My list of the most common wine grapes you'll find on the shelves. While this is far from a comprehensive list (there are thousands of grapes around the globe), this will get you started down the road to learning a LOT about grape varieties.
White Wine Grapes
I’m a rabid fan of this refreshing Spanish white, albariño, especially after visiting the major growing region a few years ago. Since it rains all the time in this grape’s homeland of Rías Baixas in the northwestern corner of Spain (just above Portugal), vineyard managers must grow their fruit far above the ground to prevent the fruit from drowning. And they can’t use wooden stakes as posts since they would rot. Instead, they employ granite or stone to hold up the vines and their canopy. Grapepickers must stoop under the canopies to harvest, making hand-harvesting an expensive necessity.
Chardonnay (shar dun NAY)
Ah… virtually everyone has heard of this white grape. It’s versatile and ubiquitous in most wine regions and pretty much everyone grows it. But not necessarily well. To create tasty, well-made chardonnay, the grape needs warm temperatures during the day and coolness at night to develop acidity, the backbone of a quality wine. Chardonnay makes consistently rich and complex with bold, ripe and intense fruit flavors of apple, fig, melon, pear, peach, pineapple, lemon and grapefruit, along with spice, honey, butter, butterscotch and hazelnut flavors. Also present are the oak and butter flavors which originate from the tannins imparted into the juice from oak barrel contact and from a second fermentation called “malolactic fermentation.” This process converts the tart malic acids into creamier lactic acids, creating the creamy, buttery taste. I like to drink my chardonnay after it’s been out of the fridge about 30 minutes – you can detect the flavors better.
Chenin Blanc is the freaky Sybil of grapes. It can be sweet or dry, austere and acidic or lush and aromatic, depending on where it's grown, how it’s tended and the winemaker’s mood. In France’s Loire Valley, where Chenin Blanc was first canonized in 985 A.D, it’s camouflaged behind the Vouvray label. There, it tastes luscious, slightly to very sweet, and displays a fruit soup of peach, nectarine and lime - perfect grog for people who shun bone-dry wines. However, finding quality Vouvrays – and rare dry versions from Anjou, another Loire Valley region – is like wild truffle-hunting: exasperating. Grab them if you see them, and also be on the lookout for incredible (and remarkably cheap) Crémant de Loire chenin-based sparkling wines. But in new world regions -- South Africa, Australia and the U.S. – this chameleon transforms. Here at home, I think most people would enjoy the crisp acidity and food-friendliness of Chenin Blanc but haven’t heard of it. This tragedy probably originated in the 1970’s, when the grape suffered a bad fate -- blended into shoddy American jug wines labeled “Chablis”. Perhaps this made quality wineries avoid the grape like a diseased prostitute. Things are finally changing.
For Italians, a “Bianco” wine equals Gavi, a bone dry, herby, acidic white made from the Cortese grape. Unassuming, citrus-y and medium-bodied, it’s best consumed young but some say it can age (I don’t). The flinty freshness originates in the mineral-rich soils of this hilly, DOCG classified region in the southern part of the Piedmont region. If you see “Gavi di Gavi” on a label that indicates the grapes were grown within the township of Gavi. The Piedmontese are very proud of this white, seeing as how their vinous fame normally comes from the reds of the region: Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera.
This low acid German-born grape has so much floral and spicy aroma going on, you want to splash it on your neck as cologne. Gewürztraminer can be super dry, but rarely is. It’s just too much fun with a slight tinge of sweet. And we have to drink something with spicy Asian food, right? Mostly grown in cooler climate regions like Germany, Alsace France (where it’s often very dry but still aromatic), California’s Sonoma Valley, Canada, Washington’s Columbia Valley, and Italy’s very temperate Alto Adige region in the northeast. Sniff a glass of Gewurz and immerse yourself in roses, lychees and musk. It’s truly magical and so underappreciated.
Grüner Veltliner thankfully has a nickname in the “in the know” circles: (GROO vee). It needs a nickname — its tongue-twisting title is tough to pronounce, and it hails from a country few can find on a map: Austria. It’s the most widely planted grape in this chilly, mountainous country, growing alongside the venerated and well-known Riesling. With a slight edge of sweetness and a tangy finish, it can hang with all sorts of food, from lemon-drenched seafood to stalwart cheeses. It can also provide low alcohol comfort as you drink to the last drop. Grown in a climate with hot days and cold nights, it doesn’t have that in-your-face fruitiness and oakiness that many full-bodied chardonnays show, so a whole bottle isn’t too rich or decadent. It’s well-rounded with wet slate mineral-ness, ripe red apple and lemon tartness, but not in that parched, saliva-sucking way.
