In Food + Drink

Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot And More: Eight Basic Wine Grapes To Know

When choosing a wine off of a restaurant or bar list, knowing exactly what you’re getting is nearly impossible. However, having a solid foundation of ‘grape knowledge’ is a good start. We’re all about savvy drinking, and to us, this undoubtedly begins with knowing the basics.

We’ve compiled a list of eight basic grape varieties that every wine lover should know. Simply keep this cheat sheet in your back pocket and you’ll be on your way to connoisseur level in no time.

Note that while these general flavour profiles are applicable to most wines, there are always a handful of exceptions. But that’s the beauty of wine.

Whites

wine grapes

Image: Valeria Boltneva / Pexels

Chardonnay

What is it? Chardonnay is the world’s most widely planted white grape variety and is basically cultivated in every growing region in the world. The grape is rather neutral, which allows it to fervently reflect the place from which it comes (this is the concept of terroir, illustrated). Champagne is also used as the backbone for many of the world’s great sparkling wines, including Champagne, Franciacorta, and various French crémants.

Popular growing regions: Burgundy, California, Champagne

General flavour profile: Due to its neutrality, Chardonnay’s vinification greatly reflects its flavour profile. For wines aged in new oak, expect flavours of stone fruit, vanilla, and baking spice. For expressions that are vinified in steel or neutral oak, expect more apple, pear, and mineral notes.

Sauvignon Blanc

What is it? Sauvignon Blanc is a green-skinned variety that was originally born in France’s Bordeaux region. It is generally known for its high acid, fruit-forwardness, and thirst-quenching freshness.

Popular growing regions: New Zealand, Loire Valley, Bordeaux

General flavour profile: For New World (USA, Australia, New Zealand) expressions, expect notes of citrus and grass. Old World expressions (Europe) will tend to be more on the mineral and flinty side.

Riesling

What is it? Originally from Germany’s Rhine region, Riesling is one of the most versatile (and misunderstood) grapes out there. Although the grape is frequently used to make world-class dessert wines, the grape is also capable of producing some of the most high-acid and bone-dry wines out there.

Popular growing regions: Germany, Washington State, Australia

General flavour profile: Expect notes of lemon, lime, wet stones, petrol, and honey (sweet wines). The wine’s high acid and (at times) residual sugar make it one of the most food-friendly grapes on the planet.

Chenin Blanc

What is it? This high-acid grape variety originates from the Loire Valley and is used to produce wines across the entire tasting spectrum (dry to sweet). If not vinified meticulously, final wines can be rather neutral, though when attended to, Chenin Blanc produces some of the most flavourful and pleasant wines to drink.

Popular growing regions: Loire Valley, South Africa

General flavour profile: Expect notes of green apple, tart pear, honey, ginger, and wet rocks.

Reds

wine grapes

Image: Timur Saglambilek / Pexels

Cabernet Sauvignon

What is it? Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most widely planted red grape varieties in the world. Known for its high acid, high tannins, and powerful structure, wines produced from this grape are known as some of the most ageworthy bottles in the world.

Popular growing regions: California (Napa & Sonoma), Bordeaux, Australia, Chile, Lebanon

General flavour profile: New World expressions (California, Australia, Chile) are often dominated by opulent and powerful notes of ripe black fruit, plums, black currants, licorice, vanilla, cedar, and/or baking spice. Old World expressions tend to to be more restrained and marked by flavours of currants, tart plums, pencil shavings, cedar, cigar box, tobacco leaf, and/or graphite.

Merlot

What is it? Although Merlot had a bad rep after the movie Sideways, the variety is seeing a renaissance like never before. The grape is known for producing wines of easy-drinkability, due to its medium levels of tannins and overall silky nature.

Popular growing regions: Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Chile (Central Valley)

General flavour profile: Merlot’s plush and velvety flavour profile is often dominated by notes of plump blueberries, blackberries, ripe cherries, plums, vanilla, and/or baking spice.

Pinot Noir

What is it? For winemakers, Pinot Noir is one of the most finicky yet gratifying varieties to grow. Although the grape requires tons of attention and is very susceptible to disease, when grown properly, these wines are some of the most elegant, thought-provoking, and terroir-reflective bottles in the world.

Popular growing regions: Burgundy, Oregon (Willamette Valley), California (Sonoma, Santa Barbara County), Champagne

General flavour profile: Expect notes of cherries, red fruit, forest floor, wet earth, mushrooms, herbs, and/or game.

Nebbiolo

What is it? Nebbiolo reigns king over northwestern Italy. Regarded as Piedmont’s claim to viticultural fame, the grape is marked by insanely high acid and tannins, which lead to wines of crazy food-friendliness and the ability to age long-term in the cellar.

Popular growing regions: Barolo, Barbaresco

General flavour profile: Nebbiolo is known for its flavours of dried red fruit, tart cherries, rose petals, tar, leather, and/or tobacco.

(Lead image: Zachariah Hagy / Unsplash)

Published 16 December, 2019