The Aligoté is a medium-fine plant which has a long history in Burgundy. A fairly vigorous white grape, its berries are larger and more numerous than those of the Chardonnay and, consequently, it is higher-yielding. It can be found almost anywhere in soils which, though good for vines, suit neither the Pinot Noir nor the Chardonnay. The wine made from it isn’t sold under the name of the village where it is grown (with the sole exception of Bouzeron), but goes under the official name Bourgogne Aligoté. It can also provide one of the ingredients for sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne.
The most fashionable white grape variety in Spain. These aromatic, flinty wines from Galicia are now becoming more widely known as a perfect accompaniment to the seafood this green Northern province is famous for. When yields are kept low, and the fresh aromas of the grapes are preserved, the wines are distinctive and perfumed.
This relatively late ripening variety is grown most widely in the Monferrato hills in Piemonte, north-west Italy. Its principle characteristic is its high levels of natural acidity, even when fully ripe, making it a popular choice in hot climates such as Argentina and California‘s Central Valley. Once known as the ‘people‘s wine‘ of Piemonte due to its versality and abundant production, Barbera produces wines which are a deep, ruby red colour with full body, low tannins and pronounced acidity. Barbera d‘Alba, Barbera d‘Asti and Barbera del Monferrato are the three most famous DOCs with the best vineyard sites in Asti given to Barbera (rather than Nebbiolo as is the case in Alba). Much remains still to be done here, however, in terms of matching variety to terroir. Experimentation with new oak has led to significant changes in the character of Barbera, adding a spiciness and certain amount of tannin which helps to firm up its structure and soften the acidity. This fuller, richer style of Barbera will most likely remain the exception, however, rather than become the rule.
Black Muscat, another under appreciated muscat variety, is known in Europe as a table grape variety, Muscat Hamburg, one of the very few black skinned muscats. If ripened to about 25 brix, it attains a rose-like aroma and litchi like flavor. This rose-like aroma led us to name the wine Elysium, Greek for heaven. Drinking this, you can almost feel you have fallen into a rose garden and been transported to heaven.
A late ripening red grape variety which could, according to Jancis Robinson, be called the bane of the European wine industry. It produces wine high in everything – acidity, tannin, bitterness, colour – everything other than elegance and finesse. It was planted in great quantities in the south of France in the 1960s due to its ability to produce huge yields for a thirsty but indiscriminate market. Despite the EU vine pull scheme, much Carignan still exists today, mainly in the Languedoc (Aude and the Herault), although most AOCs are steadily decreasing the proportion of the variety that they use in their blends, favouring instead on varieties such as Syrah and Mouvedre. Only the oldest, lowest yielding and best situated Carignan bushvines of Minervois and Corbieres are capable of producing deeply concentrated and characterful wines. The variety is also used, with much better results, in Spain, especially in Priorat where it is usually blended with Garnacha.
Until phylloxera arrived in Bordeaux in 1870 and promptly powered its destructive way through the vines, Carmenère was, along with Cabernet Franc, one of the most planted varieties in the region. After replanting began (with grafted vines to avoid phylloxera) and the growers wearily began experimenting with new rootstocks from overseas, it was discovered that Carmenère ripened more irregularly when grafted, so plantings were gradually phased out. Now it is barely seen in Bordeaux. It has, however, been discovered to have been thriving in phylloxera-free Chile all along, where, since it arrived in the 19th Century, they have thought it was Merlot. Chile is now the world‘s Carmenère powerhouse. Prone to develop a green and vegetal note unless ripened over a long, warm season, it produces wines with rich, black fruit, warm spiciness and enticing, savoury complexity.
The Chardonnay is also considered a Burgundian grape and has been for centuries. It is responsible for the prestige of the great white wines of the Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Chablis districts. (In Chablis it is locally known as the Beaunois grape.) It produces handsome bunches of golden berries about the same size as the Pinot grapes but more elongated and less densely packed. Though the grapes are small, they are rich in deliciously sweet white juice. The leaves can be recognised by the thick veins either side of the indentation where the stalk joins the leaf (sinus petiolaris).
Whenever fledgling wine regions have sought to establish themselves on the international stage they have planted Chardonnay. It is everywhere – from England to India and everything in between. The vanilla-scented, creamy examples which sparked such demand in the 1980‘s have moved on, but Chardonnay still has endless possibilities ranging from crisp and flinty, biscuity and toasty to unctuous and buttery. From easy drinking through to super-serious, there are few grapes which reflect so clearly the climate in which they‘re grown or the hands of the winemaker.
Corvina is an Italian variety grown predominantly in the Veneto region of northeast Italy. Corvina is blended with several other grapes to create the classic wines from this region – Bardolino and Valpolicella, plus Amarone and Recioto. When vinified fresh (ie not dried), it usually produces medium bodied wines with a light crimson colouring, sour cherry notes and a classic slight bitter cherry and almond twist on the finish. The small berries of Corvina are low in tannins and colour extract but have thick skins that are ideal for drying and protecting the grape from rot (for Amarone and Recioto). Ripasso wines are made from corvina made using a traditional Veronese practice Traditionally, the young wine was re-fermented on the skins of the Amarone grapes once they had finished fermenting in March. The new, more expensive approach is to ferment the young wine together with dried grapes in the January following the vintage, giving the wine more body and depth. This blend of modern and traditional winemaking produces a wine with a combination of freshness, structure and depth that is fairly rare among Ripasso wines. Following fermentation, the wine is aged for just over a year in a mixture of large oak and small, French oak barrels prior to bottling.
