Grapes explained

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc (Garnacha Blanca in Spain) is the light-skinned mutation of Grenache Noir. Although it is native to northeastern Spain, Grenache Blanc is best known for its role in southern French white wines and in particular as a member of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend.

The light-golden, straw-colored juice of Grenache Blanc is increasingly produced as a varietal wine, though its use as a softener in a blend is still more common. It typically displays green-apple and stonefruit aromas and a broad texture.

However, it is considered to be very sensitive to terroir so can show considerable variation. Extra care is needed to avoid oxidation.

It is also a significant component in many sweet, fortified, vins doux naturels such as Maury, Rivesaltes and Rasteau.

In hot and dry climates such as that found in Roussillon (where about a third of France’s 4,976 hectares – or 12,300 acres – of Grenache Blanc is grown), the variety can struggle to achieve good acidity. However, like its black-skinned relative, Grenache Blanc, it is highly resistant to drought and its tenacity serves it well in windy, arid regions.

It is also a vigorous vine that can reach high alcohol levels if left unchecked.

In 2008 there were about 2,100 hectares (5,200 acres) of Garnacha Blanca in Spain. Most is grown in the northeast in Catalonia (where it is known as Garnatxa Blanca) and Aragón; it is most commonly blended as part of various regional wines, particularly in Priorat and Terra Alta.

In California, Grenache Blanc is widely grown on the Central Coast, in particular San Luis Obispo. The cooler southern reaches of the region allow the variety to develop crisper acidity and more mineral characteristics.

While Cannonau is the Sardinian name for Grenache Noir, Cannonau Bianco is not identical to Grenache Blanc, and may be a progeny of the red grape, rather than a mutation.

Grenache Gris

Grenache Gris is a pinkish-grey mutation of the red Grenache grape and is grown to a limited extent in the south of France. Little research has been conducted into the history of Grenache Gris and the variety remains in relative obscurity. It tends to appear in the vineyard only among other Grenache bush vines and is often indiscriminately blended into other wines.

Like its family members Grenache and Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris is vigorous, resistant to drought and prefers warm, dry environments.

Varietal wines made from Grenache Gris are something of a rarity and a winemaker’s indulgence, since there is little commercial gain to be made from producing them.

The wines tend to show apricot and stonefruit aromas with a full, sometimes oily palate. In this way they are similar to Viognier, minus the lavender and herbaceous notes that make Viognier so distinctive.

Montepulciano

Montepulciano is a red wine grape grown widely in central Italy, most notably its eastern Abruzzo, Marche and Molise regions. However, it is not planted in Montepulciano in southern Tuscany. The variety is used mainly to produce dry red wines. A notable exception can be found in the lighter, cherry colored Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo.

Montepulciano wines are globally appreciated for their soft flavours and strong colour pigments. Gentle tannins and a low acidity create a medium bodied wine that is typically best consumed soon after bottling. Although, the variety also responds well to a judicious use of oak to create a richer, age-worthy style of wine. The deep purple juice is used in varying proportions under roughly 30 of Italy’s DOC and DOCG titles.

Small quantities of Montepulciano are grown in America and New Zealand. Some of these wines show real promise but are still widely regarded as being in the experimental stage in each country.

In Australia, it was one of largest planted varieties of 2020. The disease-resistance and drought tolerance has initiated the cultivation of the variety throughout the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and Riverland subregions.

Albarino

The grape of Galicia in north-west Spain and the Vinho Verde region of Northern Portugal, where it is referred to as Alvarinho. A variety on the up outside of its homeland, plantings in the cool of New Zealand have reaped rewards. White petal and delicate stone fruit flavours support the variety’s refreshing acidity and distinctive minerality. If you were looking for a New World Chablis, Albarino from Marlborough might well hit the spot!

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc is one of the major black grape varieties worldwide. It is principally grown for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Bordeaux style, but can also be vinified alone, as in the Loire’s Chinon. In addition to being used in blends and produced as a varietal in Canada and the United States, it is sometimes made into ice wine in those regions.