Pinot Grigio, also called Pinot Gris in France and around the world, embodies the supple momma of the Pinot family. The word “Grigio” translates to “gray”, garnering its name from the unusually dark colored skins for a white grape. In Italy, Pinot Grigios are mostly consumed at mealtime, since they tend to be higher in acidity and steely -- food friendly characteristics. But the downtrodden grape has developed a lowly reputation in recent years, due to wineries unloading huge quantities of low quality juice on an unsuspecting market. When people tried Pinot Grigio, they assumed the grape varietal was flavorless and bland. But, when made well, it’s magical. They're smooth, fragrant, affordable, and absolutely delicious, especially from the Alto Adige/Trentino region.
Prosecco, the name of a perfumey grape as well as a lightly fizzy, refreshing sparkling wine from Italy, can be absolutely beautiful but also complete garbage. Shopping by name or specific region is imperative. The bubbles are introduced using the Charmat method instead of Méthode Champenoise (second fermentation in the bottle like in Champagne), defined by pumping the “still” wine into a huge tank, adding additional yeast and sugar to start a second fermentation (creating the bubbles), then sealing it to keep in the carbon dioxide. The best Prosecco grapes are grown in the Veneto in northeastern Italy, in a designated region called Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (Co-NEL-ya- NO / Vahl-DOE-be-AH-de-nay).
Riesling is the Sybil of grapes: its multiple personalities run the gamut from amazing sweet dessert wines to refreshingly fruity food wines to dry, light-bodied everyday wines. Those who swig sweet will be pleasantly surprised by the crispness of dry Rieslings. Those who deify dry might be taken aback by how well the slight sweetness of a German Spätlese goes with spicy food. The variety comes from the differences in wine region, a winemaker’s preference and, most importantly, how long the fruit ripened on the vine. Look for smells and flavors of diesel fuel, peach and flint.
A grape originally from the northern Rhône Valley in France, where it forms the backbone of many white blends. You'll often find it tucked into the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape, along with its white cousin Marsanne, to soften the earthy edges in that massive red wine. These two grapes make up Hermitage Blanc, a full-bodied and luscious blend from the northern Rhône Valley. Roussanne is an aromatic variety, characterized by herbal tea, pear and sometimes a nutty flavor. You'll find it often blended with Viognier as well. Not much grown in the U.S. but Australia cultivates incredible Roussanne.
Also sometimes called Fumé Blanc.A classic, crisp white wine grape originally from the Bordeaux and eastern Loire regions of France. It’s widely grown throughout the world, but in the U.S., its production has declined in favor of chardonnay. In France, Sauvignon Blanc tastes super dry and flinty, reflecting the soil and climate where it’s raised. But take it to South Africa, California or New Zealand on holiday and, like drag-queen Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, it transforms into something almost unrecognizable that can tickle your toes with peach, melon and grapefruit.
Semillon, a white Bordeaux-bred grape, has been adding depth of character and unique flavors to otherwise boring Australian Chardonnays for decades. It’s also grown the world over. Alone, it’s known for its spicy, earthiness mixed with peachy flavors, low acidity and downright drinkability. You’ll frequently see it blended with Sauvignon Blanc as well. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, Semillon’s most notable feat is its transformation into the highly-valued, lusciously sweet dessert wine called Sauternes in France. But most New World versions are far from sweet.
Viognier is a finicky, difficult grape to nail down. The French version (from the Rhône region, specifically Condrieu) tastes austere and steely but smells like blooming jasmine. California and other New World Viognier, however, often has a slight sweetness and intense floral aromas. Full-bodied, sometimes oily but always deliciously fragrant.
Verdejo (aka Verdelho) harks from the Rueda region of Central Spain, where only white grapes grow; Viura (aka Macabeo) is a popular white primarily grown in the king of Spanish red wine lands, Rioja. But with Rueda on the label, the grapes must come from within that Denominacion de Origen (DO, for short). The sometimes extreme tartness of Verdejo can be an acquired taste -- much like a stern, uptight elementary school teacher -- but it’s clean, refreshing flavor couldn’t be better more friendly with Florida’s climate and seafood. So limey it makes your mouth pucker, with acidic, steely grapefruit and an herbal aftertaste. But blend in some Viura and you have a different grog, adding loads of fruit, floral aromas and some creaminess. You can find Verdejo/Verdelho from other regions ‘round the world, and the grape keeps its tart acidity and citrus flavors.
Red Wine Grapes
Barbaresco, Barolo and Barbera are the big reds of Italy’s esteemed Piedmont region. The least astringent of the three, Barbera -- made from a namesake grape, Barbera -- results in a softer, more approachable wine than its big brothers. That said, Barbera is a mildly tannic, very dry and highly acidic wine that can be enjoyed alone or with food. Their labels bear either “d’Alba” or “d’Asti”, indicating where the fruit was grown – the district of Alba or Asti. Alba tends to produce heavy, meatier reds and Asti can be thinner and softer, yet still have oomph. It is often blended with sweeter Dolcetto grapes to soften the wine.
