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 WINE PRIMER

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Wine Knowledge 

There are some 8,000 different grape varieties, but there are only one hundred or so that are of interest to wine lovers. Being able to identify the taste of a grape by name will give you an idea of the style of wine it will make.
Some of the most popular grapes are:

View a complete list of:

  • Red wine grapes.
  • White wine grapes.

  • Cabernet Sauvignon (red)
    Produces long-lasting, deeply coloured red wines that are astringent when young but mellow with age. As red Bordeaux, particularly from the Médoc and Graves regions, the wines are leaner and more elegant than Cabernets grown in California, Australia or Chile.

    Noted flavours: Cedar and blackcurrant


    Chardonnay (white)
    Makes a dry wine whose range of flavours depends on where the grapes were grown and how long the wine stayed in oak (if at all). Chardonnay will be labeled as such in most regions other than France where it is named after the village where it was grown. Examples: Chablis, Meursault, Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuissé.

    Champagne also uses Chardonnay in the blend and exclusively as Blanc de blancs Champagne.

    Noted flavours (cool climate): Apple, vanilla, nutty; (warm climate): Tropical fruits, smoky, spicy.


    Chenin Blanc (white)
    The wines can range from very dry to off-dry to sweet as well as sparkling. Best known as Vouvray and Saumur (villages in the Loire Valley). Also grown in California, which makes a softer, less acidic wine, and in South Africa, where it is frequently called Steen.

    Noted flavours: Pear, apple.


    Gamay (red)
    The grape of Beaujolais. Makes a light, fruity wine that can be consumed young, especially chilled. When blended with Pinot Noir in Burgundy, the wine is called Passe-tout-Grains.

    Noted flavours: Cherry, pepper.


    Gewürztraminer
    The most unforgettable of grapes. Grown in Alsace and Germany and throughout Europe as Traminer, the wines have an exotic perfume of lychee nuts, rose petals and sometimes red peppers. They suggest sweetness on the nose, but the best (from Alsace) are dry. Also produced in Oregon and California and Ontario. Gewürz is German for spicy, and Traminer means from the town of Tramin where the vine was first propagated.

    Noted flavours: Lychee, rose petals.


    Merlot (red)
    Very similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but softer, fruitier and faster maturing. In Bordeaux and in many other regions, including California, it is blended with Cabernet to make the wine rounder. Merlot predominates in the St. Emilion and Pomerol, producing dark, full-bodied wines.

    Noted flavours: Blackberry, blackcurrant.


    Muscat (white, less commonly black)
    Although it is made as a dry wine in Alsace and sometimes in Australia, Muscat wines are generally sweet and rich. They are usually grown in warm climates; the hotter they are, the sweeter the wine will be, culminating in the Muscat of Samos (Greece). Black Muscat is invariably a sweet dessert wine.

    Noted flavours: Grapey, aromatic


    Nebbiolo (red)
    Grown extensively in Piedmont and other northern Italian provinces, Nebbiolo produces the long-lived, somewhat austere Barolo and Barbaresco with their characteristic bitter finish.

    Noted flavours: Truffle, tar, roses


    Pinot Blanc (white)
    Similar in character to the Chardonnay, it is generally broader in flavours. Grown extensively in Alsace. The Italians call it Pinot Bianco, and it is widely used in sparkling wines. In Germany it's the Weissburgunder. Generally low in acidity.

    Noted flavours: Apple, peach.


    Pinot Gris (white)
    One of the most underrated of grapes, grown mainly in Alsace where it is called Tokay-Pinot Gris. In Italy it's called Pinot Grigio. In Germany and Austria, Ruländer. Full-bodied white with lots of flavour. Some of the best come from Oregon.

    Noted flavours: Peaches


    Pinot Noir (red)
    A notoriously fickle grape. When fully ripe, makes exquisite wines in Burgundy that age almost as long as red Bordeaux. Also successfully grown in Oregon and California. Extensively used in the production of Champagne (where it is blended with Chardonnay). When used by itself, it is called blanc de noirs (a white wine from black grapes.)

    Noted flavours: Raspberry, strawberry.


    Riesling (white)
    Perhaps the most versatile white wine, it can range in style from steely dryness to honeyed sweetness. The bouquet is floral with a freshness from the acidity. It grows best in cool climates and reaches its apogee in Germany. The best wines come from Mosel and Rheingau in Germany, Alsace and Washington State.

    Noted flavours: (Dry) lime, grapefruit; (Sweet) honey, apricot.


    Sangiovese (red)
    The major grape in Chianti (along with Canaiolo) although now Italian producers are beginning to make it a varietal wine. It is 100 percent in Brunello di Montalcino and a constituent of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Highly acidic and tannic.

    Noted flavours: Cherry, truffle.


    Sauvignon Blanc (white)
    This grape smells of grass, pea pods and elderberries. It is best known for the wines of the Loire, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. It grows well in California, too. In Bordeaux it is blended with Sémillion to produce such wines as Entre-Deux-Mers. Generally dry and crisp, it can make a sweet late harvest wine with good acidity.

    Noted flavours: Gooseberry, fig


    Sémillion (white)
    Not often used as a varietal, this grape is generally blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make dry white Bordeaux. Similar in style to Sauvignon Blanc, but more floral and not as herbaceous. Sémillion is the major grape in the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.

    Noted flavours: Fig, green plum


    Syrah (red)
    Makes the powerful, rich dry wines of the Northern Rhône (Hermitage, Côte Rôtie), and is a constituent in the blend of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the wines of the Southern Rhône. Ages well. Also grown successfully in California. In Australia, it is called Shiraz, where it makes a varietal wine and is also blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.

    Noted flavours: Blackberry, pepper


    Tempranillo (red)
    The major grape of Spain, where it is also called Ull de Llebre. Has long ageing capabilities and produces wines that remind you of both red Burgundy and red Bordeaux.

    Noted flavours: Strawberry, spices


    Zinfandel (red)
    Native to California, this grape is used to produce off-dry blush wines for immediate consumption as well as powerful dry reds for aging and port-like dessert wines.

    Noted flavours: Blackberry, raspberry, spices, pepper.

     

     

     

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