Cabernet Franc is lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon, making a bright pale red wine that contributes finesse and lends a peppery perfume to blends with more robust grapes. Depending on the growing region and style of wine, additional aromas can include tobacco, raspberry, bell pepper, cassis, and violets.

Records of Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux go back to the end of the 18th century, although it was planted in Loire long before that time. DNA analysis indicates that Cabernet Franc is one of two parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carménère.

In the New World, Cabernet Franc is used predominately as a blending component and is found in scant amounts in Australia, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand.

As with so many grapes, Cabernet Franc came to Australia in James Busby’s collection of 1832. It predominantly grows in cool, cool to warm and warm climates such as North-Eastern Victoria, McLaren Vale, the Adelaide Hills and the Clare Valley.

In New Zealand, many winemakers have found that the cool climate of their terroir contributes to Cabernet Franc-like flavours in their Cabernet Sauvignon and plantings of true Cabernet Franc have remained limited with only around 519 acres (210 ha) planted as of 2006.

In South Africa, Cabernet Franc has become a favourite of some of the country’s boutique wineries and acreage has slowly been increasing to nearly 2,470 acres (1,000 ha) by the mid 2000s. In Chile there were around 2,910 acres (1,180 ha) planted by the early 21st century

Cabernet Sauvignon

One of the most ubiquitous grape varieties in the world; Cabernet Sauvignon. Together with Pinot Noir it vies for the crown of greatest red variety in the world. So multifaceted and so adaptable, it is as happy in the Pauillac vineyards of Château Latour as it is in the high altitude vineyards of the Andes. So suited to oak and with a firm tannic backbone, it is very often utilised as part of a blend. Though Bordeaux is its natural home, it has spread through the wine world, finding notable homes in Stellenbosch, Coonawarra, Langhorne Creek and the Barossa Valley to name but a few.

Cabernet/Merlot

A New World take on a classic Bordelais pairing. Cabernet’s cassis and Merlot’s summer berry and stone fruit flavours combine, often with rich vanilla oak, to offer a deliciously reliable blend. It is to be found as a blend throughout the wine world, with notable successes in the Margaret River, Stellenbosch, Barossa, McLaren Vale and Limestone Coast regions.

Cabernet/Shiraz

Cabernet Sauvignon’s blackberry and cassis fruit blends perfectly with Shiraz’s blueberry and spice notes. A mainstay of Australian red blends, it is in this country that the finest examples can be found.

Carignan

Carignan (also known as Mazuelo, Bovale Grande, Cariñena, Carinyena, Samsó, Carignane, and Carignano) is a red grape variety of Spanish origin that is more commonly found in French wine but is widely planted throughout the western Mediterranean and around the globe. In recent years, it has been reborn as a flagship wine for many cellars in the south of France as well as Catalonia, Spain

Chardonnay

Possibly the most famous grape variety in the world, Chardonnay has found a home in pretty much every corner of the wine world. From crisp, flinty Chablis styles to full-bodied, oaky, rich Napa Valley Chardonnay it is a variety which has the ability to morph according to the climate or winemaking philosophy. It also has the capacity to produce amongst the greatest white wines in the world. Some praise indeed for this chameleon variety, the likes of which may only truly be matched by Riesling or Chenin Blanc.

Chardonnay/Pinot Noir

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are commonly blended together to produce sparkling wines around the world. The best cuvees are typically made in the traditional methode champenoise (though charmat and carbonation are possible) and may be produced as vintage or non-vintage wines. The blend has its roots in France, but is successfully produced in Italy and a number of New World countries.

The proportions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will vary according to the preferences of producers and vintage conditions, but using equal amounts of the two is not uncommon. Wines made in this style can be crisp and fresh-tasting in some examples, steely and mineral-driven in others or have characteristics of bread, toast and butter. Some of the best wines will have elements of each of these categories and be rich, integrated and ageworthy.

