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Grape Varieties

Different Wines from Different Grapes

There is a difference in a grape variety, i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon that grows in a vineyard, and a varietal wine which is a wine made from that grape variety. In most places, a varietal wine has to have at least 75% of that grape variety used to make the wine. It does not need to have 100% of the wine made from that grape. The 25% leeway that a winemaker has to add different grape varieties will make many varietal wines taste slightly different from each other.

It takes a lifetime to learn the many different wines and their tastes. Wine grape variety expert Steve de Long, in the index to his Wine Grape  Table, estimates that there are more than 10,000 distinct grape varieties. Even in his grape table, de Long lists 184 different wine grapes that are the “more common ones” used to make wine.

Neither I nor any of my wine lover acquaintances have had wines from all of these “common” grapes. We will never know all of them. New varieties are being produced and some obscure varieties are slipping into extinction. You cannot know all the different wines being made today nor does anyone expect you to.

What then do you do to learn about different wines and their tastes? If you are a relative beginner to the world of wine, just learn about the classic grapes and their wines that you recognize in the left margin. This will take care of 90% of the wines that you are likely to come in contact with. If you are inexperienced in wine tasting, memorize the characteristics of these classic grapes and begin on your lifetime tour of wine tasting to make those wines memorable. If you are somewhat experienced in wine tasting, learn the other major varieties that are popular enough that you will see and taste them in varietal and blended wine.

You do not need to memorize the exact flavors of different grape wines. Wine-food pairings do not necessarily match peach or gooseberry aromas with actual peaches or gooseberries. But you will want to know the general body of a wine (light, medium or full bodied) along with its acidity or lack of acidity, whether it is fruity, herbal, citrusy, or dry or sweet, and its tannin and alcohol level.

Grape aromas from cool versus warm climates

Different grape varieties have different inherent acid levels, but when during the ripeness cycle of a grape that particular variety is harvested will determine the amount of acid in a wine to a greater degree. The climate temperature in which a grape grows also largely determines the amount of acid in a wine and its flavors. Grapes grown at the colder end of their tolerance range are often less ripe, more acidic and the flavors are more vegetal (grassy, herbal) than fruity. When those same grapes are grown at the warmer end of their growth range, they have more tropical, fruity flavors and lower acid. Their wine tastes “riper” and fuller. A Merlot grape grown in upstate New York will have less body, be more acidic and have more “green pepper” flavors compared to a Merlot grape grown in central sunny California. California climate will produce a wine that is smoother, less acid, having less astringent tannins but with fruitier aromas and flavors of plum, blackberry and raspberry.

Sauvignon Blanc grown on the cooler south island of New Zealand may make a grassy, herbal, citrusy light wine that goes great with sushi or a green salad with vinaigrette dressing, whereas a Napa Valley California Sauvignon Blanc would be a fuller-bodied wine with melon, kiwi and fig flavors.

The alcohol levels in cooler climate wines tend to be lower because of lower grape sugar levels. Often it is permissible to add sugar to the pressed grape juice from the more extreme northern or southern hemisphere climates to bring the attainable alcohol level up. In very warm climates, vintners may also be allowed to add acid to the pressed grape juice to bring up final acid levels so the wine has more crispness and a longer shelf life.

Grape flavors from different growing soils

Terroir (terr WAHR) is a French term used to denote the special characteristics that geography bestows upon particular varieties of agricultural crops – in this case grapes. It is a “sense of place” that combines the microclimate, the soil, the slope of the ground, altitude, wind, native microorganisms, etc. Terroir is the sum of all these things. Son’t think of it as just the soil.

Mineral, alkaline soils such as limestone tend to give wine a mineral taste and high acid content. Granite and gravel soils tend to produce low acidity. Iron rich or “flinty” soils can impart some of those characteristics to their grapes and wines. Rocky soils make the grape struggle for nutrients and this actually improves the complexity of the grape flavors. Water drainage capabilities of soil (e.g., clay versus sand) affect growth and ripening of the grapes, which in turn significantly affects their taste.

At higher elevations, grapes may get very good sun exposure but the temperatures are cooler so the fruit does not get “baked.” Acid content is higher which makes the wine age better with fully developed fruit.

It is safe to say that the same variety of grape grown in any different plot of land will produce a different tasting wine. In Oz Clarke’s Grapes and Wines book, he notes about the Shiraz/Syrah wines: “In Australia, flavours are creamier and more chocolaty [than French Rhone Syrah] with black currant and black cherry fruit. Hunter Valley Shiraz is leathery, earthy and extracted. Barossa [Valley] versions are all black cherry, chocolate and spice. Clare [Valley] wines have purer fruit and finer structure and Coonawarra fruit is bright and peppery. The Victoria style of lean, peppery fruit might be on the way out.” Are these differences in taste important to you or your guests? Maybe; maybe not.