The grape for Gavi, one of Italy‘s best known whites, Cortese is grown almost exclusively in Piemonte, particularly around Alessandria. Usually vinified unoaked, at its best, it is aromatic but minerally, with good acidity even when fully ripe. It is also seen in Lombardy and the Veneto where the resulting wines are crisp and fresh.
The world knows this chameleon variety in two guises. Supermarket shelves swell with easy-drinking, citrussy white wine from fertile valley floors in California and South Africa on the one hand while on the other, Chenin Blanc can be a honeyed elixir in varying degrees of sweetness from small village appellations in the Loire Valley. This is the traditional home of Chenin Blanc, where the mists rising from the Loire in the mornings envelop the vines and induce the onset of the mould Botrytis (noble rot) whose own characters meld with Chenin‘s acacia-and-straw flavours to create wines with complex flavours, bright acidity and outstanding capacity to age. Chenin can range from dry and intensely mineral in appellations like Anjou and Savennières, to lusciously sweet and honeyed.
How to introduce the most widely-known red grape in the world? Now planted nearly everywhere there are vines, growers the world over know that its distinctive black fruit flavours are a sure sell in export markets. Fairly low maintenance, it flourishes wherever there is warmth and sunlight. The coolest of marginal climates give green, capsicum flavours; in warmer climates the fruit flavours become richer and blacker, with a savoury ‘graphite‘ edge. Despite having been accused of encouraging homogeneity in international wine styles, it undeniably produces some of the greatest red wines in the world.
Originally a native to the southwest of France, this is both parent to, and overshadowed by, the illustrious Cabernet Sauvignon. Although more prevalent on the right bank of the Gironde, Cabernet Franc has become viewed as the ‘insurance‘ grape of Bordeaux; it ripens earlier and is less susceptible to poor weather than the major Bordeaux varieties. This makes it suitable for cooler climes like the Loire Valley, where it has thought to have been grown since the sixteenth century. The Bordeaux connection has led it to be planted in most well-established world wine regions – albeit usually in the shadow of Cabernet Sauvignon – and used as a blending partner, although it is gathering credence for single varietal wines in Northern and Central Italy and Eastern Europe. The gentle growing season in cooler regions gives wines with lightish body, distinctive freshness and a mix of floral, red fruit and capsicum flavours; on the warmer Tuscan Maremma, the most southerly of these regions, it gains body and darker fruit character.
Dolcetto‘s name derives from its sweetness (compared to the other classic Piemontese varieties) which is emphasised by naturally low acidity and counterbalanced by often robust tannins. The counterpart of Barbera, which is high in acitidy, relatively low in tannins and lighter coloured, Dolcetto is often vinified in a light, frothing, youthful style and drunk in the first couple of years of bottling. A deeply-coloured, early-ripening variety, grown in Piemonte around Cuneo and Alessandria, it is usually planted in the sites which are not warm enough to ripen Piemonte‘s celebrated Nebbiolo grape.
Also known as Falanghina Greco, this is an ancient white variety from Campania, in southern Italy. With modern winemaking technology, it can now produce interesting, aromatic wines which are usually unoaked.
This is an interesting variety grown in southern Italy and responsible for Fiano di Avellino from Campania. With an attractive texture, sometimes with a silky, waxy character, it is less aromatic than Greco di Tufo but with more subtle aromas. It is also planted in Puglia and in the McLaren Vale in South Australia.
Frappato is used most notably as 40% of the blend to produce the D.O.C. Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Vittoria is located in south east Italy with an excellent micro-climate allowing late-ripening of the red grapes. The wines are characteristically fresh and distinguished by red fruit flavours. Cerasuolo is generally light ruby-red in colour, and bursting with aromas of berries – bilberry, blackberry and raspberry – bright, light, but persistent on the palate, juicily oozing a hedgerow of summer fruits. ‘Pithos’ from COS displays the personality of the Frappato grape with its exuberant expression of violets and raspberry blossom. The mouth is floral, warm and supple, the berry fruit flavours complemented by soft tannins, The Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classica from the same estate – a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola is in the same idiom but with greater definition and vivid minerality. The wines from this region are medium-bodied with moderate tannin; the COS wines unusually see no oak – the Pithos is fermented in traditional clay amphorae and other wines are fermented and aged in cement tanks. Freisa Pronounced as in when you’ve drained the last drop of this pale Piedmonteaser then Freisa has definitely left the building this grape variety is grown in the Piedmont region of north-west Italy, primarily Monferrato and in the Langhe, but also further north in the provinces of Turin and Biella. Synonyms for Freisa include Monferrina, Monfreisa, Fessietta, Freisa di Chieri, Fresa Freisa and Spannina.
The Gamay grape takes its name from a hamlet belonging to the village of Saint-Aubin, near Puligny-Montrachet. It is mentioned in a number of 14th-century written sources. It’s a quite heavy-cropping plant with grape bunches more or less tightly-packed according to variety. The variety which concerns us here is the white-juiced black Gamay which, growing on the granitic soils of the Beaujolais hills, produces attractive, delicate and aromatic red wines (though on the clay-limestone soils of the Côte d’Or it yields only rougher wines). It is to this plant that the red wines of the Mâconnais and Beaujolais owe their reputation.
Gamay is Beaujolais – few are the wine regions whose identities are so tied up with their grapes. 99% of the Beaujolais vineyard area – a fifth of all France‘s – is planted with the grape. Here it reaches the pinnacle of its reputation as a light bodied, intensely fruity, racily acid wine often released quickly and intended for early, preferably summertime, drinking. It is bush-trained in order to keep its buoyant growth in check and often vinified by carbonic maceration. Some producers in the more distinguished villages vinify traditionally to give wines of greater structure and more restrained fruit. Gamay is also grown throughout Eastern Europe, the Loire Valley, Savoie, Italy and Switzerland.