The sweetness varies considerably depending on the desired style of the producer. Dry wines will be indicated by the term brut, while sweeter styles will be called sec, or doux.

Sparkling rosé is another common interpretation of the blend, made by adding a small amount of red Pinot Noir wine to the cuvee, or occasionally by allowing an extended period of skin contact before the juice is pressed. Consequently, sparkling rosé has more red-fruit characteristics than its white counterpart, and has a colour that ranges from light salmon to brilliant ruby.

Grapes used in sparkling Chardonnay – Pinot Noir wines are picked earlier than those used in still wines to maximise acidity; the style is therefore suited to cool-climate viticulture. Chardonnay adds texture and nutty and brioche flavours, and Pinot adds its myriad aromas and red-fruit notes.

In France the blend’s most famous role is in the wines of Champagne, although it is differentiated from the traditional Champagne blend by the absence of Pinot Meunier. It is also used in Burgundy to produce the region’s sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne.

The Italian region of Franciacorta, with its gravely, sandy soils, has had great success with Chardonnay – Pinot Noir wines, sometimes with an addition of Pinot Blanc (Pinot Bianco).

Outside Europe, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are used to make sparkling wines in various parts of the United States (particularly California and Washington), in Australia (most notably Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills), in New Zealand (predominantly Marlborough) and South Africa.

Chenin Blanc

Vouvray, Savennières and Montlouis are villages in France famous for their superb expressions of Chenin Blanc. Add to this list Stellenbosch in South Africa and the picture is complete. A waxy, citrus and cream styled white variety with stunning acidity and natural balance, it can produce deeply-flavoured wines from dry through to botrytis-affected sweet styles. It is a natural in every sense and in the hands of the greatest growers in South Africa shows the shimmering potential of the Rainbow Nation on the world stage.

Cinsault

Cinsault (or Cinsaut) is a red variety which is prolific in Southern France and South Africa. Primarily utilised around the world to add aromatic complexity when blended with other varieties, it yields well and resists drought. In the hands of growers such as Kaapzicht in Stellenbosch, old vine Cinsault harvested with low yields and then sensitively managed in the cellar push the expectations of this often maligned variety – the potential for greatness is becoming recognised more and more as each new wine is enjoyed.

Fiano

A variety on the verge of extinction until mid-way through the 20th century, Fiano is grown widely in Italy’s Campania region, specifically around the village of Avellino. A classically proportioned varietal it has a honeyed apricot, generously-textured palate with good minerality and freshness. The good news is that it is making something of a comeback internationally, especially in Australia where plantings have appeared in Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek.

Grenache Noir

One of the most widely-planted red varieties in the world, Grenache ripens late so needs hot, dry conditions for success. The Rhône Valley, Spain, Barossa and McLaren Vale all utilise Grenache’s raspberry and strawberry characteristics either as stand-alone varietals or part of a blend. Some of the greatest expressions of pure Grenache can be found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where wines including Château Rayas and Domaine La Barroche’s Pure cuvée embrace the Pinot Noir-like properties of Grenache to great effect.

Hárslevelü

This white grape may be hard to pronounce, but it is the second most widely-planted grape in Hungary. It is best known as one of the three grapes that make up the sweet wines of Tokaj Wine Region, where it is added to Furmint and Muscat to bring floral aromas and richness to the blend. These days it is also increasingly appearing on its own as a dry varietal white. The name Hárslevelü translates as ‘linden leaf’, and good examples of are powerfully aromatic, rich, green-gold, with linden honey flavours, minerality and great depth.

