All about grape varieties
When you choose a bottle of wine , its label gives you some key information, which constitute clues about the type and aromas of this wine .
One of these pieces of information is the grape variety(ies) used. Indeed, it is the grape variety that is the basis of each type of wine.
What is a varietal ?
Wine is produced from grapes. The vine, on which this grape grows, can belong to various varieties . It is these different varieties of vines that are called “grape varieties”.
So when you choose a grape variety, you are choosing the type of grape (or mix of grapes) used to create your wine. Some wines are said to be "monovarietal" , which means that they are made from a single type of cultivated vine, while others are made from blends of different grape varieties .
Note that there are over 8,000 different types, sometimes used very locally or sometimes in dozens of countries at once. There are wine grape varieties and table grape varieties, used for table grapes.
We can distinguish two main families of grapes:
- “White” grapes : they have a white juice used for most white wines,
- “Black” grapes : they can have a red juice (used for red wines) or a white juice (used for white wines).
To identify the grape variety to which a vine belongs, it is necessary to observe the appearance of the plant, such as the morphology of the leaf, the shape of the bud and the color of the clusters . The science of studying the differences between grape varieties is called “ampelography”.
How are the different grape varieties distinguished?
Knowing that there are different types of grapes is good. Understanding why it is important to distinguish them is better.
Indeed, each grape variety gives the wine a different taste, aromas and characteristics . The reason for this lies in the characteristics of the grape itself.
Each type of grape has a particular taste , even before being transformed to create wine. These particular aromas are the basis of the characteristics presented by the wine at the end of the process. Thus, while some grape varieties offer aromas considered relatively neutral, others will have more floral characteristics, such as Muscat, or vegetal characteristics, such as Sauvignon Blanc.
The acidity level
Not all grape varieties are equal, in terms of acidity either. Some grape varieties are naturally very acidic, which greatly influences the wine produced .
A grape that has a very thick skin gives more tannins , compared to a grape with a thin skin.
The size of the grape
The logic is the same: the more skin there is, the more tannins the grape will deliver . However, if a grape is small it will contain less juice than skin.
This is not insignificant, because the characteristics of the grape are subsequently transmitted to the wine. This is why it is useful to know how to recognize certain grape varieties, which are more common than others.
The main grape varieties and their characteristics
Unless you are a real expert, it is quite difficult to know all the grape varieties that exist. It is nevertheless very useful to know some of them and to identify those that we prefer .
Here is some information about some of the most used grape varieties in France:
The main black grape varieties
Here are some grape varieties that are useful to know when discovering red wines:
Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most used red grape variety , after Merlot. Its favorite land is Bordeaux, where it has acquired its letters of nobility, in particular thanks to Médoc and Graves. However, it is also used for many blends in the South and South West.
It is never used alone for a wine. It can represent up to 75% of the blend of grapes , and is often supplemented with Merlot.
The wine it produces is often frank - cabernet franc -, dense and tannic, with notes of cedar and blackcurrant.
Although originally from Burgundy, Gamay is a unique grape used mainly for Beaujolais reds (from Mâcon to Lyon). It gives fruity wines.
It is an early and very productive variety. It does, however, need to be assembled so that quantity does not outweigh quality.
Grenache is a purely Mediterranean grape variety . It has a particular success in Spain. The wine it produces has a full-bodied character .
It tends to age quite quickly, which is why it 's important that it be blended with other varietals if you want to store your wine.
Merlot is a very productive and early ripening grape variety . It makes it possible to obtain full-bodied and supple wines. It has more roundness in the mouth than Cabernet Sauvignon.
It can be used as the main grape for great wines such as St-Émilion or Pomerol.
- Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned wine that can have great aging potential . This variety, particularly used in Burgundy, is not suitable for hot regions.
When young, Pinot Noir has aromas of berries, red fruits and even violets . Once aged, its aromas become more earthy.
Syrah , also called "Shiraz", is mainly grown in the Rhône region and in Australia. It is used for the best Australian, Californian and Canadian wines. Wines made from Syrah have a tannic character, without being rough.
They have aromas of red fruits, dark chocolate, spices, or liquorice.
Carignan is a grape variety made from black grapes. It has been in the vineyards of France since the Middle Ages and has made a name for itself in Languedoc Roussillon and Côtes-du-Rhône.
Cinsault is a southern grape variety of black color and of Provençal origin. It likes the heat and adapts very well to hot and sunny soils . It is vinified in red.
Malbec is a variety of black grapes that produces red wines. It is one of the six grape varieties authorized for blending red Bordeaux wines. It is robust and makes wines with lots of tannins.
The main white grape varieties
Here are some grape varieties that are useful to know when discovering white wines:
Aligoté is a Burgundy grape variety known for its acidity . It has aromas of lemon and acacia.
It gives a very light and fresh white, to drink young. It is perfect for kirs .
Chardonnay is also a very productive grape variety . It is one of the most widely used white grape varieties because it is present all over the world.
The flavors given to the wine are those of peach, pear or even brioche and toast.
Gewurztraminer is an Alsatian grape variety . Its clusters are pink when ripe. With this variety, the wine obtained has a spicy character, with aromas of citrus fruits and nutmeg .
Muscadet, also called " Melon de Bourgogne " , is particularly used in Burgundy and in the Loire regions. It resists cold well.
It makes it possible to produce neutral wines, with fruit aromas, which combine roundness and liveliness . It is nevertheless advisable to taste these wines when they are young, because this variety tolerates aging less well than others.
- White Muscat
White Muscat is the most famous Muscat grape variety . Indeed, Muscat is part of a family of grape varieties, put under the same name for their common aromatic power. White Muscat, with its small grains, is undoubtedly the most noble of them.
Much used in Languedoc-Roussillon , in Alsace, or even in California , it gives subtle wines with fruity and flowery aromas. It also makes it possible to create excellent natural white wines .
Some of the most famous Italian wines are also produced from white Muscat. Its Italian name is “Muscato”.
Sauvignon blanc is another such globally grown grape variety . It first made a name for itself thanks to its wines from Bordeaux and the Loire regions, but today it is far from being limited to these areas.
It is the basis of some of the most famous whites, such as Sauternes, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé.
Sauvignon generally produces light, acidic and dry wines . They often feature strong vegetal flavors.
- Pinot Blanc
Pinot blanc is a grape variety found mainly in Alsace and Burgundy. It is a variety of white grapes that is part of the pinot family. Pinot Blanc produces fruity, spicy and balanced wines. It can be used to make Crémants or for sparkling wines.
Savagnin is a grape variety found in the Jura. It is with him that we produce the famous yellow wine or straw wine.
Vermentino is a variety of white grapes found mainly in the Corsican massif. It produces quality wines with a pale yellow color.
Viognier is a grape variety that can be found in particular in France and more precisely in the northern Rhône Valley, in Condrieu, in Côte Rôtie, at Château Grillet, etc.
Sémillon is a white grape variety found mainly in the south-west of France. It makes it possible to produce dry white wines and great sweet white wines.
With this information, you have a basis for understanding wine bottle labels and exploring different grape varieties .
A good way to maintain your knowledge of grape varieties is to write down the composition of your favorite wines .