Greco Bianco is grown primarily in southern Italy and is assumed to be of Greek origin. In Campania it produces Greco di Tufo, which at its best is delicately perfumed, with an apricot fragrance and style reminiscent of good quality Viognier.
Other ‘aromatic‘ grapes pale into insignificance! Distinctive even on sight, its pink skin gives it one of the deepest hues in the white wine spectrum. Once tasted, Gewürztraminer is unmistakeable, with an aroma of ripe lychees and Turkish delight, many newcomers to wine find it the first grape they can identify. In too warm a climate it races to over-ripeness at the expense of acidity, so it is well suited to the established regions of Alsace and Germany, with cooler sites such as the Clare Valley in Australia or maritime New Zealand producing exciting examples as well.
Though the world is more familiar with its French name (Grenache), Garnacha probably originated in the North of Spain. It is now found, under a host of regional names, in Sardinia (as Cannonau), Greece, Israel, North Africa, France, Spain and Cyprus. Adoring the Mediterranean sun, it can accumulate up to 16 degrees of potential alcohol while still on the vine. It thrives in hot, dry and windy conditions grown as a bush vine. Less typically for a warm climate grape it has a thin skin. This means it lacks, at least at normal yields, the depth of colour for many red wines, but makes it well-suited to soft and fruity rosés and rosatos. The concentrated fruit from old, low-yielding vines like those in Priorat and Châteauneuf-du-Pape can, however, give wines of powerful intensity and deep colour, which demand cellaring. Garnacha‘s affinity for hot hillsides has also led it to California and Australia, where it was the most-planted grape until it was overtaken by Shiraz in the 1960‘s.
A synonym for Alicante Bouschet, Garnacha Tintorera is a red-fleshed grape variety grown in Spain whose name derives from the Spanish for ‘dyer‘ (tintorera). It is not the same as Garnacha (Grenache), but is a cross, bred by Henri Bouschet, from Petit Bouschet and Grenache. The resulting wine is more deeply coloured than white fleshed varieties. Also grown as Alicante, in Corsica, Tuscany, Calabria, Israel and N Africa, there are still reasonable quantities produced in the hot Central Valley of Spain.
Jurançon, in the foothills of the Atlantic Pyrenees, is the true home of the Gros Manseng grape. The distinguishing characteristic of this variety is its scything acidity, and it is not fanciful to perceive the purity and freshness as part and parcel of its mountain environment. For all that Jurancon has a long growing season and is one of the sunniest wine growing climates in France. This enables the grapes to reach maturity and acquire aromatic ripe citrus flavours.
Grüner Veltliner is famous as Austria‘s most widely planted variety but is now gaining respect in other regions as far afield as New Zealand. A late ripener, it is at its best in the Austrian regions of Wachau and Kamptal areas where in the hands of winemakers such as Loimer and Heinrich, it produces full-bodied and lively wines, with characteristic white pepper and spice notes.
Lagrein is a red variety grown in the Alto Adige area of northern Italy where it may be produced as a single variety, with a characteristic hint of bitterness on the finish, with good tannins and colour, or blended with Pinot Nero/Pinot Noir or Schiava. Winemaking techniques have now made the wine more approachable when young, with rounded, less astringent notes and the emphasis on its attractive fragrant character. The variety was mentioned as early as the 17th century in the records of the Muri Benedictine monastery near Bolzano in the Alto Adige.
Generally accepted to be of ancient Greek origin, shipped to Italy by the Venetian trading ships, the name Malvasia is believed to be a corruption of Monemvasia, the busy, southern Greek trading port of the Middle Ages. Widely planted in various different guises across Iberia and Italy, Malvasia can produce a wide range of styles, from sweet white to dry red wines. As Malvasia Fina or Boal, in the Douro, it is a key element of dry white port whereas in Madeira, its name was corrupted to Malmsey by English drinkers who for a long time favoured the richer, sweeter style of Madeira. As Malvasia del Chianti in Tuscany, it is an important variety in Vin Santo, made from slowly fermented dried grapes. As Malvasia Bianca in the Abruzzi area of Italy, it has a delicately fragrant quality, with notes of peach and liquorice, blending well with more buttery varieties such as Chardonnay. Malvasia delle Lipari is distinctive sweet wine from dried grapes produced in the windswept Aeolian Islands off Sicily.
In the past Marsanne was usually referred to in the same breath as its traditional blending partner, Roussanne, but it is now widely produced as an aromatic, ripe and full-bodied white wine in its own right. Modern vinification techniques have helped preserve its honeysuckle and almond perfumes while keeping its naturally low acidity as crisp as possible. Still most prevalent in the northern Rhône, it is made in limited quantities in Australia and California where blending it with fresher varieties such as Roussanne and Viognier is the norm.
Melon de Bourgogne
Burgundian in origin, Melon or Melon de Bourgogne is the grape from which Muscadet is made. With good resistance to relatively low temperatures, it produces a crisp, dry white which when well-made, is lightly floral, lively and fresh. Merlot Few grapes have been as enthusiastically embraced by wine producers worldwide as Merlot. It‘s earliest records place it on Bordeaux‘s ‘right bank‘ where the largest plantings are are still found. However, its soft, approachable nature means it has been planted extensively elsewhere. More tolerant of cooler growing conditions than Cabernet Sauvignon, there is great demand for its low-tannin, plummy Chilean incarnation as well as more demanding styles from low-yielding, well-placed vineyards across the world.
