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Wine Grapes
arrow Main arrow History arrow Before You Taste arrow Tasting arrow Wine Making
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The grape is the most important distinguishing factor in characterizing different wines. Each grape variety has a unique set of characteristics of color, size, skin, acidity, flavor, and yield per vine. Although there are many hybrid grapes that are genetically created by combining two species of wine, most wines are made from a variety of the European species, Vitis vinifera.
One example of this European species and considered one of the classic white grape varieties is Chardonnay. Chardonnay is known for its success in the Burgundy region of France but is grown and made all over the world. It is named after the town of Chardonnay in the Maconnais region of France. Chardonnay is often fermented and aged in oak barrels providing a rich, creamier texture and frequently leaving a buttery or vanilla flavor and aroma. However, the wine can be ruined by leaving it in contact with wood too long; thereby, generating an overbearing taste of oak. Chardonnay grapes grow best in cooler climates with warm days and cool nights. Chardonnay grapes can also grow in warmer climates producing unique Chardonnay flavors like honey and butterscotch. The grape itself is green, small, and thin-skinned and produces a wine that is a nice balance between sweetness and acidity. The harvesting and fermentation process both contribute to the wine being more expensive than most other wines. While California and France are known for producing some of the highest quality Chardonnays, many other countries produce the wine as well, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina.
Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc is another classic white wine that is very different from Chardonnay. It is higher in acidity, often exhibiting a melon or herbal aroma and taste. The wine is also generally not aged in wood, since it can easily be overpowered by the oak flavors. Also, where Chardonnay can be costly to produce, Sauvignon Blanc is generally produced at a lower cost. The grape is grown in New Zealand, Australia, California, Washington state, Texas, Italy, South Africa, and in the Loire Valley, Sancerre, and Bordeaux regions of France. The Sauvignon Blanc grape is generally grown best in cooler climates. Warmer climates tend to produce wines with less fruit flavors and more of an herbal character such as grass, herbs, or bell peppers. The wine typically has a pale color with a light to medium body. The name Sauvignon comes from the French word sauvage, or wild. This would typify the Sauvignon Blanc vine, since it can grow wild with vigorous flowers. Thus, it is important to manage the canopy with careful pruning. Leaving the vine to grow on its own device could result in a neutral-tasting wine. The wine is typified by its often sharp, aggressive smell. However, blending Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon can add richness and soften the sometimes abrasive, tart herbal character of the Sauvignon Blanc. This blending is a common practice in France’s Bordeaux region.
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc is one of the most versatile of all wine grape varieties. Chenin produces a product ranging from crisp, dry table wines to sweet, fruity fuller wines. The vine also has the ability to grow well in many different soil types and is resistant to many diseases. Optimal grape production occurs when vines reach about 3 years old, after which, vines may overproduce inhibiting crops to fully ripen in cooler areas. While the native and more famous region for Chenin Blanc is in the Loire Valley of France, the grape is grown in many parts of the world including, California, France, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, and South Africa. In Loire, most of the great sweet Chenin Blancs are produced, and partly due to its high acidity, can age gracefully for decades.
Riesling is arguably the most noble of the white grape varieties. The grape produces a perfect interplay between sugar and acid generating a delicate balance between the two. Its wines usually embody fresh fruit flavors and can develop a petrol-like quality with aging. Riesling is generally made with a lower alcohol content and is light-bodied. Although in the warmer, drier climate of the Alsace region in France, the grape can produce a fuller-bodied and fruitier wine. In the right conditions, Riesling can also produce some of the world’s best dessert wine. Particularly in Germany, Riesling grapes can be affected by a mold (Botrytis Cinerea), attacking the skin of the grape and causing it to shrivel, allowing much of the juice or water to evaporate. This causes the sugar to concentrate and produce wines with incredibly intense flavors with a remarkable life span. The vine grows best in cool climates and is very resistant to frost. The berries are small, round, and soft when ripe with greenish-yellow skins. The ideal growing conditions are hillside in cool climates with plenty of exposure to the sun and shielded by wind. Riesling is grown in California, New York State, Oregon, Washington, the Alsace region in France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and Austria.