Lagrein

Lagrein is a red grape variety which hails from the Alto Adige in northern Italy. In a region famed for its cool climate expressions of Pinot Bianco, Pinot Nero, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio it seems paradoxical that the heat-loving Lagrein variety should find such success. The Bolzano basin within the region is the reason for this anomaly; proving a hot spot for the variety and actually enjoying some of Italy’s warmest weather. In fact, only Sicily records higher average summertime temperatures anywhere in the country! Stylistically the variety has a deep, dark purple appearance with aromas of raspberry and plum. On the palate it is a touch lighter than expected with a faintly earthy, rustic backbone that vies with the red cherry fruit and cured meat tinged notes. Think of it as a weighty Pinot Noir style with just a touch of leather adding interest. Hugely enjoyable alone, it is a wonderful partner to food. Though still largely cultivated in northern Italy, the variety has travelled well into the southern hemisphere – a notable success can be found courtesy of Stanley Estates in New Zealand’s Awatere Valley.

Malbec

In its native Bordeaux, Malbec is little more than a blending component. In Argentina, Australia and increasingly, South Africa, it offers bold, expressive, richly-flavoured reds that simply cry out for a juicy steak! Notes of cured meat, cocoa, scorched earth and cherry liqueur-like flavours lead the way.

Merlot

The variety which made Château Pétrus in Pomerol famous, however it can undoubtedly be considered an international variety which is almost as ubiquitous as Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is a generous, plush and fruit forward variety which often acts as the foil in Cabernet led blends. As a single varietal it offers red stone fruit flavours and often a velvety core.

Mourvèdre

Small, dark berries turn into deeply-concentrated, tannic and often unforgiving red wines requiring much aging. A native of the Southern Rhône, it offers great potential with vine age and careful handling. Usually combined with other varietals as a blending component, it is most famous for the wines produced in the southern French village of Bandol. When handled in a modern, gentle way it produces accessible, polished styles which are growing in popularity. The Swartland in South Africa’s Western Cape is a hotspot for this variety, where vine age and commerciality converge.

Muscat

Aromatic, fresh and full of citrus, peachy, grape liqueur flavours – you have discovered Muscat! Capable of creating a multitude of styles from dry to fully sweet, botrytised through to low alcohol wines; though rarely the most complex varietal it is utterly charming and on-trend. Muscat shouts from the glass with rarely found youthful energy, and in the case of Moscato d’Asti in Northern Italy is very much this taster’s (not so) guilty pleasure!

Nebbiolo

One of the world’s single greatest grape varieties, Nebbiolo is sensational when placed in the hands of growers such as Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco or Elio Grasso in Barolo who succeed in keeping the varietal’s raw power in check by gentle vinification and barrel maturation. Wild strawberry and rose petals, scorched earth and graphite, Nebbiolo has it all, yet remains surprisingly versatile. The variety has made moves into the Barossa Valley and further afield in Australia, where some excellent, expressive and quite unique examples can be found.

Nero d'Avola

Originating from the Sicilian village of Avola, Nero d’Avola translates as the black (grape) of Avola. As a variety it produces bold, rich, perfumed, velvety reds and does not require oak to enhance its charm. Stylistically the variety is a chameleon, capable of producing intoxicating, concentrated and vigorous styles as capably as delicate, black-cherry styled, cocoa-tinged examples where elegance, balance and immediacy are the key attributes. As the variety has gained in popularity, plantings have made their way from Nero’s Sicilian homeland to the New World. Australia in particular has seized upon the variety’s versatility together with its inbuilt tolerance to high temperatures in the vineyard.

Petit Verdot

Petit Verdot is a variety of red wine grape, principally used in classic Bordeaux blends.  It ripens much later than the other varieties in Bordeaux, often too late, so it fell out of favour in its home region. When it does ripen it adds tannin, colour and flavour, in small amounts, to the blend. Petit Verdot has attracted attention among winemakers in the New World, where it ripens more reliably and has been made into single varietal wine. It is also useful in ‘stiffening’ the mid palate of Cabernet Sauvignon blends.

When young its aromas have been likened to banana and pencil shavings. Strong tones of violet and leather develop as it matures.

Petite Sirah/Durif

Petite Sirah (Durif) is a red wine grape variety primarily grown in Australia, USA (California and Washington), Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, France, and Israel.  In the Americas and Israel it is known as Petite Sirah while in the rest of the world it is described as Durif. It is named after Dr. Francois Durif who discovered it in 1880 in Rhone. This new grape originated as a cross of Syrah pollen germinating a Peloursin vine.