Now proven to have no relation to Cabernet Franc, low yields, the right soils and good vinification are now resulting in interesting wines made from the Mencia variety. Most widely planted in northwestern Spain, particularly Bierzo, it can produce wines which are appealingly full-bodied and concentrated, with attractive ripe berry characters supported by a good solid tannin structure, frequently softened by oak-ageing.
Not to be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano which is not made from this variety, Montepulciano takes over from Sangiovese as the predominant black grape variety moving down into southern Tuscany and beyond. A late ripener, it is not grown further north but thrives in the warm climate of the Abruzzi, the Marche and further south. In the past, its deep colour and plummy, chocolate and dark cherry character made it ideal as a blending wine for naturally lighter coloured varieties such as Sangiovese, but now it is more frequently produced as a single varietal.
Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains is considered to be the best quality Muscat and is known as Moscato Bianco in Italy. Planted all over Italy and much of France, both are used to produce sweet wines, often relatively low in alcohol (as for Moscato d‘Asti) or from dried or semi-dried grapes. Believed to be the oldest cultivated wine grape, it is thought, like Malvasia, to have originated from Greece and is still grown there. Its small berries are intensely perfumed, with a characteristic sherbety, grapey quality when vinified fresh and a luscious, orange blossom character when vinified dried. Australia‘s Liqueur Muscats are made from the same variety, known as Brown Muscat. . Muscat d`Alexandria Different from Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains or Moscato Bianco, Muscat d‘Alexandria is known as Zibibbo in Sicily where it is best known for producing Moscato di Pantelleria. Grown in France in the Roussillon, it is the still the primary variety for Muscat de Rivesaltes although in some cases is being gradually supplanted by the superior Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains.
Believed to be native to either Piemonte or Lombardia in northern Italy, Nebbiolo is responsible for producing some of Italy’s best known wines, such as Barolo and Barbaresco. The grape’s characteristic tannin structure, marked acidity and often pale, ruby colour divide the wine world into those who do and those who don’t ‘do’ Nebbiolo. Akin to Pinot Noir in some respects, especially in the emotional response it triggers in many wine drinkers, it is demanding in the cellar and vineyard. It is low yielding and prefers calcareous marl soils with sunny slopes and good exposure. It buds early and ripens late, making it more susceptible to early frost and wet autumns. It is usually the latest variety to be picked in Piemonte, with the harvest sometimes stretching into November. In the cellar, winemakers have struggled for an eternity to soften the tannins of Nebbiolo. This struggle led to the ‘style wars’ in Barolo and Barbaresco in the 1980s and 1990s, when the so called modernists and tradtionalists argued as to the best way of vinifying and ageing Nebbiolo. With time, and better viticulture, today’s best producers have taken the best practices from both camps, ensuring that the wines now being produced are of outstanding quality. The grape’s name is thought to derive from ‘nebbia’, the Italian for fog, as the suggestive of the weather in late October when it is traditionally harvested. Some hold that the earliest mention is in AD1, when a wine from Pollenzo (just north of today’s Barolo zone) was described by Pliny the Elder. Outside Italy, it is cultivated to some extent in California, Australia’s Adelaide Hills and a little in Argentina, but its greatest wines are produced in the rolling Langhe hills. In addition to Barolo and Barbaresco, it also produces Langhe Nebbiolo (usually from younger or less auspiciously sited vines) and Nebbiolo d’Alba. North of Torino, in the tiny area of Carema, Nebbiolo, known locally as Picutener, is the primary variety. Nebbiolo grown in northern Piemonte, in the provinces of Novarra and Vercelli, produces distinctly different wines to those from the Langhe. The marine sand soils on igneous rocks are very high in acid and result in wines that have softer tannins than those in the Langhe. Until the early part of the 20th century, there was more area under vine in these two provinces than in the Langhe. Nebbiolo, here known as Spanna, was the major variety in wines such as Lessona, Gattinara, Bramaterra, Ghemme, Boca, Sizzano and Fara. Some of these wines are today being hauled back from the brink of extinction and Nebbiolo, still the predominant variety, is being supplemented by local varieties like Vespolina, Bonarda and Croatina. There are two distinct sub-varieties of Nebbiolo: Lampia and Michet. Rose, once thought to be a sub-variety, is now known, thanks to DNA profiling, to be a separate variety, though one that is related to Nebbiolo. The new clones developed by the University of Torino, particularly 71 and 66, are highly prized by quality conscious producers for their low vigour. Clones 385 and 423, from Picutener, have thicker skins, and are also sought after. .
Malbec or Cot
Malbec is Argentina’s flagship variety, and the country has the largest Malbec acreage in the world. This variety originally comes from South West France, where it is called Cot and features a hard, tannic style. Due to its intense color and dark hues, wines obtained from this variety were once called “the black wines of Cahors.” These wines consolidated their prestige in the Middle Ages and gained full recognition in modern times. The conquest of the English market was a crucial step for the success of Cahors wines in England and around the world. In 1852, Malbec was brought to Argentina by Michel A. Pouget, a French agronomist who was hired by the Argentine government. When phylloxera destroyed French viticulture towards the end of the 19th century, the “Cot” fell into oblivion. However, a culture of appreciation of Malbec had already consolidated. Malbec in particular adapts quickly to the varied terroirs offered by Argentina’s landscape and begins to produce wines better than in its original land.Argentina became the only country to have original Malbec vines of true French heritage.
