A grape may seem to be just a grape, but to wine people the type of grape is of great importance. Wines are made from hundreds of different grape varieties, each one imparting specific characteristics. In some regions, one grape variety is used to make a wine; in others, winemakers blend several varieties in a single wine. Here are a dozen of the world’s best and most widely used grape varieties. For each one, I will discuss what wine people call “varietal character,” or the special qualities of the grape.
White Wine Grapes
Chardonnay. The hottest grape for white wines among American wine aficionados, Chardonnay is low in varietal character–that is, the grape itself does not have immediately recognizable, identifiable flavors. Why do people love it so much? Because it’s a canvas upon which a winemaker can create a dramatic wine. It ripens well, meaning that the wine can be rich, a little sweet, high in alcohol–all things that the American wine-buying public seems to like. It takes beautifully to a range of barrel techniques, such as fermentation in the barrels and the stirring up of yeast, which ultimately give the wine flavors not derived from the grape itself. So when you open a Chardonnay, you may smell and taste tropical fruit (pineapple often appears), bubble gum, toast, vanilla or spice (such as clove). My favorite Chardonnay flavors are earthy-minerally, often derived from the chalky soil of Burgundy (especially Chablis, a French village in Northern Burgundy that turns out spectacular Chardonnay-based wines). A great white Burgundy (which is made from the Chardonnay grape) grown in a top vineyard and made by a master winemaker can be a complex delight when aged for ten years or so.
Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is easy to identify in a blind tasting. What’s hard is finding the words to describe it. The English call the varietal character of Sauvignon Blanc “gooseberry,” but not many Americans can relate to that. The French often say “pipi du chat” (those of you with cats will need to confirm that one). Suffice it to say that when Sauvignon Blanc is grown in a cool area, the resulting wine is herbal, even vegetal–some of the world’s Sauvignon Blancs suggest canned asparagus. Sometimes a quality creeps in–trust me, this is attractive–that is reminiscent of sweaty clothes left in a gym locker. Winemakers often try to eliminate the varietal character of Sauvignon Blanc, which not everyone likes, by letting the grapes get very ripe, which gives the wine more general fruit qualities. Too bad. These days, even Sancerre (France’s classic wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes) often doesn’t taste “green” enough. The gap is being filled by Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, and some good ones from South Africa.