everything elegant and in balance.
The huge popularity of Sauvignon Blanc owes as much to Sancerre as it does to the Marlborough, New Zealand. The Loire may be this grape’s spiritual home but since the mid 1980s, New Zealand has taken the world by storm with its own very distinctive brand of Sauvignon.
Sauvignon Blanc is also one part of a ‘double act’ in the white wines of Bordeaux where it sometimes appears on its own, other times with Semillon, to form the region’s acclaimed dry whites as well as the unctuously sweet wines of Sancerre.
Today, you are as likely to find excellent Sauvignons from Chile or South Africa as you are from New Zealand or France.
With its large berries and thin skin, Sémillon is a real rotter. Struck by ‘noble rot’ in the vineyards of Bordeaux’s Barsac and Sauternes, and usually blended with a little Sauvignon, it makes superb sweet wines of unparalleled richness and complexity. Australia helped to make this grape’s name as a single varietal for dry whites with its distinctive wines from the Hunter Valley that could age for years. Now winemakers in Bordeaux are trying their hand too, with and without the help of Sauvignon Blanc in the blend.
Virtually unknown until the Rhône wines’ rise to fame in the early 1990s, Viognier became very popular as winemakers tried to emulate the qualities of the northern Rhône’s superb Condrieu. Plantings have now spread to southern France and to small pockets in the New World. At its best when very ripe, its grapes tend to produce wine high in alcohol with a dazzling scent of apricot, peach and blossom. Not for long-ageing, these wines are best drunk fairly young.