Negroamaro is planted primarily in southern Puglia on the eastern half of the Salento peninsula. It is the predominant variety in the DOCs for Salice Salentino, Copertino, Brindisi, Leverano, and Squinzano. It is later ripening than Primitivo, with higher acid and more evident tannins. These tannins have tended to be softened by the addition of the more perfumed and delicate Malvasia Nera to the blend. Mark Shannon of A Mano says that the name Negroamaro, which is said to have been brought to Puglia by the colonizing Greeks in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., is derived from Latin and Greek roots for its dark colour; nigra in Latin and mavro in Greek, citing one of the grape‘s synonyms, Nigramaro, as evidence.
Nero d‘Avola is Sicily‘s most widely planted red grape variety. According to Alberto Antonini, it has many similarities with Syrah. Like Syrah, it greatly benefits from low vigour soil, a warm climate and low vine training. The best examples are deep coloured and full bodied with a damson and chocolate character, high levels of tannins and decent acidity. While Nero d‘Avola‘s home is thought to be in Sicily, one of its synonyms, Calabrese, suggests that it might have been brough to Sicily from Calabria. However, there is a small town near Pachino in southeastern Sicily called Avola, so some connection between the two must be assumed. Pachino was once as famous for its deep coloured blending wine as it is today for the quality of its tomatoes. Nero d‘Avola‘s transition from a blender sought after for its colour, to a variety that is making some of Sicily‘s best reds has been quick, so the variety would seem to promise more than it has yet delivered.
A white grape often associated with Jerez in Andalucía, but has now been almost all replaced by Palomino Fino. The vast majority of Pedro Ximénez comes from Montilla-Moriles further inland and its main role is as an imported sweetening agent in blended Sherry. The tiny hectarage which remains in Jerez is used to produce high-quality, intensely viscous, unctuously sweet varietal wine with dark raisiny flavours and an immediately seductive, silky mouthfeel.
Predictably, this is the smaller cousin to Gros Manseng of Jurançon. It is native to the area of southwestern France between Gascony and the Pyrenees, although plantings are now cropping up in California and parts of Australia. It is particularly suitable for sweet wines, producing compact bunches of tiny, thick-skinned grapes which are hardy enough to hang on to the vine well into the Autumn, letting the sugars concentrate as they dry and shrivel. The tiny quantities of ultra-sweet juice make spicy, floral, characterful wines with high levels of acidity.
Developed in the 1870s in France’s Rhône region where it is known as Durif or Petite Sirah, this grape variety is more commonly known by its slightly anglicized synonym, Petite Sirah — particularly in California. The result of a cross between the noble Syrah and a relatively minor Rhône variety, Peloursin, Durif was developed to resist Powdery Mildew, to which Syrah is susceptible. Although mildew-resistant, the tightly-bunched variety was vulnerable to gray rot in the humid southern Rhône. Fortunately, the grape has adapted well to the drier climates of California, and to those of northeastern Victoria, in Australia. In fact, the grape has succeeded better abroad than in its south of France birthplace, where it is now almost extinct. Its small berries, and consequently high skin-to-juice ratio, allow Petite Sirah to produce wines with high tannin levels, surprisingly high acidity, and thus the ability to age. Characteristically, these wines have dense blackberry fruit character, mixed with black pepper notes.
One of Bordeaux‘s classic black varieties, used to add spice, richness, tannin and colour to some of the best wines of the Medoc. It ripens even later than Cabernet Sauvignon so tends to only be used in the ripest vintages but its thick skins make it as resistant to rot, and it is capable of producing wines of huge concentration, power and finesse. In warmer climates such as Argentina, California and Australia, it has had notable success, both as single varietal wines and as part of blends.
This grape‘s unusual name is a corruption of an earlier one ‘piquepoul‘, meaning ‘lipstinger‘, a reference to the wine‘s steely core of acidity. Native to and grown exclusively in France‘s Languedoc region it has shot to popularity on top UK wine lists in recent years. Although it comes in Noir and Gris variations these are rarely seen outside France. As well as being the namesake of the popular appellation Picpoul de Pinet, in the Midi it is used as a blending ingredient for Vermouth. When care is taken in the vineyard and winery, Picpoul is citrussy and fresh with pronounced minerality, making it delicious with seafood.
Pinot Blanc/Pinot Bianco
It may be a white mutation of the popular Pinot Gris, yet Pinot Blanc has not achieved the same adulation as its star counterpart, and the nearest it gets to a leading role is in some parts of northern Italy and Alsace. It makes subtle yet bright, fresh wines that resemble a milder version of Chardonnay and are highly drinkable and food-friendly. In Alsace (where it is also called Klevner), Pinot Blanc can display a touch of spice with its rounded, creamy fruit, and is often used in the production of base wines for Crémant d’Alsace. In Italy, as Pinot Bianco, the wines are lighter and more minerally, with some apple and pear character. The variety is also planted in Germany and Austria (as Weissburgunder), eastern Europe and California, but has been largely ignored by the rest of the New World in preference for Chardonnay.
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
Going by its Italian name, this is the UK‘s number one wine and enjoying roaring popularity. One of the many offspring of the genetically irresponsible Pinot Noir, the grape skins vary from grey to pink, which, if macerated, gives a coppery hue to the wine. Between 1990 and 2000, plantings of Pinot Grigio in Italy almost doubled. The vast majority of production comes from fertile plains in the Veneto in the north-east of the country, where often grapes are picked early to retain their acidity and before much flavour has time to develop. To some, this is all that white wine should be, crisp, mineral and spritzy; but further north in Friuli Venezia-Guilia and the Alto Adige, later harvests and lower yields ensure that the grape‘s unique flinty, gunsmoke and delicate pear fruit emerges. These wines are subtle, elegant and characterful. In the grape‘s other homeland of Alsace it goes by the name of Pinot Gris. Here, huddled in the sun behind the Vosges Mountains, it can develop deep colour and mouthfeel bordering on the oily. This is a grape with a remarkable adaptability – successful and delicious versions can now be found from such diverse regions as Transylvania, New Zealand, and much of Eastern and Northern Europe.
