Around the world there are many different grape varieties, each with its unique characteristics in terms of form, growth, suitability for different climates and regions and winemaking features.
In this section we describe the main aroma and taste characteristics of the main grape varieties.
Use these descriptions to assist in analysing a wine and in determining the types of grapes used to make a wine.
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Typically full-bodied, with fruit flavours ranging from crisp flinty apple and lemon to lush stone-fruit characteristics of peach and apricot. Chardonnay can take on a very ripe tropical fruit characteristic including mango and pineapple. Other key features are a yeast character depending on the degree of lees contact and aging. Many Chardonnays will handle aging in oak – giving the wine an oaky, spicy burn’t character depending on the nature of the oak, the degree of toasting and the age of the oak. Whole bunch pressing, and careful attention to skin, stem and pip contact affects the level of tannins – these are typically ripe, structured and not harsh and overt. Depending on yeast characteristics some wines take on subtle earthy character which further adds to the complexity of this grape type.
Malolactic fermentation gives Chardonnay a buttery feel and adds to the overall body of the wine.
Sauvignon Blanc can range from sharp flinty and green capsicum flavours to fruity gooseberry and tropical fruit like melons and passionfruit in more ripe situations. The style of this wine can vary depending on fermentation techniques, lees aging and barrel contact. Cold fermented in stainless steel tanks this wine typically has fresh fruity characters of lime and tropical fruit, with less aging it takes on more body, complexity and texture and with oak contact the oak flavours add another dimension and degree of complexity. Typical characters are herbaceous, cut grass, capsicum, vegetal, gooseberry, lemon and limes grapefruit, gooseberry, tropical fruit (passionfruit and melon), canned peas and asparagus.
Scented and intense citrus of lemon and limes are the hallmark characteristics of this grape variety. With more complexity this can be extended to spicy characters with hint of orange and honey. Many different styles of this wine are made with residua sweetness often being an important element to balance tight and strong acid which is typical for this grape variety. As this wine matures it often takes on a more haney and caramel character that adds an interesting degree of complexity and intensity. Riesling is usually lower in alcohol with the emphasis on great fruit kick.
Chenin Blanc is fruity (melon and pineapple) with elements of lanolin and wet wool character. This grape variety yields wines with naturally high acidity but this can be easily compensated for by not fermenting to dryness and maintaining some residual sweetness. As this wine matures, it can build a whole new suite of nuances which include honey richness and markedly increased complexity of fruit character.
Pinot Gris has the weight and richness qualities of Chardonnay but has the added dimension of spiciness of Gewurztraminer. Typical fruit character is of pear and apple with the added touch of cloves and spice. In some cases Pinot Gris may see some wood – but this usually minimal to ensure that it does not overpower the subtle fruit flavours.
This classic Northern Rhone grape variety has an exotic perfumed character and substantial stone fruit richness, typically peach and apricot. Other aromas and flavours may conjure up pears, spices and floral notes. This wine can be often seasoned in oak barrels which impart another suite of characters especially richness and constrained acidity. Viognier can be made in both a dry or off-dry style depending on fruit quality and seasonal nuances.
Gewurztraminer is one of the most distinctive wine varieties with aromas and flavours encompassing gingerbread, black pepper, lychees, cinnamon, cloves and mint. Quality gewürztraminer in made in the vineyard as low yielding crops, leaf plucking and maturity avoid the need for skin contact to get richness and complexity. With exceptional fruit intensity stone fruit character may also be evident and add to the myriad of distinctive characteristics.
This grape variety has many of the characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc where it can have zingy acidity but also take on tropical fruit characteristics. Often blended with Sauvignon Blanc to give it complexity and length – this variety can produce stunning rich sweet wines due to its susceptibility to ‘noble rot’ and and is of course the basis of many supper intense and rich sweet wines from Graves. In its more raw form this variety can have quite a ‘cut-grass’ character – but fortunately winemakers are increasingly knowledgeable and now know how to avoid this.
A grape variety that can preserve its acidity in more hot climates it has a lemony and stone fruit characters that can be encased in a nutty and honey richness. Hints of pear and spice may also be apparent where care vineyard management is applied and the wine is barrel fermented.
Muscat varieties is a wide family of grapes that are notable for their musky sweet grapey flavour and are often blended with other grapes to impart perfumed character. Other characters of Muscat include lemony, appley, lively flavours with elements of floral. Sometimes orange hints may emerge from the range of citrus fruit characters.