High tannins and acidity are signature characteristics of Petite Sirah giving it great ageing potential. Historically it was used as a blending element to add body and structure to weaker wines. The flavour profile includes blackberry, chocolate and black pepper notes with subtler liquorice and herbal overtones. Petite Sirah has recently experienced a revival, both in serious blends and bottled as a single or as the main variety.

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

Full of honeyed spice and clean zingy freshness, Pinot Gris is capable of producing a broad array of wine styles. From steely dry whites to fully botrytis-affected sweet styles, it is a variety eager to please. Thai food screams for Pinot Gris, especially those from New Zealand where the wines’ deeper, honeyed, citrus flavours seem to flow so well.

Pinot Noir

If Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of wines then Pinot Noir is the wine of kings. So delicate, pure, feminine and graceful, it is arguably the finest variety in the world, responsible for the great wines of Champagne and Burgundy. Temperamental, yes, and difficult to cultivate, but can any other grape offer such dimensions of flavour or intellectual gratification? I would struggle to find one stronger! Summer berry compote flavours, with redcurrant and pink petal aromas, it is often pale in the glass, yet can offer depth and vigour simply unachievable from any other grape.

Pinotage

South Africa’s very own variety, created in the early 20th century by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault. A variety which the home nation has taken to its collective heart, in the right hands and with gentle, delicate handling in the winery, Pinotage is a lush, fruit driven, black cherry jam and white pepper styled variety. When the focus is more on a traditional feel, extended barrel maturation can bolster the variety into creating more of a Bordelais clone. Some great examples exist, famously from Kanonkop and Kaapzicht Estate; both to be found in Stellenbosch.

Red Blend

A combination of varieties said to produce a more rounded or complete expression of the vineyard or estate. Some of the very greatest wines in the world are blends, including red and white Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Champagne.

Riesling

Another white varietal with a claim to be the greatest in the world. So many dimensions possible, so true to its terroir and capable of producing wines through the full spectrum of sweetness, from steely dry to richly exotic. With notably high natural acidity Riesling has a firm backbone for extended ageing. Never married to oak, it is all about citrus notes, orange blossom, lime, lemon and conference pear. With time in bottle, tell-tale notes of kerosene start to appear on the nose.

Roussanne

One of the true great white varieties of the Northern and Southern Rhône, Roussanne as a pure varietal is fairly rare, however Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape makes a world famous example which carries the vieilles vignes label. A bold, weighty white varietal it has a delightfully rich mouthfeel supporting the sweet green herb, citrus and honey like flavours. An under-rated variety for sure, it is steadily growing in popularity around the world with notable examples appearing in Australia and South Africa.

Sangiovese

Italy’s great red varietal and certainly ubiquitous in its homeland. Sangiovese has a beautifully sleek flavour profile of red cherries and earthy aromas of tea leaf. Though not as aromatic as Pinot Noir or Syrah, it does marry extremely well to oak and is particularly favoured as a foil in Cabernet-based blends. The ‘Super Tuscan’ movement in the 1970s and ’80s, led by wines such as Antinori’s Tignanello, recognised the strengths of Sangiovese when paired with international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The growth of popularity has seen it appear in countries like Australia, where stunning examples can be found in McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and Coonawarra.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Marlborough, Darling, Margaret River… Villages and regions which all have one thing in common; their own individual take on Sauvignon Blanc. The variety has classic zingy freshness, citrus notes and in the case of Marlborough in particular, gooseberry aromatics and flavours. Very pure, it can often be opulent yet also the opposite, with taut mineral notes. A classic, modern varietal with huge popularity, usually unoaked, there are an increasing number of food-focused expressions with a little barrel maturation adding texture and lift.

