In order to understand wine, it’s essential to identify the different characteristics that grapes offer and how those characteristics should be expressed in wines. Even when grown in different appellations and vinified using different techniques, a varietal wine always displays certain qualities which are inherent in the grape’s personality.
Understanding what a grape should be as a wine is fundamental; and knowing what a grape can achieve at its greatest is the essence of fine-wine appreciation.
In Europe, the finest wines are known primarily by geographic appellation. However in other regions such as America, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, most wines are labeled by their varietal names and sometimes by grape combinations. For example, Cabernet-Shiraz.
Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape variety used to make white wine. It may have originated in the Burgundy wine region of eastern France. Chardonnay is a versatile grape. In cold regions such as France, it shows crisp acidity and flavors of green hay with the flinty notes typical of the territory. When the vines are grown in hot climates such as those in the plains of California and Australia, the conditions ensure ripe grapes which lead to high levels of alcohol in the wine and rich flavors of peach, melon, citrus and tropical fruits. World winemakers responded to these bold flavors with the use of oak barrels to age wine for long periods.
It is an important component of many sparkling wines around the world, including Champagne. Chardonnay will pair well with poultry dishes, pork, seafood or recipes that have a heavy cream base.
Sauvignon Blanc is a green-skinned grape variety which originates from the Bordeaux region of France. It is now planted in many of the world’s wine regions; producing a crisp, dry, and refreshing white varietal wine. Conversely, the grape is also a component of the famous dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac. Depending on the climate the flavor can range from aggressively grassy to sweetly tropical. The wine is usually consumed young as it does not particularly benefit from aging.
Sauvignon Blanc when slightly chilled, pairs well with fish or cheese, particularly Chevre. It is also known as one of the few wines that can pair well with sushi.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a variety of red grape mainly used for wine production along with Chardonnay which is one of the most widely-planted grape varieties in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in most of the world’s wine regions.
The particularly thick skin of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape results in wines that can be high in tannin which provides both structure and age ability. This varietal is frequently aromatic and has an attractive finish. However it tends to lack mid-palate richness and is often blended with lower tannin, but “fleshy” tasting grapes such as Merlot.
Cabernet Sauvignon has a well defined aroma. In Old World wines, particularly those made in Bordeaux, this is characterized by a smell of violets, blackcurrant, cedar and spice. New World wines of this grape can often share the aromas of their Old World counterparts, but are more often dominated by aromas of chocolate, ripe jammy berries, oak, pepper and earth.
Malbec is a black, mellow grape variety originally grown in France. It is increasingly celebrated as an Argentine varietal wine. The Malbec grape is a thin skinned grape and needs more sun and heat than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to mature. It is a “midseason ripener” and it can bring very deep color, ample tannin and a particular plum-like flavor component to add complexity to claret blends. The wines are rich, dark and juicy.
The grape also needs a high differential between day and evening temperatures and a minimum fluctuation of 27 degrees Fahrenheit in a day; this is one of the factors why Argentina is a special place for this varietal. The best examples of these wines come from the Argentine region of Mendoza. In Argentina, where Malbec seems to have found a natural home, the grape is used to produce very popular varietal wines.
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. Merlot is produced primarily in France (where it is the third most planted red grape), Italy (where it is the country’s 5th most planted grape) and California.
Shiraz/Syrah is a red grape. It is called Syrah in France, Argentina, Chile and most of the United States. In South Africa, Australia and Canada it is known as Shiraz. “Syrah” labeled wines are sometimes thought to be more similar to Old World examples (presumably more elegant or restrained) such as Northern Rhône reds. “Shiraz” labeled wines are more similar to New World examples (presumably riper and fruitier), but even this rule of thumb is unevenly applied. Shiraz is widely used to make a dry red table wine. It is often vinified on its own, but is also frequently blended with other grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier. It is grown in many wine producing regions around the world with concentrations in Australia, the Rhone Valley in France and America.
Wines made from Shiraz are often quite powerfully flavored and full-bodied. The variety produces wines with a wide range of flavor notes depending on the climate and soils where it is grown, as well as other viticulture practices chosen. Aroma characters can range from violets to berries, chocolate, espresso and black pepper. No one aroma can be called “typical” though blackberry and pepper are often noticed.