Grapes 101

Wine. It seems like everyone in America these days knows something about it. If you’re over thirty, though, you probably remember when this wasn’t the case (no pun intended).

When having wine with dinner was the exception, and the wine consumed was something in a big jug called either “Chablis” or “Burgundy”, though it had come from neither. In fact it probably came from the “Gallo” region of California.

Well, since Watergate, the American public has become a little less naive; people don’t say “ex-presso” as much, and some of us even know that Chardonnay is a grape, and it might grow in Burgundy, California, Australia, New Zealand, or elsewhere, revealing a different aspect of its character in each instance.

This is where we’re going to begin with this first in what will be many articles and informative pieces about wine. If this month’s piece about the basic varietals is aiming a little low for your knowledge-level, check back in the following months, as we’ll be moving through Wine 201 and 301, and into more specialized pieces over the next three months.

If you have a very basic knowledge of wine, this month’s article may be for you. Be sure to check out some of the links to learn more.

Wine, in theory, could be made from just about anything that ferments. We’re kind of partial to the kind made with grapes, so that’s where we’re going to begin.

Most grapes used in winemaking are from one of two basic families: Vitis Vinifera, (In Europe) or Vitis Labrusca, (North America). The varieties of grapes in these two families total in the thousands, but a web page listing all of them would take quite awhile to load with most connections, so we’ve narrowed it down to the ones below, most of which are familiar to any wine drinker. We’ve included a few less familiar grape types in the interest of expanding the novice’s knowledge base.


More widely planted in Italy than Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, Barbera is a low-tannin grape known for its tarry character. In California, it is about as widely used as Merlot.

Cabernet Franc

Closely related to the more familiar Cabernet Sauvignon, this grape is being used in the states to make some very interesting wines, although in France, it was traditionally used as a smaller component of the wine, particularly to modulate the character of Bordeaux wines. It is also known by the names Bouchy, Bouchet, Breton, Gros Bouchet and Veron.

Cabernet Sauvignon

This is where some of the confusion might begin for a novice. Although in the states we refer to a wine as a Cabernet, or a Pinot Noir, this is the varietal. In France, one refers to a nice Bordeaux, meaning a wine which is usually comprised mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, but is grown in the region called Bordeaux. This grape is more tannic, and provides the strength and complexity necessary to make a wine that’s going to stick around for awhile, and in fact a sophisticated wine made with Cabernet is often conceived this way, with the knowledge that it’ll be at it’s best a number of years later.


This (last time we checked) is one of the more popular wines in America, and is the grape probably responsible for opening America’s eyes to the possibility of a wine other than the “Chablis” and “Burgundy” we jokingly referred to earlier. It’s a hearty, high-yield grape that offers up a clean, fruity character that is often embellished with the oak flavor derived from how it is casked. It is the primary white wine of Burgundy, and if you’ve not tried a French Chardonnay, give it a go. You’ll be presently surprised by the typically less oaky French Chard, the result of older casks that release less wood into the wine.

Chenin Blanc

Possessing a light fruity character, this is the main component of Vouvray, and is grown in California, South Africa (where it’s called Steen) and the Loire Valley in France. This is one white wine grape which is capable of showing well at an age of more than several years.


A close relative of Pinotage, it fairs well in Southern France, Lebanon, Australia and South Africa, and is used most commonly for blending with stronger grapes to change the character of the wine.


A wine made with Colombard might end up with overtones suggestive of, for instance, pineapple, of all things. Often thought of as an accompaniment for seafood, it does well in South Africa where it’s also used to make brandy.


The primary (or only) grape in red wine from the Beaujolais, it’s more fruity, less tannic, and not as “big” as a grape like Cabernet.


This grape has made a significant foray into the American market, probably because it’s a more “hip” choice than ordering a Piesporter. The name means “spice” in German. It can have a peppery, floral, or nutty character. Originating in Germany, it’s also grown in Italy, California, Canada and Australia.


Grenache is most often used for rose wine, and is common in France, Spain and California. Offering little tannin, it produces a lighter-bodied, fruity wine.


Merlot has become quite popular in the states as a wine of its own, though traditionally, it was (and still often is) used more for blending with other grapes to shape the character of a wine. It can offer up some rich berry, honey, or mint, and is not as tannic as say, a Cabernet.


This is a very grapey-tasting grape that doesn’t ripen easily. There are various varieties of Muscat – Muscat Blanc, Moscato, Muscadelle, and Muscat of Alexandria. Muscat is the grape used for Asti Spumanti, the sparkling wine from Italy. Note that Muscat has nothing to do with Muscatel!


Nebbiolo is the predominant grape in the Piedmont area of Italy, where Barolo is made. It’s also grown in Switzerland, California and Australia. Its main characteristics would be that of tannic, prune, and chocolate

Petite Syrah

Often confused with Sirah/Syrah/Shiraz (more on this in a later piece) the petite syrah typically makes a tannic wine which can be chocolaty and/or smoky, while still possessing some rich fruit.

Pinot Blanc

Predominant in Alsace, Italy, and Austria, this grape suggests some of the character of Chardonnay, and is often used to make sparkling wines. It is related to the Pinot Gris.

Pinot Gris

This is a clone of Pinot Noir, grown in France, Germany, Austria and along the west coast of the US. It’s also known as Rulander or Grauer Burgunder. It can be used to create both fine whites and roses.

Pinot Noir

These grapes are very sensitive to conditions, but have been faring very well in the “microclimates” of Oregon and Washington state. Used mostly for red wines, they are also used as a white ingredient in Champagne. A Pinot Noir can possess quite a bit of personality, but isn’t usually as deep as say, a Cabernet. This grape is also used extensively in Burgundy.


Developed in the early twentieth century and used primarily in South African wines, Pinotage is a mix between pinot noir and Cinsault. The grape makes a wine that is hearty, with a fruity and spice taste.


A dessert wine-grape, this has a honeyed, musky flavor. Riesling is native to Germany, but is also used in many other countries under various names. In Canada, Riesling is used in the creation of Ice Wines.

Sauvignon Blanc

A popular alternative to Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc is typically grassy and maybe citrus-like in character, and makes a crisp, light wine.


This is an early-ripening grape which is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. It is the primary grape in White Bordeaux wines. It also has a grassy character. Some interesting Semillions have been coming out Australia and New Zealand of late.


Seyval is an “East Coast US” wine, and is one of the most widely planted grapes east of the Rocky Mountains in the US. Wines from this grape can have melon-like flavors, as well as grassy/hay overtones.


This grape is known in France and California as Syrah, and in Australia as Shiraz. It is the main grape in most Rhones. Syrah can possess a mineral, blueberry, or sometimes spicy/peppery flavor. Some remarkable wines are being produced in Austalia and South Africa with this grape.


This rare varietal originated in Condrieu, on the northern Rhône. It is predominantly found in the Rhône valley and California, noted for spice, floral, citrus, apricot, apple and peach flavors. It typically produces medium bodied wines with relatively high acids and fruit. Viogner can produce fairly complex wines


Zinfandel is almost exclusively a California phenomenon, though it’s thought to have originated in Southern Italy. A Zinfandel can be fruity or spicy, depending on age. A red Zinfandel wine can be quite a hearty treat, while a “White Zinfandel” (You don’t have to be much of a snob to scoff at this wine) which is made by not using the skin, is really not even worthy in most wine drinkers’ perception of being taken seriously as a wine.