Semillon

Sémillon is a golden-skinned grape used to make dry and sweet white wines, mainly in France and Australia. Originating in Bordeaux, Sémillon is used to produce some of the region’s best-known whites. Often blended with Sauvignon Blanc, it can produce crisp, dry whites or luscious dessert wines. Often blended with Chardonnay across the New World, it produces fruity, easy-drinking wines.  Its thin skin and susceptibility to botrytis create luscious dessert wines and make it dominate the sweet wine region Sauternes AOC and Barsac AOC in France.

Shiraz/Grenache

A Southern Rhône pairing, Shiraz’s aromatics and blueberry fruit join with Grenache’s wild strawberry and pepper notes to full effect. They complement each other beautifully, often with the addition of another Rhône variety; Mourvèdre. These tend to be extravagant, alcoholic and bold examples with the Barossa Valley being particularly noted for its world class production.

Syrah/Shiraz

Also known as Syrah, Shiraz was the variety which introduced the world to the concentrated and masculine wines of 1990s’ Australia. Here in the Barossa Valley, Langhorne Creek, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale it produces wines of great density and richness. In South Africa there tends to be more structure and freshness with earthy tannins. It is a variety which alters in the bottle very much as a result of the individual winemaker’s philosophy, as well as reflecting the unique terroir of the estates. Great with oak, it offers lavender, kirsch, black cherry and cured meat aromas and flavours. In its native Northern Rhône it is famous for the wines of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, whilst in the New World can lay claim to providing Australia with its two most famous wines; Henschke’s Hill of Grace and Penfold’s Grange.

Taminga

An excellent Australian white variety created in the 20th century and specifically suited to hot climates, Taminga retains excellent acidity and has a pronounced Gewürztraminer-like spice character. Capable of creating excellent dessert styles, it is still something of an unknown in the wine world but has great potential.

Tempranillo

The grape that made Rioja and Ribera del Duero famous and one which helps to add body when used in a blend. More and more growers are releasing stand-alone expressions which offer a delicate scent of pink petals, plum and strawberry. Wonderful when married with oak, Tempranillo is also known as Tinta del Pais, Cencibel and Tinto Roriz. It is often referred to as Spain’s ‘Noble Grape’.

Tinta Barocca

Tinta Barroca is a Portuguese red wine grape that is grown primarily in the Douro region with some plantings in South Africa. In Portugal, it is a common blending grape in Port wine while in South Africa it is normally made into a varietal wine or blend with other grapes. The vine was introduced to the Douro region in the late 19th century and has the advantages of being able to withstand cool conditions while planted on north-facing slopes

Verdelho

A Portuguese grape variety, Verdelho is most famous as being one of the main varieties used in the production of Madeira. An early-ripening variety, more recently it has found a new home in South Australia where significant plantings in Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale have introduced the world to an Aussie take on the variety. Lime flavours with hints of honeysuckle with age, Verdelho offers a delightfully round and rich mouthfeel.

Viognier

The famed white variety of Condrieu in the Northern Rhône and in particular the ultra-rare wines of Château Grillet. A famously temperamental grape variety which, when it hits its stride, is one of the most spectacular around. Apricot and peach notes combine with wax and honey, the mouthfeel rich and generous with notes of candied mandarin. Excellent with or without oak maturation, Viognier is best opened relatively early in its life whilst the zing it holds in its youth is still vibrant.

White Blend

A combination of varieties said to produce a more rounded or complete expression of the vineyard or estate. Some of the very greatest wines in the world are blends, including red and white Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Champagne.

Zinfandel

Originally thought to have Italian origins, Zinfandel is a variety ubiquitous in California. From the semi-sweet blush wines through to high impact expressions such as Geyserville from Ridge Vineyards, Zinfandel’s spicy richness and deeply concentrated black berry fruit flavours tick so many boxes. Its ease of oak aging lends additional mocha and vanilla notes to many releases. It could quite feasibly offer the greatest barbeque tie-in of all time! Old vine examples add depth to the flavour profile and value for money can often be found off the beaten track.

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