Semillon grapes are the most common of the white grape varieties that is used for blending. It is most often blended with Sauvignon Blanc to combine each grape’s strength. The high acidity and strong aroma of Sauvignon Blanc help accentuate the rich flavors of Semillon. Together they are responsible for some of the more luxurious dessert wines. Semillon is also a favorite of the Botrytis Cinerea mold which concentrates the sugars and flavors intensifying the wine’s aromas. The berry is a rich yellow color when mature and grows best in cooler climates. Semillon is principally grown in the Bordeaux region of France, Australia, Chile, and California.
Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon is the premier red wine grape and one of the most widely-planted of the world’s noble grape varieties. It has a vast range of quality, structure, and maturity. The grape is small, dark, and thick-skinned. Its thick skin results in wines that can be high in tannin providing both structure and ability to age well. The vine grows in slightly warmer climates than most other varieties to achieve maturity. Cabernet exhibits a wide range of aromas and flavors such as cedar, spice, violet, black currant, mint, and plum. The variation in flavor depends on the region, manufacturing technique, and age. Though generally, Cabernet Sauvignon wines are full-flavored with a smooth and lingering finish. While it is the dominant grape in the Bordeaux region of France, it has spread to many other regions throughout the world. Today, the grape is principally grown in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, France, Italy, South Africa, California, and New YorkState.
Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is known as one of the more difficult grapes to grow, but often one of the best when done properly. It is also one of the oldest grape varieties to be cultivated for wine making dating back to Ancient Rome in the 1st century AD. The grape is highly sensitive to climate changes and variations in soil composition. It requires warm days followed by cool nights. The wine can become thin and pale under too much heat and embody an overripe flavor when under warmer than normal conditions. The vine is also susceptible to a variety of afflictions. Sharpshooters, a type of leafhopper, often attack the vine carrying Pierce’s disease, which can destroy an entire vineyard in as little as a couple years. Leaf roll virus can also be common in older vineyards, which infect vines and rootstocks during propagation causing the leaves of the red-grape to turn a brilliant red. In this case, the grape’s sugar accumulation is impeded, eventually causing the acid levels and overall quality of the grapes to greatly diminish. Since pinot vines often have inadequate leaf coverage, the fruit is hardly protected from birds. Also, the grapes are thin-skinned and tender, which can become shriveled and dried out if not picked promptly at maturity, compromising the wine’s aroma and flavor. However, when cultivated and made correctly, the wine can offer a warm black cherry, plum, mushroom, and cedar aroma and flavor. It is light in body and color with much less tannic than its red counterparts. All of this help contribute it to being well known as one of the more sensual varietals. The grape is principally grown in California, Oregon, New Zealand, Burgundy, and Champagne.
Merlot closely resembles Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are prominent in the Bordeaux region of France and embody similar flavors and aromas. It is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to soften the blend. However, Merlot can mature in regions cooler than required for Cabernet Sauvignon, is more susceptible to fungus and mold diseases, and while both are high in tannins, Merlot has slightly less than its close counterpart. It is a fragile grape that is sensitive to dryness and cold. Merlot has a velvety texture with a variety of aromas and flavors including blackberry, plum, chocolate, and cherry. The grape is large and thin-skinned, but susceptible to early spring frosts and bird damage. While the Merlot grape can make an excellent wine by itself, it is often blended with other types of grapes, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon, to make softer varieties of red wine. Merlot is made mainly in California, New York State, Washington, Chile, Bordeaux region of France, and Italy.
Syrah is an ancient varietal native to the northern Rhone region of France, where many of the most renowned Syrah wines are made. This region produces a tannic, spicy, long-lived red wine. They are long-lived because of its slow maturation process. Northern Rhone in particular, is home to the Syrah with the most intense and potent aromas and flavors. The wine takes on characteristics of sweet blackberries, black currants, and plums. Syrah takes on the name Shiraz in Australia and has become its most widely cultivated grape. While the French version is generally lighter and more earthy, the Australian Shiraz embodies a bolder, spicier, and darker wine. Syrah is principally made in California, Australia, South Africa, and the Rhone region of France.
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