In case you live under a rock, which is possible in 2021, we all are aware that wine comes from grapes, and grapes come from grapevines. What you might not know is what grape varieties are used in your favorite wines, like zinfandels, malbecs, and Grenaches. So, let's jump into the grape juice pool and figure it out together!
What the heck is a wine grape variety anyhow? According to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, the term "grape variety" refers to cultivars rather than the actual botanical types. This is because they are propagated by cuttings and may have unstable reproductive properties. However, this term has become so entrenched in viticulture that any change of usage to the term is unlikely.
The Role of History
Like most things in life, history plays a significant role in determining the world's best wine blends. Back in the day, different grape varieties grew side-by-side in the vineyard. Therefore, winemakers would pick them at the same time and then pool them together for fermentation. Today, this style is known as a ''field blend'' and is still how Port is made. However, as time has progressed, winemakers have realized that fermenting varieties separately created a more consistent recipe. Therefore, they began fermenting each grape variety in separate barrels and then combined the wines in a vat called a "cuvée." These vats were then sold and labeled from the regions where the grapes are grown. This is precisely why in old winemaking countries, namely Italy and France, you'll discover more wines that are named after a town. There are many varietals found in cooler climates, like Gewürztraminer from Alsace, Germany, and others thrive in warmer climates like the coastal Albariño varietal from the Iberian Peninsula. There are also varietals made primarily for blending like mourvèdre.
Below, we go through the most commonly known grape varieties and share a little about the grape varieties that create these wines. These include Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Merlot.
Fun fact: Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same types of wine because they are made from the same white wine grapes. These grapes are the Pinot Gris grapes. The white grape variety used is grayish-brown skin, which explains why Gris and Grigio are French and Italian for the word ''grey.'' Regardless of where the grapes are grown, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio both have the same bright acidity and citrus flavors in their flavor profiles. Pinot Grigio tends not to be as sweet as other wines due to its high acidity and mask for easy drinking.
The big difference between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris is due to their region and, therefore, their creation style. Pinot Grigio wines are Italian and, thus, created in an Italian style. If you're keen on getting into the specifics, Pinot Grigios are more specifically from northeastern Italy in wine regions that include Friuli and Alto Adige. Pinot Gris, on the other hand, is French and made in a French style. Specifically, they come from the Burgundy region and the Alsace region of France.
Chardonnay grapes are some of the most popular grapes in the wine industry. This is because Chardonnay grapes can grow in a range of climates, and therefore, they grow all over the world. The grape itself is neutral and gets many of its associated flavors derived from terroir and oak influences. Chardonnay grapes are vinified in a variety of styles.
According to the wine industry know-it-alls, the best Chardonnay comes from Burgundy and Champagne. However, Australia, New Zealand, United States, South American, and South Africa have major Chardonnay growing regions.
Chardonnay wines are one of the only white wines that benefit from oak aging. The oak aging gives the end product a delicious butter quality and slightly oaky taste.
The Sauvignon Blanc grape gets its name from the French word, "Sauvage," which means "wild," and "blanc," which means "white." Many argue that this is due to its early origins as an indigenous grape in South West France. Sauvignon Blanc is a highly aromatic grape that produces highly acidic wines with gooseberries, passionfruit, and elderflower tasting notes. Many argue that premium Sauvignon Blanc grapes are grown in Loire Valley, France. However, many medium-climate wine regions, such as Napa Valley, California or Casablanca, Chile, produce high-quality Sauvignon Blanc.
Riesling grapes are best known for coming from Germany, France, and Austria. The grapes are highly aromatic and produce fruity, floral wine that is high in acidity and contains lime, apricot, and mango tasting notes.
In addition to making Riesling wines, riesling grapes are known for producing late harvest dessert wines. These wines are created by allowing the grapes to remain on the vines past the average harvest. Through evaporation created by the fungus known as "noble rot" or by freezing, water is removed from and produces a much richer wine. These wines have more sugar and more acid and, therefore, more flavor and complexity.
The Pinot Noir grape is ancient and is the grandparent of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon's great-grandparent. Pinot Noir grapes are known for being the most extra grapes out there. They can be incredibly challenging to grow and perhaps, therefore, make some of the most famous wines in the world. In the Middle Ages, Cistercian monks perfected growing Pinot Noir grape variety after becoming captivated by its capability of transmitting terroir. (Terroir is a French word for growing conditions specific to a particular place, including soil, climate, altitude, and aspect.) Pinot Noir is so transparent in its reflection of where it is grown that it is rarely blended, unlike most other popular grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot and Syrah.
Pinot Noir grapes are famed for the light-bodied red wine they produce. Pinot Noir grapes are also blended with Chardonnay grapes to make Champagne. As a wine, Pinot Noir is light on tannins and, therefore, widely considered an easy-drinking wine. The regions best known for growing premium Pinot Noir grapes include Burgundy in France, Pfalz in Germany, and Santa Barbara in the USA.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varietals are often grown and blended when turned into wine. The Merlot grape is black and produces red wines with a ton of body and high alcohol levels. While Merlot is grown worldwide in California, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and South Africa, it is most famously from Bordeaux, France.