Classic Red Wine Grapes
What I consider to be the six classic red grapes are detailed here, together with further details on a number of other varieties at the foot of the page. Some of the grape varieties mentioned here, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, will be familiar to even the novice wine drinker. Others, however, such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, will be much less familiar, as outside of the regions of northern Italy where these grapes have their home they are not, as yet, extensively planted.
Each profile contains information on:
Spiritual home: the Old World locations where the grape has its home. Most grape varieties have just one or two locations in the Old World where they are traditionally cultivated. This section tells you where.
Grown elsewhere: some grapes have found a niche in the New World, and may have gained considerable fame as a result, such as Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. Others are almost ubiquitous, whereas some have travelled little. This section gives you a brief one-liner as to where the variety is found, with more detail in the profile.
Keywords: this section gives just one or two words that give some idea as to the intrinsic flavour of the grape. It is merely a quick note to 'hang your hat on', so to speak, and is by no means comprehensive. Much more detail is given in the profile.
Profile: A guide to the growing requirements or preferences, taste and aroma, ability to age and so on.
Spiritual home: Bordeaux.
Grown elsewhere: Widely cultivated throughout the world.
Key flavour: Blackcurrants.
Profile: Renowned for the wines it produces on the well-drained, gravelly soils on the left bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon has been a natural choice for New World winemakers wishing to emulate the fine wine that is claret. It is a robust grape that has travelled well, and is now cultivated in Australia, South Africa, North America and South America, but has also been put to use in Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe. It has small, blue-black berries which have thick skins, providing necessary tannin, colour and flavour. Characteristics aromas and flavours are blackcurrants, cedar, old furniture and cabinets, coffee, tobacco, cigars, cigar boxes, violets, minerals, green pepper (especially if grapes are somewhat under-ripe), chocolate and so on. Young wines start off intensely fruity, whilst the more complex aromas will develop with age.
Spiritual home: Bordeaux.
Grown elsewhere: Important in Italy and California.
Key flavours: Chocolate, fruitcake.
Profile: Whereas Cabernet Sauvignon has its spiritual home in the left bank communes of Bordeaux, Merlot is most famous for the wines from the right bank, especially from Pomerol and St Emilion. Although somewhat less widely travelled when compared to Cabernet, this thin-skinned, large-berried variety has found a new home in California. It is also important in some of the top wines of Italy, and can also be found in Australia and Eastern Europe. Spicy fruitcake, Christmas cake and chocolate characteristics will often give Merlot away, although it may also display blackcurrant, black cherry and plums. It is less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, and is often used in clarets when they need to be 'fleshed out' in weaker vintages.
Spiritual home: Burgundy, important in Champagne.
Grown elsewhere: Success in New Zealand, California, Australia.
Keywords: Summer berry fruits (primary characteristics).
Profile: Without doubt, although many winemakers of the New World have tried their hand at cultivating this variety, none have come close to emulating the fine wine that can be produced in Burgundy. Nevertheless, the wines of New Zealand have received critical acclaim in recent years, and there are also extremely good examples from California, Australia and South Africa to be found, although all are made in a richly fruity style quite distinct from Burgundy. This variety is thin skinned, grows in small bunches, and is prone to problems with yields. Accepted wisdom states that consistently low yields are necessary to maintain quality, and although high-yield clones have been developed (there are many different clones of Pinot Noir, all of which have different flavour, yield, disease resistance and so on) the final product lacks the necessary quality. When discussing Pinot Noir, it is also worth remembering that it plays a vital role as one of the three grapes widely planted in Champagne. Primary aromas and flavours (those present when young) are redcurrants, cranberries, strawberries, blackberries and chocolate. The secondary aromas (those that develop with age) include horsehair and animal fur, farmyard aromas, manure and compost. Lovely!
Spiritual home: Rhône Valley, particularly the north.
Grown elsewhere: Australia, but many other countries also.
Keywords: Black fruits & black pepper.