A mutation of Pinot Noir, the dependable, late budding Pinot Meunier is prized especially in Champagne, where it is one of only three permitted varieties along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is grown particularly on the north facing slopes of the damp, frost-prone Vallee de la Marne and the Aisne area. Its reliability has led to it being the most widely planted varietal in the region, covering approximately 40% of total vineyard area. It contributes youthful fruitiness to the traditional three-grape blend, complementing Pinot Noir‘s weight and Chardonnay‘s finesse.
Ever since wine has been made in Burgundy, it is the Pinot Noir on which the fame of her great red wines depends. It produces compact, purplish-black grape bunches whose berries contain an abundance of sweet, colourless juice. The leaves, dark green on their upper side and a lighter green below are thick, as wide as they are long, and divided into three or five lobes whose incisions vary in depth according to the fertility of the particular plant. NB: the juice of the Pinot Noir is, as we have said, colourless, which explains why juice from the same grape is used in the making of champagne. In Burgundy, the skins (which contain the colouring matter) are macerated in the fermenting vats along with the juice, and it is this that gives the wines their attractive red hue.
Whether the South Africans like it or not, Pinotage is South Africa‘s native grape. Like Frankenstein‘s monster, it was spawned by a scientist in a laboratory and subsequently reviled in the land that created it. The scientist was Professor A.I. Perold, who created it by crossing Cinsault and Pinot Noir in 1925; Cinsault was then known as Hermitage, hence Pinotage. His aim was to replicate the flavours of Pinot Noir but with Cinsault‘s compliance in the vineyard. The latter he achieved, but Pinotage‘s unique flavours have proved divisive ever since. Not recognisably like any European grape, this variety has risen and tumbled with the whims of fashion, but plantings have gradually increased to 6.7% of South Africa‘s total vineyard area. The best examples come from low-yielding, old vines. With careful handling in the winery, these can be powerfully fruity, dark, long lived with a distinctive smoky character; whereas poorly made wines can exhibit a coarse, paint-like aroma which has led to some doubting the grape‘s potential for quality. For these reasons the rest of the vine growing world has been cautious to adopt Pinotage.
Primitivo can trace its lineage from the ancient Phoenicians who settled in the province of Apulia (Puglia), the heel of Italy’s boot. It is called Primitivo for its propensity to ripen before all other varietals. If made well, Primitivo tends to be juicy, well structured, and concentrated, with aromas and flavours of ripe blackberries, violets and pepper. (see Zinfandel)
Responsible for the highly popular sparkling wine from the Veneto, Prosecco is usually vinified fully sparkling or ‘frizzante‘ using the Charmat method and is Venice‘s favourite aperitif. Riesling A variety with plenty of nominations for the title of ‘greatest white grape variety in the world‘, Riesling has however, despite the wine trade‘s love affair with this grape, failed to capture the affection of the wine-drinking public outside its homeland in the same way as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Its inimitable, unique flavour is hard to describe and takes time to appreciate, however, few varieties have its capacity to reflect the land in which they‘re grown along with its own distinctive character, visible decades after bottling. Full of limey, green-apple fruit in its heartland of Germany and lean citrus notes in the Clare Valley in Australia, with the unmistakeable ‘kerosene‘ note in warmer climates, it is capable of greatness whether bone-dry, zestily off-dry or lusciously sweet.
It could be argued that Riesling is the world’s most undervalued grape variety. Not only is it often mispronounced (Reece-ling is correct) but it is also frequently misunderstood. Part of this misunderstanding is certainly linked to Riesling’s sheer diversity. Its wines can range from bone dry to off-dry to lusciously sweet; they can be sparkling or still and be high or low in alcohol. Moreover, it has its own very distinctive character which varies immensely, according to where it is grown. Unfortunately, this diversity has often been left unexplored and underdeveloped. Instead, in the case of German examples in particular, wines too low in flavour and high in residual sugar have all too often been produced, tarnishing the variety’s reputation. For years Riesling has been the sweetheart of the wine trade, with sommeliers and chefs finding endless food matches for its diverse styles and the trade in general proclaiming that they drink nothing but Riesling at home. The same enthusiasm for the variety is not, however, shared by the majority of consumers. Whereas other international varieties have mostly found their niche, be it by country, in the case of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or style, in the case of oaked or unoaked Chardonnay, Riesling has failed to establish itself. This has perhaps led to confusion among consumers who never really know what to expect when they open a bottle.
A member of the clutch of Rhône valley white grapes, and one half of the tag team behind white Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St-Joseph and St-Péray. For many years it has been on the bench in these blends, however, as many growers steered away from it in favour of its less troublesome and more productive partner Marsanne. Roussanne gives very low, irregular yields and is prone to fungal diseases. However, its intriguing, slightly herbal aroma hinting of hawthorn and white peach has led to an upsurge in interest, and varietal wines as well as Rhône-styled blends are now made in California and Australia. High quality Roussanne-dominated wines have the potential to age gracefully for many years.