This grape goes into a fun, fruity and slightly sparkling dessert wine from the Piedmont region of Italy. Low in alcohol, it smells like roses and strawberries and pairs well with anything chocolate. Because of its sugar and easy alcohol, Brachetto was the original Red Bull to field farmers, serving as an energy boost at midday.
A big, spicy red grape used for blending in Bordeaux. It’s starting to pop up more and more in California vineyards, as well as in up-and-coming states such as Texas, New York State and Virginia. With its amazing ability to thrive in warm as well as cold climates, its versatility endears itself to winemakers looking for an easy grape. At its best, Cabernet Franc gives up intense dark chocolate and cherry, and with a little more attention, could grow into the Next Big Thing.
Cabernet Sauvignon is definitely the gray-haired granddaddy of the wine world. Idolized for hundreds of years, Cab, its affectionate nickname, plays the role of the venerated sage that produces wines worthy of aging. The high acidity and tannins in its grape skins allow the wine to withstand years of sleeping, and in France, where it originated, they make wines to do just that. But most Americans want to drink a Cabernet that's only as old as a frozen dinner. “New World” producers like the U.S., Australia and South America produce friendlier, softer Cabernets that taste oaky with tobacco, leather, cherry, and currant.
Carmenere is the darling, distinguishable red grape of Chile, and the wine was labeled as Merlot for many years until DNA testing proved it was a relatively obscure variety originally from France's Bordeaux region. Quality has lagged but producers make it better each year. In its worst state, it tastes like rotten green peppers, and its best state,complex and elegant.
Gamay Beaujolais, grown predominantly in the southern Burgundy region of France, tastes light-bodied, fruity, low in tannin and has moderate alcohol. This makes for a fantastic pairing with many foods. You’ll see several levels of Beaujolais on the market: Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages and Beaujolais labeled with their village, called “Cru”. They vary in quality, style and especially price. More about Beaujolais.
A robust, peppery number originally from the Rhône region of France (most famous in Chateauneuf du Pape), Grenache has now made its home around the world. It thrives in warmer climate areas like Central Cost California and McLaren Vale in Australia but also in Spain, where it bears the name "Garnacha." It can be musty but usually sings with black cherry, spice and supple tannins.
This disrespected French grape originally hails from Bordeaux, where it slaves for the hallowed Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. Winemakers use Malbec to soften the often harsh tannins of its stout compatriots to create a balanced, heady blend. Bottled alone, it also fathers ferocious, robust reds in the obscure area of Cahors, under the alias “Côt” (pronounced “co”). In the mid-nineteenth century, Argentina imported this unloved foster grape to the dry Mendoza wine region and gave it a permanent home. In the sunny, hot and winemaker-controlled growing conditions there, Malbec achieves a full, rich ripeness vastly different from its French brethren. It’s wildly popular and has become the go-to for many wine snobs.
The feminine sibling to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot remains popular because of its fruitiness (some of them taste like grape juice), and approachability. It dominates many of France’s Bordeaux wines (where it originated), and they make it into bold, age-worthy wines. But Americans like it soft and quaffable. Winemakers virtually everywhere blend Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon to give it some color and flavor strength. Look for chocolate, black cherry, coffee, and plum.
Light, fun and versatile, Tuscany’s Montepulciano (not to be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano made with Sangiovese) is the quintessential everyday spring wine. Commonly seen on shelves as Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, this indicates the region where the grapes grew. Fruity, light and gulpable, Italian wine snobs rarely admit to liking this easily accessible libation, but I bet a few bottles lurk in their stashes. It’s relatively low in tannins, has solid acidity and loads of color, and tastes so soft and grapey you could drink a pitcher of it before you know it. With all this going for it, it should be more popular than it is.
Native to the Piedmont area of Northern Italy, Nebbiolo is the principal grape in Barolo and Barbaresco. One of the most tannic grapes on the planet, it’s so gutsy that it legally has to age three years before deemed palatable enough to bottle. Even then, to drink either a Barolo and not have the tannins rip your tongue out, you generally have to hold onto a bottle for 10 to 20 years -- or, at bare minimum, aerate it for a few hours -- before sipping (like I did). There are, however, some more modern wineries using techniques to render the wine drinkable one to five years after release. The difference arises from how long the grape juice sits with its tannic skins and seeds during fermentation. The longer they steep together, the more acerbic the juice becomes. The process is very much like a tea bag that sits at length in hot water -- the "tea-leaf" tannins impart a drying, bitter flavor.