Profile: Syrah is the grape behind fine wines of the Northern Rhône, not only Côte Rôtie ("roasted slope") and Hermitage, but also Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage. Nevertheless, most wine drinkers are familiar with it as Shiraz, the name by which it is known in Australia, where it is responsible for richly fruity wines, ranging from inexpensive everyday bottles right up to Australia's first growth, Penfolds Grange (once known as Grange 'Hermitage'). This thick-skinned grape may produce potentially tannic and long-lived wines. It is also late-ripening, explaining why it has gravitated towards warm regions such as the Rhône and Australia, although it is also producing good wines in South Africa, Chile and California. Typical descriptors include black fruits and black pepper, but more intriguingly raspberries, spice, herbs, grilled meats, charcoal, smoke and tar may be found. When aged it may develop rubbery aromas, particularly when from the Northern Rhône.
Spiritual home: Chianti.
Grown elsewhere: Not extensively.
Keywords: Black cherries.
Profile: This variety enjoys a warm climate, and is capable of producing great wines in such conditions. A cooler environment may result in excessive acidity. Despite this, Sangiovese has not been the focus of the attention of new World winemakers in the same way as Cabernet or Pinot. This may relate to Chianti's image problem, as for too long it has been regarded by many as a jug wine, despite the efforts of top producers such as Felsina, Fonterutoli and Fontodi. Sangiovese is also the grape behind other classic wines of Northern Italy, such as Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello being an Italian synonym for this grape) and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. In the New World, there are some small plantings in California and Australia, as well as Argentina. Typical characteristics include slightly bitter, mouth-watering sour cherry and black cherry aromas, with spices, herbs and tobacco.
Spiritual home: Barolo.
Grown elsewhere: Not extensively.
Keywords: Black cherries.
Profile: Like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo is another of Northern Italy's classic grapes which, despite great potential, and being responsible for some of Italy's finest wines, has not been widely planted in the New World. It's home is not just in Barolo, but also nearby Barbaresco, where fine wines are also produced. It would seem ideally suited to planting in warmer climes, as this thick-skinned variety is late ripening. Indeed, the name Nebbiolo may be derived from nebbia, a fog which hangs over the vineyards during the Autumn harvest. There are small plantings, however, in California, Australia and Argentina. Typical adjectives used to describe the wines of the Nebbiolo grape include black cherries, liquorice, tar, hung game and chocolate.
Other Red Grapes
There are tens of thousands of grapes suitable for viticulture, although only a few are capable of making great wine. Here are a few of the other important red grapes.
Grenache: Important in the Southern Rhône, where it dominates. Nevertheless, in almost all cases in is blended with other varieties such as Syrah and Mourvèdre, which is standard practice in this region. It may also be found in Spain and Australia. Characteristics: raspberries, white pepper.
Mourvèdre: Also important in the Southern Rhône, but also Bandol in Provence where it produces some classic wines. Also known as Monastrell or Mataro, and may be found in Spain and California. Characteristics: tannic, long ageing wines. Black fruits.
Cabernet Franc: Dominant grape in the Loire Valley, but also extremely important in Bordeaux where it is general used as a minor component of the blend by most châteaux, although by itself it is the grape behind the wine from one of the regions top estates, Cheval Blanc. Characteristics: blackcurrants, blackcurrant leaves, green/bell peppers, smoke, spice.
Tempranillo: The grape of Rioja. Many of the characteristics of Rioja are derived from the long oak-ageing. Characteristics: vinified without oak, you might find strawberries and soft spices.
Malbec: Like Cabernet Franc, this is used as part of the blend by some Bordeaux estates. It is also the grape behind Cahors, a southern French appellation. It is becoming more widely known, however, for the steadily improving wines it is producing in Argentina. Characteristics: intense summer fruits, spice.
Zinfandel: The grape the USA has made its own, with wide plantings in California especially. It is also grown in southern Italy where it is known as Primitivo. Characteristics: red and black fruits, black pepper.
Pinotage: This grape belongs in South Africa. It is a crossed variety, the parents being Pinot Noir and Cinsault, which was once known as Hermitage. Characteristics: summer fruits, fruitcake, tar, leather, smoke.
Gamay: The grape of Beaujolais. Like Tempranillo, many of the flavours associated with this grape are not from the grape itself. In Beaujolais, the winemaking technique carbonic maceration is more the culprit. Certain yeast strains have also been implicated as being responsible for some flavours, particularly banana. Characteristics: red fruits, bananas, bubblegum.