Sangiovese dominates red wine making in central Italy. Its name is said to derive from ‘sanguis Jovus’, or the ‘blood of Jove’. Giacomo Tachis once said that the story of Tuscan wine is the story of Sangiovese and the way in which it has adapted to different soils and climates. This story has become all the more compelling in the past two decades as the higher yielding clones of the post war years, planted in lesser sites (as volume was prized over quality in the 1950s, a time when there was a shortage of wine) have given way to lower vigour clones with smaller berries and looser bunches. The last two decades have seen it emerge as one of the greatest grapes of the peninsula, especially as top producers like Isole e Olena, Fontodi, Costanti and others have used a massal rather than a clonal selection to re-plant their vineyards. This gives them clones that perform well in their own soil and climate, an important consideration with an unstable and temperamental variety like Sangiovese. It is far more sensitive to site, and far less clonally stable, than other temperamental varieties like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. Better clones, better vineyard management, lower yields and a more discerning eye to quality have all resulted in a proliferation of high quality wines emerging from Chianti. The rest of the world has noticed, and promising plantings, with the newer clones, can now also be found in California and Australia‘s Heathcote region.
Few white grapes are as universally recognisable. While most are content to aim for no more than citrussy simplicity, Sauvignon Blanc is irrepressible. Its intensely green verve, tart fruit and racy acidity have driven plantings in nearly every cool grape-growing region on the globe. Though the south west of France and the more northern Loire Valley both claimed it as their own for many years, it has in the last generation found a new spiritual home in Marlborough, on New Zealand‘s South Island.
Sauvignon Gris is somewhat of a mystery – it’s a forgotten grape that is a mutation of the better known Sauvignon Blanc. It only counts for 2% of the white grape varieties of Bordeaux (332 hectares). It tends to mature very early and has a high sugar level. The grapes are a beautiful dusky pink/apricot colour and they have thick skins. However the main drawback of Sauvignon Gris is its low yield and at one point it nearly became extinct in Bordeaux. After the phylloxera epidemic the grape became obsolete but in the early 1980s it was rediscovered it in Touraine in the Loire Valley.
Semillon possesses many traits which should endear it to grape growers. It is resistant to many common diseases and it ripens cheerfully to produce, if unchecked, high yields of relatively neutral juice. However, its buttery flavour profile gives it an unfashionable affinity with new oak and its aromatics are muted, especially while young, not characteristics which make it attractive as a varietal wine to the majority of today‘s drinkers. However with age it develops beautifully tertiary flavours of honey and toast and, if picked late in a particularly warm region like the Hunter Valley, tropical notes of mango and apricot. It originated in the south west of France, and the Graves and Sauternes districts of Bordeaux legitimately call it their own. Here it is ceding ground to the trendier Sauvignon Blanc, but it is in botrytis influenced sweet wines like Sauternes and Monbazillac that it achieves greatness.
A potential rival for the crown of ‘world‘s greatest black grape‘, Syrah has emerged relatively recently as one of the most-planted grape varieties worldwide. The two ‘classic‘ regions in which it thrives are the Northern Rhône valley, where it makes fabulous, dense, spicy wines which age majestically for decades, and Australia, to which it was introduced in 1832 by the settler James Busby and goes by the name Shiraz. The two different names usually denote two very different styles. Shiraz has come to be used for richer, blacker wines with more ripe fruit flavour on the mid-palate, while Syrah tends to be used for structure-driven wines with more restrained flavours of black pepper and spice with characteristic black fruit. The grape is thick-skinned and prefers warmer climates, although its flavours tend to degenerate jammily if subjected to too much heat. Excellent examples in the Syrah style can be found in the Languedoc-Roussillon, the Hawkes Bay area of New Zealand and now some cooler parts of Australia; in its Shiraz guise Australia is still the heartland, but is also cultivated in South Africa and California.
The Tannat grape was introduced into Uruguay in 1870 by Basque immigrants and has transformed itself into the “national variety”, adapting itself perfectly to the local soil and climate. Considered an exotic grape variety, demand for Tannat is increasing rapidly. Uruguay is the only country in the world where significant amounts of Tannat are grown, more even than in its native Madiran and Irouléguy in south-west France. Tannat now represents approximately a third of all wine produced in Uruguay. Tannat makes a red wine of intense colour, good aroma and body which is well suited to accompany beef and other red meats. It is a strong wine with a great personality which will surprise you.
At first glance, the many appellations of Spain‘s and Portugal‘s top red wines are based on an equal number of obscure local grapes. What do the Tinta Roriz of the Douro, Aragónez of the Alentejo, Ull de Llebre of Penedès, Tinta del Toro of Toro, Cencibel of Valdepeñas and Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero have in common? They‘re all genetically the same grape. Thought to have existed in Northern Spain since antiquity, it is there making up the blends in almost all of the Iberian Peninsular‘s great red wines, even to some extent, Port. As Rioja is Spain‘s most successful liquid export, it is understandable that their name for this ubiquitous variety is the one the world has become familiar with. The name comes from its ripening habits; Temprano means ‘early‘, as Tempranillo tends to beat the other Rioja black grapes to the winery by around two weeks. Its thick skins give wines deep colour and longevity, but it doesn‘t race to high levels of potential alcohol like many of its Spanish peers. With an appealing range of uncomplicated flavours and an affinity with oak, it is rapidly being eyed by winemakers in other warm parts of the world, particularly Australia.
Though grapes with confusingly similar names exist around the world, Torrontés arouses excitement because of its potential as Argentina‘s most aromatic white variety. Owing parentage to Muscat of Alexandria, it shares some of that grape‘s floral, lifted appeal. The ready availability of vertiginously high-altitude vineyard sites in Argentina allow it to retain acidity and freshness.