Sicily competes worldwide as one of the largest-volume wine producers. If you’ve ever ordered chicken Marsala, you’ve tasted Sicilian wine — the sweet, fortified wine, Marsala, is its largest vinous export. In recent years, Sicilian wineries have begun producing international varietals such as Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, but the results have been somewhat disappointing. But Sicily’s dense volcanic soil, generous sunshine and moderate climate form an ideal environment for quality wine grapes so it will only be a few years until the area’s young, upstart winemakers perfect the recipe for success. Nero d’Avola is a grape indigenous to Sicily and it’s a fruit-forward red grape with smooth tannins, vibrant and beefy reminiscent of Syrah. Huge crowd pleaser, even for those who aren’t big red fans.
Petite Sirah (sometimes spelled syrah), the re-emerged bastard French wine child from royal pedigree, is called Dourif in many parts of the world. It was engineered in the late 1800s by a French guy named — you guessed it — Dourif. He cross-pollinated the venerated Syrah grape with an obscure French peasant grape called Peloursin and created a highly marketable, mildew-resistant variety. With its dark, inky color and often-astringent tannins, Petite Sirah gave a wimpy blend some oomph. It wasn’t until recently that an influx of winemakers began bottling Petite Sirah as a single varietal wine, and the American public, typically contrary to French opinions, began its discreet love affair with this rejected soul.
This red grape forms the foundation of Red Burgundy, a wine from southeastern France. Lighter in body than Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot is normally “fruit-forward” - meaning the first thing you taste is the “grapeyness” of the wine and not tannin (the natural substance that makes your mouth feel dry and sandpaper-y). Winemakers bemoan how finicky it can be; the soil, weather and care during the grapes’ year of growth make a huge difference in the end product (and its price). Pinot can yield many different styles of wine, from light, red cherry to plumy and funky. On the earthy side, pPnots from France’s Burgundy more often have an astringent backbone, which allows them to age for decades. New world producers, like California and Australia, tend to make Pinot that’s more approachable now, rather than in five or ten years.
The Primitivo grape has had a long, illustrious career. Its roots originate in Croatia but the Italians have been making it for thousands of years, mostly in Southern Italy. Then, immigrants brought it to the New World and called it Zinfandel. It took the wine industry about a decade and dozens of DNA tests to figure it all out. But the grape remains the same, no matter where it’s grown: The Italian version bursts with plum, black cherries and soft tannins just like California. Easy drinking and rich with history.
Probably the best-known wine from Italy, Chianti has a lot going for it -- full-frontal fruit, tart acidity and an earthy flavor that tends to meld well with food. Made predominantly from the soft-flavored, native-to-Italy Sangiovese grape, it ranges from light ’n’ fruity to rich ’n’ intense, depending on the producer’s taste. The backbone acidity in the Sangiovese grape is the key to Chianti’s way with food, and the reason why pizza and highly seasoned red sauces love this wine.
The French Rhône Valley grape Syrah has been hi-jacked by the Australians and re-named Shiraz. Kind of has a catchier name, doesn’t it? It stuck in everyone’s mind but it’s exactly the same genetic code as Syrah. In Australia’s extreme heat, Shiraz produces a lusciously fruity, sometimes peppery wine. In France where it’s cooler, they blend their sturdier, meatier Syrah with several softer grapes to make it appeal to a larger audience. Americans call these, creatively enough, Rhône blends, and California winemakers have increased the quality of these blends to an outstanding level, producing low tannin, easy drinking wines.
It’s certainly not a new grape but it’s been veiled by Spanish regional names like Rioja and Ribera del Duero since, well, a long time ago. And, like a Spanish James Bond, it assumes numerous grape aliases: Cencibel, Ojo, Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto de Torro, Ull de Llebre, and Tinta Roriz… not sure why there are as many personalities as Sybil but the name that sticks is Tempranillo. This indigenous grape has 4.5 million acres devoted to it in Spain and some parts of the New World have unearthed it. Within the last 15 years, blindly old-fashioned Spanish wineries have thankfully transitioned from third-world to first-world winemaking, finally recognizing that when a little care goes into the bottle, it turns out better than typical village plonk. The style you’ll see in many traditional (yet upgraded) Riojas and Ribera del Dueros yields flavors of roasted cherries, strong brewed tea and vanilla. In the modern style -- used in lesser-known, non-branded Spanish regions like La Mancha and most New World wineries -- you’ll find the brighter fruit structure of ripe plums, red cherries and red currants.
Most people think sweet when Zinfandel is mentioned, owing this to its blushing cousin, White Zinfandel. Originally planted by Italian immigrants, the Zinfandel grape almost went extinct until Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home created this wildly popular blush wine in the early ‘80s. But Zinfandel also sires gutsy, red juice, jammy and full of personality. The 1990’s saw resurgence in the popularity of dry, red Zinfandel, and pioneer wineries such as Ravenswood and Ridge began releasing full-bodied wines, ready for the big time. At first, snooty Cabernet lovers shunned them, calling them brash and untamed, but Zin, with its wafting fruit and irresistible charm, won many over. One smell of this American original’s raspberries, blueberries or cherries, and you’re hooked.