This grape is relatively new to the "varietal scene", as one of the white wine grapes that is helping, along with Viognier and Roussanne, to increase the visibility and popularity of "Rhône-style" wines in California in particular and the United States in general.
Its probable origin is the northern Rhône region and it is one of eight white grape varieties allowed in the Côtes du Rhône appellation. Offering greater productivity and intriguingly different aromas, it has gradually taken oven the role of blending that traditionally was held in many Rhône appellations by Roussanne. Besides fairly recent and limited plantings in California, Australia has less than 250 acres of vineyards planted to Marsanne, although some date back a century or more.
While the vines are relatively hardy, the grapes hangs in winged, long, well-filled, and compact clusters. This leaves the fruit susceptible to powdery mildew (odium), bunch rot, berry cracking and excessive juicing at harvest. Marsanne grapes tend to be low in acidity, so both must and wine have tendencies to oxidation and browning. This grape's varietal character has little tolerance for weather that is either too cool or too warm and bland, simply vinous wine will result.
The round, medium-gold to amber Marsanne berries make deep-colored wine that is also fairly full-bodied, sometimes described as almost "waxy". Where growing conditions are right, Marsanne aromas can suggest almond paste or citrus, mixed with perfume or model airplane cement. Low aciditiy means Marsanne wine is best consumed young.
This grape should be extinct for all practical purposes, as far as vineyardists are concerned, who would rather manage more cooperative vines. Roussanne gives irregular yields and tends to uneven and late ripening, has little resistance to powdery mildew and rot and is easily damaged by wind and drought.
By selecting and propogating only the least problematic clones, it is the vintners who have preserved Roussanne for two primary reasons: unique aroma and bracing acidity.
Roussanne probably gets its name from the light-brownish russet cast of its ripe berries. It is the only other white variety, besides Marsanne, allowed in France's mostly-red-wine-producing northern Rhône appellations of Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and St. Joseph. It is also grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape to the south. There are limited plantings in a few other French regions and in Italy's Liguria and Tuscany and also in Australia. As of the 2002 California Grape Acreage Report, there are 177 acres in the state.
Roussanne can be thin and tart and is not often bottled on its own in Europe, being blended with Marsanne in the Rhône and in other areas with Chardonnay. Roussanne will perform well using barrel fermentation and oak aging and some California winemakers release varietal bottlings.
The aroma of Rousanne, not as overtly fruity as some types, can suggest wild flowers or herbal tea.
Rousanne wines and blends seem to hold up well with cellaring and may be enjoyable a decade or more past the vintage.
This is a distinctive variety which is traditional grape of Piedmont (North Western Italy). Traditionally, this yields a soft, early maturing wine with slightly herbaceous aromas and almond flavours. Furthermore, it can show tropical fruit spicy flavours and is usually made with a dry finish.
White grape varietal, grown mainly in northern Spain, particularly in Rioja (it is also found in the Languedoc), where it is often blended with Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca (or Grenache Blanc), as well as with, on an increasing level, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay; high-yielding, it is also heavily used to make sparkling wine (especially Cava); notable nose-and-mouth characteristics generally include high oak character (from being aged so long in wood, though these days this has been reduced), aromatic freshness, and light fruit. Pretty neutral floral character; medium-low acidity.
The character of these wines is diverse and complex. Typical flavours are black olive, black current, blackberry, black plum moving through to chocolate, coffee and spice. This grape takes on many nuances depending on how it is made into wine, warm fermentation enhances flavour and extracts for tannin to give the wine more body, oak (either French or American) add burned flavours and spiciness. Some wines have a more herbal, brambly and spicy character or supple and savoury characters. As Cabernet Sauvignon matures it often takes on a more prune, stew fruit character that adds further complexity and alluring interest. Other typical characters include mint and licorice.
The character of Cabernet Franc is black berry fruit, hints of raspberry, herbal, peppery and somewhat aromatic. Cabernet Franc is typically much more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon.
The varietal Characteristics of this grape are plums, leathery, fruitcake, gamey and meaty. Other characters may be blackcurrant plum spice and coffee. Often blended with other Bordeaux grape varieties this grape is softer and with not so stringent tannins.