The most widely planted black grape of the Douro Valley. Growers in the past favoured its even yields over the tiny bunches offered by Touriga Nacional, so that now it makes up a fifth of plantings there. Despite the name it has no proven link with France. It requires the light and warmth offered by south-facing slopes to ripen fully, giving wines with a powerful aroma of rose petals and mulberries.
In the 1970‘s there was barely any Touriga Nacional growing amongst the other vines in Portugal‘s Douro Valley. Growers would actively avoid it due to its feeble yields, favouring other more productive local black grapes like Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca. After realising the grape‘s potential for quality, the Port shippers experimented with clonal selection and different rootstocks in order to coax more from it; these were a success, and now Touriga Nacional‘s intensely heady perfume can be detected in most of the top wines of the Douro. Probably originating from the Dão region to the south, where it must constitue 20% of any red wine bearing the appellation, it is now the most highly regarded constituent grape of Port due to its deep colour, high tannin and concentrated, intense flavours of cassis and violets. Small quantities are being grown in Australia, but bar this Touriga Nacional has yet to travel the vinegrowing world.
Trebbiano di Soave/Ugni Blanc/ Verdicchio
This variety is said to be the same as Verdicchio, and to the Trebbiano used in Lugana, which today is known as Turbiana. Trebbiano di Soave has nothing whatsoever to do with Trebbiano Toscano, which is Ugni Blanc. Trebbiano di Soave, a low yielding variety that was used to augment Garganega‘s perfume, virtually disappeared from the hills of Soave in the 1970s and 1980s. Pieropan was one of the few producers who valued this vine, as others planted Trebbiano Toscano or Chardonnay. It has enjoyed a revival in the last 15 years, as its perfume, texture and acidity are highly prized for the production of top quality Soave. About 20% to 30% of Trebbiano di Soave in a blend with Garganega works well. It peforms best on the basalt soils of Soave Classico. The most widely-planted white grape in France, and is an authorised component in many appellations such as Vin de Pays de Côtes de Gascogne. Wines based on it are light, crisp, zesty and refreshing. The majority of grapes, however, don‘t spend long as wine because Ugni Blanc makes a near-perfect base for distillation, with a naturally high acidity, little aromatic character, delightful compliance in the vineyard and heavy crops. Enormous quantities of neutral wine bubble through the stills of Cognac and Armagnac every year to become those spirits. Genetically it is the same grape as Italy‘s Trebbiano. In all likelihood it arrived in France in the 14th Century, although it didn‘t take over as being the principal distillation grape until Phylloxera all-but wiped out its predecessor, Folle Blanche, in the 19th Century. A classic white grape variety from central Italy grown particularly in the Marche on the east coast. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi to the west of Ancona and Verdicchio di Matelica from hillside vineyards inland are the two major manifestations of Verdicchio. The lower yields and higher altitude vineyards make the Matelica usually of slightly higher quality. It is now made in a fresh, modern style, with none of the ‘governo‘ or fermentation on the skins which used to mask its delicacy. There is a characteristic bitter twist and a lively lemony acidity in the better made wines which give it an extra degree of interest. Known as Trebbiano di Soave further north in the Veneto, and Lugana when grown in Brescia, it was also one of the first Spumante wines made in Italy.
Prior to the late 1980‘s Viognier plantings were confined to south east France, and the Rhône in particular. In centuries past it was a common crop on the plains of the Southern Rhône, but over the years plantings declined as growers favoured higher yielding varieties. However, a spike in world demand for the distinctive, aromatic wine it produces, replete with white stone fruit, blossom and honey, led to a sharp increase in plantings in the late 1980‘s. It is thought to be native to the Northern Rhône where it is traditionally used as a lifting agent in blends, the exception being Condrieu, a varietal appellation. This small commune clinging to the steep west bank of the valley just south of Côte Rôtie produces the world‘s most sought-after Viognier. In the decades since its resurgence, the grape has been planted widely in the Languedoc, producing youthful, floral Vin de Pays, and also in the Americas and parts of Australia where the warmer growing season produces more alcoholic, concentrated examples.
Verdejo vineyards are located in the Segovia area of the Rueda DO which lies between Ribera del Duero to the east and Toro to the west. The old bush vines grow at an altitude of 800m in poor, sandy soils and produce very low yields of top quality Verdejo grapes which show brilliant freshness and excellent levels of natural acidity, rarely found in the grapes sourced from other nearby areas. The climate is continental with long winters, short springs and dry, hot summers.
Viura Known as Macabeo outside Rioja, Viura is a light, fairly neutral variety with a floral character and relatively low acidity which resists oxidation well and is frequently blended with more powerful varieties, both red and white. As Macabeo, it is now widely grown in the Roussillon as well as being northern Spain‘s most planted white grape variety.
Despite it now being discovered that Zinfandel is actually the Primitivo grape of southern Italy, like many of Hollywood‘s greatest stars, being an immigrant hasn‘t kept it from becoming a great national treasure. Brought to California originally on the back of the 1849 gold rush, it became a favourite miners‘ drink. Since then it has proven itself a great adaptor to the fickle American wine market; sweet and pressed quickly it makes the hugely successful ‘blush‘ style, or it can be painstakingly reared expressly for medal-gathering into titanic, alcoholic ‘cult‘ wines. Despite its versatility Zinfandel prefers warm open hillsides and is ideally suited to producing dry, satisfying reds which often share distinctive pruney, raisiny flavours.