Here are a few more grapes and fun facts than what I covered in my video.
Chardonnay is often called the "Winemaker's Grape" or "Chameleon Grape" because it changes a lot based on how it is made. There can be crisp, acidic chardonnays (like in Chablis (sha-BLEE)), fruity, neutral ones (like in South Africa), and toasty, buttery ones (like in Napa Valley).
Sauvignon Blanc (SOH-vin-yon blahnk)
The “green bell pepper” smell in Sauvignon Blanc is a result of methoxypyrazine, aka pyrazines. No, that has nothing to do with arsonist newsletters, it’s an aroma compound that’s present in some fruits and vegetables. Other grapes with noteable pyrazines include Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. In those red wines, the taste is less like green bell pepper and more like black currants or roasted red peppers.
Chenin Blanc (SHEN-in blahnk)
Often compared to Chardonnay because both can be pretty apple-y. It’s known as “Steen” in South Africa.
Pinot grigio/gris (Pee-noh GREE-jee-oh/Gree)
In my opinion, Pinot Grigio is to wine as Flounder is to fish. There’s nothing really offensive about it, it’s just nice and easy to enjoy. Pinot Grigio comes mostly from Northern Italy and French Pinot Gris is grown a lot in Alsace. Oregon also makes some really great ones.
If you read that and turned up your nose because you “don’t like sweet wines” then prepare to have your mind blown: Rieslings make killer dry wines just as well as they do off-dry, or slightly sweet, and sweet wines. They smell like lime, apricots, rocks in a river, and sometimes have a slight kerosene note that reminds me of blowing up a pool toy in the summer. If you don’t like Riesling it just means you haven’t found the style or region that’s best suited to your palate yet—but I promise it’s out there.
Ah yes, we’ve all been to those parties where someone brings a giant bottle of Sutter Home Moscato and there’s no shame in saying you liked it—it’s an aromatic, sweet, fruity wine that’s fun at parties. There’s more to it than that, though: for example, Moscato d’Asti. It’s an Italian slightly bubbly wine with light alcohol and a little residual sugar. If you’ve got even more of a sweet tooth, places like Southern France and Australia make dessert wines with Muscat that are like a liquid dessert.
I adore Gewürztraminer, and not just because it’s so fun to say. It smells like roses, honey, lychee, ginger, white pepper and everything else that’s good and right in the world. Sweetness-wise it varies from off-dry to dessert and can accompany a surprising variety of foods, my favorite being Thai cuisine.
Sémillon makes a full-bodied dry white wine with some citrus notes, but it’s more known for being blended with Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux and also Australia. Both regions make dry blends of these two grapes, but Sauternes in Bordeaux is known especially for sweet dessert wines made from botrytis. I’ll explain how that works in a future video and post!
Viognier can get a bad rap for being too much like an intense perfume, but when it’s done right it’s really pleasantly aromatic wine with good acid to compliment the ripe peach character.
Pinot Noir (Pee-noh nwar)
Pinot Noir is the lightest red in terms of color and body but it can still pack a hefty punch in terms of aroma and flavor intensity. In the region of Burgundy, France a lot of cooking is done with pinot noir, the signature red of the region. Boeuf Bourginon, Coq au Vin, and Poires à la Vigneronne are all similar in that the recipe is simply, “Gather the food you would like to eat and simmer it in wine until it’s ready.”
Grenache is an underrated grape that I love because it reminds me of making strawberry jam in the summer. It has such a fresh, ripe, sweet flavor to it despite being a dry red wine. It’s one of the principal grapes in the common “GSM” blend or Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre (moor-VED-rah).
Once upon a time many years ago, a movie called Sideways came out where the main character at some point says, “I’m not drinking any f*#&king Merlot!” After that, people thought it was trendy to also hate merlot and sales actually dropped significantly which is a bummer because Merlot is a perfectly lovely wine with nice aromas of blue/black fruits and mocha. It’s the principal grape of wines on the right bank of Bordeaux like those in St. Emilion and Pomerol.
The classic Italian grape has lots of red fruit flavors as well as markers like roasted tomato, dried herbs, and some flowers. Chianti (kee-ON-tee), a region in Tuscany, used to make really crappy light red wines that came in the old-school straw bottles you’ve seen in pictures at Italian restaurants. After WWII the focus was on quantity and not quality, so producers grew as much as they could and blended in cheaper white grapes. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that Chianti got its act together and put various rules about how much of the blend had to be Sangiovese, and since then the region has been producing wines of outstanding quality.
The grape of Barolo and Barbaresco: the king and queen of Italian wines. It’s the benchmark for a high-tannin grape and can improve with age for many decades—there’s really no reason to drink one that’s less than 5-10 years old. It has a lot of complex flavors but the classic Nebbiolo markers are tar and roses.
Tempranillo is the classic grape of Rioja (Ree-OH-ha), Spain. It’s a medium-bodied red with flavors of red fruits, black fruits, and leather. Rioja is traditionally aged in American oak barrels which is unusual compared to the rest of Europe which typically uses French oak barrels. The different oak species impart different flavors into the wine.
Malbec is the signature red of Argentina, although it originates in France where it is blended with other grapes in Bordeaux. It’s great with grilled meats and makes a good barbecue wine!
Cabernet Franc (CAB-er-nay FRONK)
Although most do not classify it a “noble grape”, I believe Cabernet Franc is just as important as grapes like Sangiovese and Nebbiolo—it’s grown in more countries than Sangiovese and there’s about nine times more acres of it grown in the world than Nebbiolo. Plus it’s the baby-daddy of the legendary Cabernet Sauvignon so I think it belongs on this list as much as anything else! Cabernet Franc has red fruit characteristics as well as an olive/jalapeño aroma that's actually really pleasant when moderated by the other flavors. It's one of the five principal grapes of Bordeaux along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
Cabernet Sauvignon (CAB-er-nay SOH-vin-yon)
Cabernet Sauvignon is arguably one of the most popular and revered red grapes in the world. In Bordeaux, France, it is the primary blending grape in the First Growths of the Left Bank and in the United States it creates big, dramatic “cult” wines like Screaming Eagle. It has rich aromas of black fruits, spices, and licorice. It is the natural cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
My favorite description of Syrah comes from Karen McNeil in The Wine Bible where she says Syrah is “like the kind of guy who wears cowboy boots with a tuxedo.” It’s very apt, given that Syrah has a rich elegance with subtle savory, spicy, rustic undertones. If you’ve lived your life this far without having ever tried a pepper-crusted leg of lamb with an Australian Barossa Valley Shiraz, do yourself a favor and put down your laptop or phone then go straight to the nearest restaurant where you can get it.