Often blended with other Bordeaux reds to add colour, it can also add rich sweet fruit flavours. It also has plumy, spicy characters and at times can take on a slightly earthy note.
The typical character of syrah is raspberry, blackberry, licorice, black pepper, plum, spice and prunes. With maturation earthy notes appear adding complexity and further interest.
Strawberry, cheery, plum Raspberry, mushrooms, earthiness and beetroot are all common characteristics of Pinot Noir. Red berry characteristics increase in increasing ripeness of the fruit. Other characters include earthiness, barnyard, straw, spicy and nutty.
The wine tends to exhibit a dark purple hue with hints of strawberry, plumb, raisin, spice, leather, and tar. Zinfandel has a mouth-filling characteristic that is sometimes described as being jammy or chewy. The colour of a Zin is deep red, bordering on black. Zinfandel is a spicy, peppery wine, with a hint of fruity flavour - berries or dark cherries are often the taste range. While the intensity of these characteristics may vary, the basic Zin flavour is similar.
The flavour profile of Sangiovese is fruity, with moderate to high natural acidity and generally a medium-body ranging from firm and elegant to assertive and robust and a finish that can tend towards bitterness. The aroma is generally not as assertive and easily identifiable as Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, but can have a strawberry, blueberry, faintly floral, violet or plum character.
Carménère wine has a deep red color and aromas found in red fruits, spices and berries. The tannins are gentler and softer than those in Cabernet Sauvignon and it is a medium body wine. Although mostly used as a blending grape, wineries do bottle a pure varietal Carménère which, when produced from grapes at optimal ripeness, imparts a cherry-like, fruity flavor with smoky, spicy and earthy notes and a deep crimson color. Its taste might also be reminiscent of dark chocolate, tobacco, and leather. The wine is best drunk young.
Wine makers use Mourvédre frequently in blends to boost colour and tannin, but often bemoan its absence of distinct flavours. Beginning in the early 1980s, several Australian wineries have popularised various blends of Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro as "GSM" wines. Unblended Mourvèdre wines tend to be deep-coloured, quite tannic, somewhat alcoholic, and have generally "spicy" and sometimes, "gamey" aromas in their youth. Other characteristics include spicy (thyme, cinnamon, black pepper); gamey and violet.
Wines made from nebbiolo are typically dark, tart, tannic and alcoholic. The best smell of cherries, violets, roses and black licorice or truffles and have rich, chewy, deep and long-lasting flavours. Good Nebbiolo can harmonize with the richest, strongest-flavoured meats and stews, as well as dry, aged cheeses that may be too strong or distinctive for other wines. other characteristics may include mint, strawberry and tar.
The flavour of Tempranillo is essentially savoury rather than sweet. The characteristic smell has hints of leather but the phrase I use most often to describe it is 'fresh tobacco leaves' - even though, as is so often the case with these useful 'trigger words', I am not at all sure I have ever actually smelt fresh tobacco leaves themselves. There is something sappy, fresh and vegetal about it, but also something definitively masculine, the sort of smells you would expect to find in a stereotypical man's dressing room - which is, I suppose, where the leather comes in.
Tempranillo wines are ruby red in colour, while aromas and flavours can include berries, plum, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herb. Often making up as much as 90% of a blend, Tempranillo is less frequently bottled as a single varietal. Being low in both acidity and sugar content, it is most commonly blended with Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain), Carignan (known as Mazuela in Spain), Graciano, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending the grape with Carignan makes a brighter and more acidic wine.
Sweet tannins and a jammy, soft flavor characterize this widely grown red grape in Italy. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC and Rosso Conero DOC are among the best varieties.
Often used in Bordeaux-style red blends, the Petit Verdot varietal is known as the “small green” because of its tendency to ripen late. Frequently, the crop will be lost because of its unpredictable maturation, one factor in its declining popularity in the Bordeaux region. In the warmer climates of the New World, however, the varietal ripens more reliably. Petit Verdot is commonly used as a seasoning in blends to add stronger acidity, tannins and shades of dark purple. As a varietal wine, Petit Verdot displays flavors of blackberries along with aromas of banana and pencil shavings when young, and notes of violets and leather when mature. A few of the wineriesthat produce Petit Verdot varietal wines include Bell Wine Cellars and Escafeld Vineyards in California, and Pirramimma Winery in Australia.